reflections on AmericaSpeaks on its last day

I was proud to serve on the board of AmericaSpeaks from June 2006 until today, when the organization had to close its doors–despite valiant efforts. In essence, the people and organizations that really care about nonpartisan, open-ended citizen deliberation don’t have a lot of money to pay for it, and that is a problem that affects more than AmericaSpeaks.

For those who don’t know the organization, AmericaSpeaks invented the 21st Century Town Meeting, a very large, representative gathering of citizens who discuss a public issue at separate tables within a large room while communicating and making collective choices electronically. AmericaSpeaks organized and ran more than 100 of these Town Meetings, in all 50 states. The formats varied. For instance, the 21st Century Town Meetings that strongly informed the rebuilding plan for New Orleans after Katrina were held concurrently in three cities and online, to accommodate people forced to leave the city.

The purpose of the organization was never simply intellectual–to learn about public deliberation. AmericaSpeaks aimed to change America by providing deliberative events frequently and widely. Considering that it was highly active for 19 years, it must be accounted a success, even on those terms. Yet the ultimate failure of the business model raises serious questions about elites’ support for civic engagement in America.

In addition to facing financial obstacles, AmericaSpeaks frequently encountered ideological skepticism. For instance, its national deliberations on “Our Budget/Our Economy” were attacked from the left for identifying the budget deficit as a central problem. But the deliberating citizens chose budget options far to the left of what Congress has seriously entertained. In any case, I was struck that ideological writers on the left missed any merit in the deliberative process itself. They didn’t recognize public discussion as a strategy for strengthening our democracy. Instead, their only question was whether the problem had been framed as they would frame it.

Nevertheless, despite opposition and indifference in some quarters, AmericaSpeaks ran a series of experiments from which much has been learned. Other deliberative processes–e.g., Study Circles and National Issues Forums–may sometimes do more to build local civil society, although AmericaSpeaks’ work in DC strengthened civic capacity there. And certain other processes can, like 21st Century Town Meetings, provide policymakers with excellent public input. (I am thinking of Deliberative Polls and Citizens’ Juries). But AmericaSpeaks was very unusual in its ability to turn public voices into political power. It was hard for policymakers in New Orleans after Katrina or in Manhattan after 9/11 to ignore the results of mass public deliberations. Thus these events were politically potent interventions, even though AmericaSpeaks was neutral about the outcomes.

Ghazala Mansuri and Vijayendra Rao of the World Bank write about “organic participation” (created by advocates) and “induced participation” (invited and supported by elites). In some ways, the 21st Century Town Meeting is a skillful blend of the two, with AmericaSpeaks playing an essential role in raising resources from various elites to put on events that allow citizens to influence the government.*

AmericaSpeaks leaves an inspiring legacy of examples and knowledge. But on its last day, I am worried that the demand for public deliberation is so weak.

See also:

*”Can Participation be Induced? Evidence from Developing Countries,” Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy 16, no. 2 (2013): 284–304

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.