The State of American Democracy

Last week, I had the privilege of participating in the first of five working conferences on the State of American Democracy held at my beloved almamater, Oberlin College. It was organized by the college’s rock star level professor, David Orr, a long-time climate change expert who has realized that the problems we face run far deeper than the environment and extend to the ways we govern ourselves at all.

So, David assembled an amazing team of analysts and activists from the left and right to begin figuring out what we could and should do to address a set of issues that long antedated last November’s election and only have been exacerbated since.

We heard from well-known experts from the left (e.g. Reverend William Barber and Jane Mayer) and the right (JD Vance and Peter Wehner) as well as activists and analysts who specialize in political science, law, environmental studies, and social media.

More importantly, the 150 or so participants took advantage of the time together to network and develop strategies that we could take forward in our home communities and on the issues we particularly worry about.

My own takeaway was simple and added to urgency I have been feeling for the last few years. We live in a world of wicked problems whose causes and consequences are so inextricably intertwined that we cannot solve them separately, easily, or quickly–if we can solve them at all.

At the very least, they require creative policy responses that are not likely to emerge from the American policy making system–whoever is in charge–given the dominant value systems in place today. We need to dig deeper and seek what Albert Einstein used to refer to as a “new way of thinking” that will spawn new social and political movements that, in time, will produce qualitatively new public policies.

We tried out a number of ideas, ranging from the kind of poor people’s movement that Reverend Barber and his colleagues are organizing to the kind of deep discussions within the Evangelical community that Peter Wehner is leading.

Some of those will take place in policy “silos” like the peacebuilding one I work in, David’s beloved environmental movement, and even the investments JD Vance’s Mithril Capital Management firm will be making in Appalachia. Some of those will take place as we create new movements and institutions that cross those silos’ borders.

Indeed, we will be continuing this effort by holding other events like the one in Oberlin. Plans are underway for workshops in Denver, Los Angeles, Atlanta, and Montgomery.

If you are interested, please let me know by sending me an email at

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Alliance for Peacebuilding or its members.

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