There are many reasons to love Boulder, Colorado. One of them is that the mediator, writer, and civic facilitator Mark Gerzon lives here. For many years Mark has been at the center of a quiet movement to restore bipartisan civility in Congress. It has been a tough road. But not so tough that Mark's energy and enthusiasm for this work is diminished. In 2016 he published, "The Reunited States of America," and its worth a read.
While visiting Denver, Mark and I had the chance to catch up and exchange ideas about the state of our democracy, the strength of an American appetite for renewal, and how we might individually and collectively make progress toward "a more perfect union." Both of us, it turns out, share a powerful belief that, in Mark's words,
Americans can work together with people different from ourselves to find common ground that can strengthen the country that we all love.
As I've worked my way across the states that edge the 45th parallel this message has jumped out at me again and again. There is palpable frustration with the brokenness of political negotiation and compromise at the national level; and I sense a strong tidal surge of our native entrepreneurial energy to get our hands dirty to fix things.
Mark's book is for the political mechanic with an appetite to undertake reform through bipartisan effort - for those who wish to work through our core differences while remaining profoundly connected as a people.
In this way "The Reunited States" is entirely optimistic. Mark believes we can still pivot away from toxic partisanship; and he offers a campaign call and a blueprint for Americans who recognize our differences, not as insurmountable obstacles or fundamental rifts in society, but as conflicts that can be negotiated in service of building a stronger national union. His book is for patriots, not blind partisans.
I like to tell myself that my work is centered around core democratic concepts and the institutions that are formed around them, not politics. Yet after beginning this listening tour, I've come recognize that our relationships to political parties too often dominate public imagination of what democracy is about - the contest of ideas and ideology over one another to capture and drive the public agenda. Until the next election.
At least for this slice of America's democratic machinery, Mark points out that another way is possible. And for that I'm extremely grateful: if we can figure out a way for the policy process to open itself to novice entrepreneurs with new ideas – and more importantly, new mindsets – about how to fix our economy, our "wicked" social dilemmas and questions of the commons, perhaps then we can steer the action away from ham-fisted ideas of score political victory and back toward negotiated ideas about what's good for the nation as a whole.
But make no mistake: this isn't a misty-eyed call for eliminating conviction, contest, and victory from the landscape. Rather, its a clear-eyed assessment of how, in the words of Hamilton to Burr in my favorite musical, to know what you stand for to avoid falling for anything. Mark's work is most useful when thinking about the challenges of governing, how politics can proceed once the contest for office has been settled and the work of policy-making and statecraft begins.
"The Reunited States" combines solid mediation theory with real-life stories and personal reflection to produce an accessible handbook in two parts. The first part sets the context for renewed democratic practice, tackling citizenship, leadership, truth and service. The second part looks ahead at the breadth of a democratic renewal movement, born out of crisis and mapping a course from conflict to opportunity.