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Conservatives and Liberals (Feb 2010 listserv discussion)

Here is the transcript of a rich conversation we had on NCDD’s Discussion list in February 2010 with the subject “Conservatives and Liberals,” initiated by Pete Peterson. A big thank-you to Martin Carcasson for keeping track of these posts and sharing his archive!


For those who may be interested in how Conservatives see the world and , I’m linking here two recent essays. Some might remember the “Conservatives Panel” at the NCDD Conference in Austin. During the discussion, I was asked why there are so few right-wingers in the field of and . I remember fumbling out an answer that Conservatives tended to hold to certain principles or “truths”, and thus viewed the as inherently progressive – that “” efforts often ran past a discussion of “ends”, focusing on a over means.

Well, I wish that Harvey Mansfield had written this piece two years ago…he’s so much smarter: 

While he centers a critique on Obama, I think Mansfield’s analysis can be seen more broadly in the context of policy and political discussion. If there is one area where I’ve found D&D projects break down is this confusion between means and ends – processes and principles. Without giving them too much credit, I would argue that Mansfield’s essay explains the very foundation of the Tea Party movement.

From the Left, Bill Galston responds to Mansfield in the latest New Republic, and while I think that Galston is missing Mansfield extremely important assessment of rhetoric (writing more about the policies in question), he does deliver a strong rejoinder:

Maybe I’m making too much out of these essays, but I think they bookend an important discussion for this field. They are certainly helping me to understand my own and a liberal’s view of policy .

Pete Peterson
Executive Director
Malibu, CA


Excellent essays indeed, and I agree with you on their import for questions of . After reading them and your note, I’m left with this question for you: is there something inherent to D&D that skips over principle to focus on process? If that were the case, I would think, dialogue between groups with different principles–e.g., interfaith dialogues–would have little value, when experience suggests the opposite. Could we say instead, perhaps, that dialogue accommodates discussions of principle, whereas (with its focus on decision making) might tend more naturally toward questions of process?

A related question: like Galston, I see Obama’s approach not as a desire to end principled partisanship, but rather to transcend “the contemporary hyper-partisanship that thwarts effective governance and allows problems to fester indefinitely.” Is that a legitimate distinction in your view? If so, wouldn’t D&D be well positioned to give free expressiion to the first while mitigating the second?

John Backman
The Dialogue Venture

Pete and all,

 Thanks for forwarding the two essays. They help dispel some of my puzzlement with reactions in my Up State NY community to Obama; reactions that to me seem incoherently negative in that criticisms generally involve what to me sound like vague generalities – “he is killing our economy” (but what about the housing bubble?); “he wants to turn American into a totalitarian state” (but what about NSA eavesdropping on citizens?). Faced with these reactions, I am invariably stumped as to how to reply.

Should I be the historian, the discourse analyst, the facilitator – what? Watching my own reactions, I am always reminded of the first time I had a student argue that probabilities should be combined through addition. Only in the case of the student, I knew how to take the student back to the beginning because I knew where the “beginning” was.

So, the message of the first essay is that Obama wants to thicken the “We hold these truths to be self-evident…” clauses of the Constitution; wants to inject some aspect of the Kantian principles of the cosmopolitan right now encoded as ideals in the discourses on human rights into the founding document. Wrt universal health care, for example, he wants to introduce the rationale for health security being a component of human security into the interpretation of the right to Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. And so to take universal health care out of politics. 

OK, but I still don’t understand how to respond constructively to my neighbors; any ideas??

My general response is to retreat to the safe ground of the local Napa never having what you want. For I long time, I told myself that this is OK because on a farm one wants to preserve relationships at all cost; you never know who you may need to call on when your tractor breaks down in a snow storm and you need help replacing a belt. And as a discourse analyst and facilitator, it seemed to be legitimate to put oneself outside politics. However, in a faculty conversation last week, I realized that there were many of us with technical backgrounds (I am a cognitive scientist) who have done the same thing; exited into professions where neutrality is either required or desirable because we are stumped as how to engage meaningfully with the political world. It also came out that most of us had at some time be beaten up pretty badly, verbally or socially, for reasons we never really understood over issues where we got the polarities completely wrong; and that these experiences were seminal energizers for our careers. Surely we can’t all have Asperger’s syndrome? But now we have a president who seems to be doing the same thing, and it is just leading to the dumbing down of political discourse and lots of frustration and anger. So what to do? Write more, blog more, declare independence for the cosmoplitan state?


Hi Mike,

 Thanks for this. Given the apparent stridency of your neighbors the only recourse might be to civility, which it seems like you are practicing…certainly patience! I am reminded of the story (a true one) of the Christian minister who had engaged a Rabbi in an interfaith dialogue. The minister asked, “So what would it take for me to convince you that Christianity is true..” The Rabbi replied, “Make me jealous.”

John Backman in another reply to my original post wondered if the issue wasn’t differentiating between dialogue (a relational practice) and (more of a /policy-making effort). I think this is an extremely crucial point. Connected to this, and related to your point, Mike, is the simple fact that most of us are not policy-makers! We’re neighbors, husbands, wives, parents, friends, coworkers, professors, who – way more often than not – are in relationship with those who, while they may disagree with us vociferously do not have any real policy-making authority over us nor we over them.

This is not to get away from the very real policy-making that is going on in Washington. Unlike the vast majority of what Congress does, decisions on issues like health care and climate change policy will affect millions of Americans. I think it is logical to expect not only that many Americans will both fear and question this historic level of change.

Of course, I lean towards Mansfield’s understanding of this discussion. I do believe the President is being disingenuous when he says he just “wants anything that works”. Was that the premise for the union “cut out” for the tax plan on “cadillac plans”? In the Galston piece, he defends the President’s pragmatism, saying that his plan conforms with FDR’s “four freedoms”. He writes as if the “freedoms” were a section of the Constitution, rather than words in a speech he gave in the depths of the Depression. In doing so, Galston commits the same error of which Mansfield is accusing Obama – vaulting over a principle into an evaluation of how the Obama plan realizes FDR’s understanding of Federal policy.

To be clear, Mansfield is not saying that the President is closing down discussion, but I believe this “post partisan” rhetoric has not been realized in practice. The President commits a mistake I see many public officials make in “public engagement” efforts: confusing (intentionally or not) “listening” with doing. I have little doubt that the President has heard of Paul Ryan, and may have read parts of his plan. I have little thought that he will implement any of it…even if it “worked”.

This leads to a final point, which I think Yuval Levin captures perfectly in this piece from Monday: 

Beyond the rhetoric of post-partisanship and pragmatism are two directions for this important policy decision based on two different principles. On their face, both principles have merit, but the decisions Congress will make, and that the President will end up supporting will be based on these principles not on how well the plans work.



You bring up an essential point that, I think, dovetails well with Mike’s questions: the gap between the 1% of us who are policymakers and the 99% of us who aren’t. Given that, it’s tempting to ask why those of us in the hoi polloi would bother dialoguing about national issues at all.

Maybe the answer starts with the fact that we will talk about national issues, whether we have power to affect them or not, because they matter to us. If that’s the case, dialogue across the conservative/liberal divide can at least help us listen deeply to one another and thus foster mutual respect. In the process (hopefully), our perspectives expand, our tolerance for ambiguity increases, and perhaps we’re a little more open the next time a political discussion comes round. On a practical level, this prepares us–internally and within our communities–for the times when we meet one another in deliberation over local issues.

More broadly, though, there’s just enough Pollyanna in me to think that if each of us practices this sort of dialogue, we can gradually foster a climate of dialogue in society as a whole. It’s the “let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me” approach.

As for our folks in upstate New York (where I am as well) and elsewhere, I tend to approach them with fascination: here before me is someone who believes something I can’t fathom, and I’ve just got to ask about it to see if I can possibly understand. Some people don’t take to my questions, and I suspect they’re not interested in dialogue anyway. With some, however, you can tell that they rarely get listened to, and while we’ll never agree on the issue at hand, they appreciate the chance to talk through it. Thus building the aforementioned community cohesion, etc.

John Backman
The Dialogue Venture


 I do do agree that policy-making is where the rubber hits the road. I was reading a paper last night by a colleague on organizational change by applying Bakhtin’s notion of dynamic meaning – understanding that meaning creation is a many-staged, continuous mutual interpretation process.

At the end of the paper, after many attempts at being a change agent within the campus defense lab I worked for, I found myself asking, “yes, but at some point someone has to come up with a policy.” And then the question is whether individuals will accept the policy and settle down to making it work – including making adaptations where the policy has missed the mark.

As a cognitive scientist, I noticed that individuals who were most emotionally mature by the standards of the humanistic psychologists such as Allport, Rogers, Fromm or Maslow were the people who ultimately made the greatest contribution to testing and evolving policy. In contrast, the reaction of others just seemed like immature emotional behavior.

However, political correctness and a philosophy that everyone should be heard meant that one could not say this; so one had to resort to a Public Conversations Project-like process in which discourse is so controlled that, in the routine application, the deep issues become avoided and not resolved. In contrast, I am reminded of the fact that therapists often have to accept that their clients will hate them at some point or another, and may even provoke expressions of conflict so that they are hated but for the benefit of make conflict discussable.

There was a point in my career where I tried to draw fire in order to make peace and policy – but was branded as unreliable and a troublemaker by the president’s office and was told explicitly to “stop being a psychologist” and “start being a manager.”

Reflecting on the components of emotionally mature behavior, what stands out for me is the desire to ground policy in action to address some concrete need – to suspend the social and the ideological in order to define what human or organizational needs require addressing. And my role as a “manager and psychologist” facilitator was to help people find and define this grounding, so that social factors and ideology could come back in over that stable base for policy definition and policy evaluation. I guess this is the role that statesmen used to play in politics.

So, my feeling is that the American political system has a missing piece – the statesman/facilitator – and that Obama is trying to play both roles – which is, of course, not working. My interpretation of Mansfield’s observation “that Obama is trying to take issues out of politics” is that he is tying to define a grounding in a need – what I would expect a community organizer to do. However, in doing this he is saddled with ideology from both sides. It seems to me that he is faced with a missing “principle regarding process” – namely process for articulating the core needs that require addressing.

I had a boss much like Obama once and the only way the politics worked was to have an assistant (not me) who was the political animal, so giving him freedom to be the facilitator. However, for Obama to do this, he would have to persuade the party that his current term was a chance to regroup and define issues, not a time for action. The action agent would be the next president. But I don’t see a tradition in American politics for a “time out” leader – nevertheless, I think that this is what American needs just now.

By the way, what does “post-partisanship” mean? I am a naturalized American from the UK and sometimes have a hard time understanding such terms….

Mike Coombs

From a long-time lurker on this list to all who have contributed to this thread: 

I sincerely hope that you will continue and even extend this particular dialogue and continue in this tone! I find this to be the single most interesting, straightforward, artless (in the absence of obvious posturing, position-staking and cliché-hurling) conversation across our obvious national fault-lines that I’ve run across in a long while. Pete, special thanks for sharing those Mansfield and Galston links. What has been said in response is all interesting, and, at times, quite profound.

 Thanks to all who have written (and read).

Roger A. Lohmann
Professor & Chairman, Nova Institute
Division of Social Work
School of Applied Social Sciences
Eberly College of Arts & Sciences
West Virginia University
Morgantown WV 26506-6830

Here’s how it seems to me: 

Policy making may be where the rubber hits the road, with regard to ‘doing things’. But policy making is really just a ‘symptom’ of the underlying beliefs & opinions.

 And as Einstein correctly suggested: “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” 

So what I’m suggesting is that ‘real change’ comes through a ‘change in understanding’ in the underlying beliefs & opinions.

So I would offer the suggestion that ‘addressing the understanding’, through cooperative-exploratory-dialogue, is actually where the more significant ‘rubber hits the road’.

 Given the current economic mess we appear to be in, policy making, without a change in understanding, will be like ‘re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic’…it seems to me.

It’s a case of the old joke: If something isn’t working, do more of it, and do it faster.

 Addressing change at the paradigm level, using group dialogue, appears to be a slow and challenging process. But without doing this, it’s like ‘doing the same thing and expecting different results’ (craziness or insanity).

So I think it’s a mistake to think that dialogue is somehow less vital when compared to simply ‘doing something’ or ‘making policy’. 

Dialogue enables us to address the root issues (the underlying belief structures), and ‘doing something’, generally speaking, simply helps us ‘minimize the problems’ created by the these underlying belief structures.

 Engaging in group dialogue, given the current state of things, is the right tool for the task at hand.

 That’s how it looks to me, anyway.

Howard Ward

Dear John, Mike, all…

You are raise some very interesting points, in response to Pete’s post. At the same time, I think our conversation here is somewhat constrained by the assumption that all productive conversation falls within the two modes of “dialogue” or “deliberation”, as currently defined.

I found the most salient point in the Mansfield article to be the concern that deliberation can be misused as way to avoid a discussion of principles. If we are looking at the world through these binary glasses, this then leaves us with dialogue as the only alternative. Dialogue is great — however, it is often understood as being more about principles than about policy.

My own interest lies in the interdisciplinary area between the two — which I’ve sometimes called “practical dialogue” or “creative deliberation”. My concern is that if we are “splitting the pie” in a binary way, this third area of productive inquiry becomes de facto invisible.

One of the benefits of this “third way” I am pointing to, is that it does NOT require us to “avoid the deep issues” through over-control. At the same time, it allows us to work together on creating practical solutions — the kind of “barn raising” work that addresses concrete needs, and by doing so, can often lead to greater understanding.

I wrote a chapter on this “third way” that I am calling “Practical Dialogue”, that was published in Sandor Schuman’s book on “Creating A Culture of Collaboration”. If anyone is interested, I’d be happy to e-mail you a copy.

with all best wishes,

Rosa Zubizarreta
Great Barrington, MA
(413) 528-5296

Diapraxis: Facilitating Creative Collaboration
* Community Engagement


Northeast Associate for Dynamic Associates



Thanks for propelling an important conversation here. A theme is developing from Rosa and Howard that there needs to be a “third way” that incorporates elements of dialogue and deliberation.

First, I by no means sought to prioritize one “D” over the other “D”. I think both are essential, and there can be combinations of each in policy-making as well as more relational dialogue. Obviously, my experience has been in consulting on and training local and regional leaders in how to legitimately engage their publics on difficult local policy decisions.

At these local levels on issues that often have only minor partisan connotations, there can still be a significant bias towards government solutions. This occurred most famously in the story of the State of Hawaii’s Dept of Land and Natural Resources efforts at “public engagement” in Kauai. I story I wrote about here: http://www.newgeography.com/content/008 … ants-make-waves

Again, without much of a hint of Party or ideological affiliation, the governing institution convened the public to talk about how they (the government) would fix this problem. In some ways, this harkens to Mansfield’s point about moving past principles (is this a gov’t task?) to a “pragmatic” deliberation over means (this is how we’ll solve the issue and open the park). The results of this veritable melt-down were, while anomalous, a startling study of what happens when government-convened deliberations over policy fail to grapple with fundamental questions like: are we the only solution here? How can residents be involved? How can civil society at large be involved?

In an increasing number of instances, what I’m seeing is that, due to incredible and historic fiscal challenges, local governments are being forced to answer the “principle” questions because the “practical” and usual government-run solutions just aren’t sustainable financially.


I strongly agree with Pete here. I think the economic hard times are an opportunity to seriously upgrade public participation in addressing public affairs, given the increasingly constrained resources of governments. Last year I made that case in an article “Expanding ‘Public Participation’ in Hard Times”
http://co-intelligence.org/PublicPartic … xpand.html

It includes some specific approaches to this.

Near the end of the article I pose questions that I wrestle with that I encourage us all in NCDD to wrestle with, as part of growing into this challenge and our potentially critical catalytic role in it:

* What does this vision of participation imply for advocates of participation like myself and my colleagues?

* How do we empower the self-organization of those we seek to help? How do we create conditions in which our clients turn more to each other than to us, and then do effective work together? (Do we have the courage and mutual support to nurture that?)

* How do we better steward our professional commons — our connections and networks, our collaborations, our reputations and markets, and our collective knowledge base of insights, perspectives, skills, and methodologies?

* How do we, as learning communities of practice, more effectively respond to changing conditions and nurture a spirit of innovation?

* What forms of business-as-usual impede our own ability to give our gifts, thrive, and evolve — individually and collectively?

Tom Atlee

These are superb questions, Tom. Regarding this one:


One that comes immediately to mind is our culture’s understanding of citizenship. As Pete rightly pointed out in his Kauai piece, active citizenship has come to encompass voting, paying taxes, serving on juries, and little else. Would asking people to take on more responsibility in the public sphere–to, in essence, expand their concept of citizenship–generate resistance? Maybe we answer this by looking at historical parallels: how have people reacted when asked, for instance, to take on more responsibility (and more initiative) for their retirement plans, or their healthcare? Would many assume that “it’s the government’s job” (or “the company’s job”) and thus refuse to participate? Clearly the Kauai business people didn’t.

The business of “tapping creative energy” in your article might be a way around this: seeking out early adopters to generate momentum.

John Backman
The Dialogue Venture

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