David Mathews, President of The Kettering Foundation in Dayton, Ohio, keynoted the recent gathering of the National Coalition on Dialogue and Deliberation (NCDD) in Reston, Virginia, just outside Washington, D.C.
In his slow-cadenced, incisive Alabama drawl, Mathews listed what he’s come to understand and appreciate in the practical, ordinary, non-ideological “public voice” that’s pervasive, yet often drowned out, blurred or undervalued in American society.
According to Mathews, that voice – essential to hear and heed in a working democracy – will tell us:
- “What we deeply value…things like freedom, fairness, security…”
- “What options grow out of what we value…”
- “And what people will and won’t do when push comes to shove.”
We don’t hear the public voice so much on talk shows, in TED talks, or on the pundit pages of newspapers. We hear that voice in ordinary conversations in common places like bars, waiting rooms, subway cars, around office water coolers and over back fences among neighbors.
Mathews challenged the more than 400 representatives of “the talking tribes,” as he sweetly teased them, assembled at NCDD’s gathering to seize the moment. Never, Mathews observed, have so many people gathered in one place who care so deeply about the often messy yet essential public conversation central to a strong, enduring democracy.
“It’s up to you,” he said in closing, to organize and raise the amplitude of the public voice and make sure government hears.
Tune in closely and listen patiently, Mathews insisted, and that voice will tell us “what’s politically permissible” and, equally important, what still needs working out.