It’s been said that one of the greatest fears humans have is to speak in front of an audience. If that’s a fear or a recurring bad dream, how about this for a nightmare: You have the microphone. You’ve convened a meeting to hear from people. Five-hundred are before you; they’re overflowing the room. Before you can explain the ground rules and offer some thoughts, people start yelling at you – individually and in collective chants. And they’re yelling at each other, too. At one point a man comes out of the crowd, stands about 6 feet away, and proceeds to berate you, among other things calling you a “fraud.” Okay, wake up, now.
Want to run for congress? J
That nightmare is the reception Congressman John Dingell received on Friday, a month after his 83rd birthday, at a town hall meeting he convened on health care. Congressman Dingell has been throughout his fifty-four years in Congress dedicated to “regular folks” in his working class Downriver Detroit district. He’s campaigned – and represented people between elections – with an open ear. I’ve watched him listen to people, and call them “sir” or “ma’m” as though they were the President or a senator – whether they were children, seniors, blue collar workers, people with disabilities, or anyone else you might imagine an “arrogant congressman” would quickly look beyond. He’s been a gentle man, and someone who takes his duty as a democratic representative as though God and George Washington were watching his every move. When I think of America fighting for democracy in Viet Nam or Iraq or Nicaragua or Europe in World War II, my image of what representative democracy looks like is John Dingell (Gerald Ford and my friend and mentor Sander Levin typify it as well). It has nothing, absolutely nothing to do with partisanship. It has everything to do with civility, reason, and the discipline of rational debate. I’m proud but not surprised that at the end of the ruckus on Friday, Congressman Dingell held a second town hall, because so many had not been able to get into the room for the first.
Although I’m very interested in the health care debate, I’m more interested for this column in how it’s happening than what it’s about. I had a professor who used to say, “there’s a thin veneer of civilization” painted atop the behavior of groups of humans. The veneer wears thin these days. This debate is so vital. The values on both sides of the issue are deeply held and deserve to be fully aired. But let’s be clear: The pinnacle of American history was not the Boston Tea Party. The tea party was an act of defiance and held awesome symbolic power. It helped win the right to be represented. . . By people like John Dingell or Pete Hoekstra or anyone else who has the courage, drive and savvy to connect with enough voters (not colonists) who give them the privilege of serving. The peak of the birth of American representative democracy was not a tea party (or the Chicago convention of 1968) but the Constitutional Convention – and the hundreds of town hall discussions that Adams and Jefferson and their colleagues had with those they represented. Let’s have those kinds of discussions.
It’s not just politics. Sometimes at work and at home, people get more and more frustrated. They don’t believe they can be heard or that their voice matters. At some point the may get “mad as hell” and say, “I’m not going to take it any more.” Better that we listen well enough that we don’t reach that point. So, who’s feeling left out in your world? And if they finally blow, it’s vital that we actively listen then – with patience and calm. And return to the issues. And return to the issues. And seek first to understand. And seek win-win. And if we find ourselves on the other side – feeling left out and unheard – let’s hope we can find a more civil and useful way to engage. We’d do better to leave screaming to children and adolescents. Democracies, families and businesses run a lot better on disciplined dialogue.
Have fun engaging as you
Lead with your best self,
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