Getting to the Table

The past few months in American politics brings this reflection to the fore for your reflection and response.

In 2008 a majority of Americans expressed, through their votes, a longing for a political process based on models of community cooperation and reconciliation. The politics of power bloc calculations and appeals to “bases” of unthinking support had led us into a morass.

Perhaps Barack Obama, whose experience and personality sought to bring people into a circle of reasoned argument to solve common problems, could bring about a new era.  This was, of course, a utopian hope that could not find a place on this earth as it really exists. However, we hoped that the range of circle processes could be expanded in our politics.

With the disappearance of this possibility, if not this hope, a new, even more aggressive effort to take governance back from the government has emerged, this time in fear and belligerence. It, too, is a utopian movement, but this time a xenophobic and militant one.

For those of us committed to conflict transformation through circle processes of restorative justice, these events pose a critical question: In what way or to what degree do circle processes have the capacity to transform our political and judicial practices?

The problem has at least two aspects. First, how do you get people to the table? We are all prone to easy dualisms fueled by a martial instinct. We rally our “troops” by portraying an inimical “other” as a force to be vanquished. Our sports, media, and political practices are filled with these images.

We have witnessed a Congressional process in which one house hardly bothers to bring members of the minority party  to the table, since they have the votes, and the other house works by rules that enables a minority, indeed, sometimes only one member, to bring the work of the whole assembly to a grinding halt. Some are not called to the table, some refuse to come.

The classic response to this problem has been to create ever-smaller circles where people find it harder to neglect calling their adversaries or refusing to come. This is the argument of federalism, in which society is differentiated into accessible “publics” until a scale is reached in which people can come to table and reason together about their common problems. The circle process presents a way of doing this.

The second problem, however, arises when indeed people have come to some sort of “table”; namely, that they come as representatives of their constituencies or interest groups. They do not speak for themselves, but simply cast votes in support of their constituent’s interests. Rare is the politician who finds a way to speak in a broader circle out of his or her own conscience.

Participants in a circle process have always covenanted to “speak for themselves” and use “I” statements, not “we” or “they.” Is this even possible in a larger assembly? One way politicians have tried to avoid this problem is by creating “blue ribbon commissions” to do their own table-work. They can then hide behind their recommendations and eke out some progress on an issue. But is this enough?

In both aspects, our own parlous circumstances ask us to think through the hard questions of how to bring people to the table and how to enable us and them to speak from the heart and mind to the actual problems before us. Your own contributions to this reflection would be most appreciated.