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10.14 Occupy Wall Street: Can it become a force for change?

Friday, October 14th, 2011 | Allison Rizzolo

Our system is broken. While our leaders bicker about inconsequential issues and refuse to have constructive dialogue about the important ones, the voice of the average American is lost entirely.

Members of the public feel frustrated, powerless and dissatisfied over the way issues are being addressed and who has access to that conversation. This frustration has frequently bubbled over into protest the past few years. The latest manifestation of a variety of populist movements, Occupy Wall Street, seems to have caught on as it overflows into other cities.

Some have criticized the Occupy Wall Street movement for being unclear and not iterating actionable solutions. We are most concerned that this populist phenomenon could get unwieldy without a positive vision of a better way to solve problems.

The public, for all of its frustration, IS optimistic. In a recent poll from CNN, 81% of respondents said the government can be fixed. Can the Occupy Wall Street movement become a force for change, rather than degenerating into an oversimplification of the nation's problems or adding to the us-versus-them, name-calling status quo?

An essential part of this will be a clearer vision of an alternate way forward, one that is pragmatic and that doesn't oversimplify the many challenges, economic and otherwise, facing our nation.

Public Agenda believes that a better way exists, one that is less polarizing and that channels conflict into a resolution instead of gridlock. We believe that diversity of opinion is healthy, but that disagreements must not be emphasized so much that shared aims are lost completely, and that pragmatic solutions to the real needs that people are struggling with must take precedence over partisan gamesmanship or ideological purity.

We are optimistic that our country can have productive conversations that include diverse points of view, reach resolution and work together to move forward as a people. Working toward this goal is the challenge of our times.

Photo by Mat McDermott via Flickr. Some rights reserved.


10.11 Engaging Your Community: Core Principles

Tuesday, October 11th, 2011 | Allison Rizzolo

We are swiftly approaching the heart of another election cycle, and the town halls and open forums have begun. If past election seasons are any guide, at best these will be genuine, though inept attempts at including the public's voice. At worst, they will be a calculated farce. Meanwhile, the government again barely averted a shutdown, and partisan bickering has moved into the territory of twitter hashtags.

What is the failure of events like town halls? As Dan Yankelovich, cofounder of Public Agenda, points out, during these public hearings, in which citizens supposedly express their views, two kinds of “voices” tend to predominate: the angriest and the most organized. The general public, and certainly those who have been traditionally marginalized, are rarely represented in any meaningful fashion.

Authentic public engagement, by contrast, is a highly inclusive problem-solving approach through which regular citizens deliberate and collaborate on complex public problems. While this may sound complicated, and even overwhelming, there are a number of logical and concrete considerations to take into account. Paying attention to them will increase your success in initiating more inclusive dialogue, deliberation and collaboration on tough issues in your community.

But why should you? If we want to solve the complex and urgent problems we face as a nation, we must have more honest, authentic, well-designed dialogue that gives voice to the broader public to counterbalance the partisan ideologues that tend to dominate the airwaves. Rather than relegating people to the sidelines, authentic engagement invites them to join the public dialogue surrounding a problem and provides them the tools to do so productively. As a result, leaders know where the public stands as problem solving progresses, while citizens themselves contribute to solutions through their input, ideas and actions.

In short, authentic and skillful engagement with a broad cross section of community members improves results by:

  • Bringing together multiple points of view in order to inform decisions.

  • Creating legitimacy and a sense of shared responsibility by involving the public and diverse stakeholders early and often in a change process, rather than after decisions have been made.

  • Fostering new allies and collaborations.

  • Stimulating broad awareness and momentum for change.

While broad-based public engagement is not possible or appropriate for every decision, it can be the right move for addressing many kinds of public problems and developing and implementing many important decisions and initiatives—particularly those whose success and long-term sustainability will depend on the support and concerted actions of many varied stakeholders.

Now, where to begin? Whether you are an expert on the policy issues facing your community or simply someone eager to start productive dialogue and actually get things done, there are a number of principles to keep in mind.

Based on our three decades of experience in engaging various publics in important issues, we have formulated ten principles of public engagement in a "primer" on the topic, published by our Center for Advances in Public Engagement. In the coming weeks, we will break these down for you step by step, examining each part of the process individually and in more detail.

First and perhaps foremost among these is:

Begin by listening

Understanding the public's starting point—where they enter the conversation Be alert to the issues that people in your community care about, the language they use to discuss them, and their concerns, aspirations, knowledge base, misperceptions and initial sense of direction with respect to solutions. Doing so will allow you to meet people where they are and engage them in ways that are meaningful in light of their interests, concerns and natural language. It will help you avoid making faulty assumptions about people’s positions or using jargon that, however useful to experts, is counterproductive when it comes to engaging the public.

Look for more principles of public engagement here in the coming weeks. In the meantime, if you have any questions, just ask—either here, in the comments, or on our Facebook page or via Twitter. We also have many more tools to help foster community and public engagement. These include Choicework discussion guides, deliberative discussion starters for flexible use among diverse participants, and their corresponding videos; reports outlining engagement recommendations and principles; and case studies in community and state engagement.


09.14 Twitter & The Freedom Trail: Citizen Networks For High-Octane Democracy

Wednesday, September 14th, 2011 | Francie Grace

Social media - Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Flickr, foursquare and more - is changing the world in ways previously never even imagined. For Public Agenda, it's a great tool for constructive dialogue on contentious public policy issues, as Francie Grace, vice president, managing editor and director of social media for Public Agenda, explains in this speech delivered at the #140 Characters Conference in Boston.

It's awesome to be here at John Hancock Hall.

I'm a journalist, from Public Agenda, where strengthening democracy is the mission. It's a big job, and worth doing. Our tools include public opinion research, public engagement, and social networks which give citizens a direct voice: that's right, direct voice, no political party allegiances suggested or required.

We hope that after you've hear what we're doing, you'll join the discussion. And you might want to start some citizen networks of your own.

The folks in our networks are hashing out a long list of issues: climate change, immigration reform, education and higher education, the economy, and a lot more. On Twitter, you'll find us at @PublicAgenda, @TheEnergyBook, @FiscalFuture and @FacingUp. Like most of you here in this hall, we're also on the web, Facebook, YouTube and Flickr.

Here's what makes Public Agenda different from most of what's out there: we're really, truly nonpartisan. That's not, by the way, the opposite of being an active citizen. Our followers and fans are very active. They're not afraid, and we're not afraid, to get right out there with the hard facts.

That could lead to typical partisan finger-pointing. But it can also mean reaching across party lines to listen to other points of view and build practical solutions to the problems this country faces. Now that's pretty radical: talking to the other side.

The stuff that's going on in journalism and the printed word right now is also pretty radical. I'm sure that in the future, all news, TV, movies, books and everything else [even Mark Twain's new book] will be in a YouTube-type format. Everyone will be commenting and interacting with each other in real-time as they experience words, images and other content.

But before I say any more about participation, democracy, and nonpartisan citizen networks, I'd like to say how very cool it is to be here on the stage in Boston, home of the biggest signature on the Declaration of Independence.

Clashing Loyalties, Common Ground

No one knows the partisan spirit better than Boston, a local check-in for Scott Brown, the Kennedys, and the Red Sox, who can teach us a lot about bitter rivalries.

The Yankees know a lot about that too. It's a little scary to stand here in the midst of Red Sox nation and say: I'm from New York. And I do like the Yankees. That didn't stop me from visiting Fenway yesterday and I've got to admit: it's beautiful.

How many Red Sox fans here today? How about Yankee fans?

Okay, I see I don't have a lot of company. The truth is: I love New York, but I was born in Boston. And steps away from the Freedom Trail seems like a good place to think about strong feelings and partisan pursuits.

There's no love lost between the Red Sox and the Yankees - numerous incidents, some awful, some comical, have made that clear. You wouldn't think they could agree on anything.

But they do agree - on quite a lot. What happens at the end of every season? The team bosses size up each other's players, using the same yardstick of excellence, bidding up the prices for the guys they both know are the best.

So it is possible to hang onto the most passionate of loyalties, and at the very same time, have a firm, clear-headed grasp on the objective facts.

This is something we need to keep in mind in politics. We are divided into teams - Democrats, Republicans, Independents and more - and we might dislike each other quite a lot. But that doesn't mean we can't check our hatreds at the door, find some things we do agree on, and work together.

That's a big part of what Public Agenda is all about: nonpartisan problem-solving by citizens who really care about the kind of world we're living in, and the kind of nation we want to be.

Electing representatives and just hoping they somehow do good things: isn't that an antique way of thinking about democracy? Especially with web sites and social networks, there's no reason why citizens can't know more about the issues and get directly involved.

Public Engagement: Setting The Stage For Progress

Political parties have leapt onto Twitter - most of you probably saw the study on that last week. Most, however, are coloring only within their own party lines.

We'll never solve this nation's serious problems by talking only to folks who think exactly like we do. But we might get something done by sitting down with our opposites, respecting each other, and trading some things we like... for stuff we need or like even more. Would it really be so bad if both sides won?

"Which Side Are You On?" More than a question, that's also the title of one of folk music's most powerful songs, written nearly 80 years ago by Florence Reece, the wife of a union organizer in the Kentucky coal mines.

Which side are you on? It's fine to know what side you're on. And with time and age, you may find your beliefs evolving in surprising ways. Arlo Guthrie, who won early fame for Woodstock and opposition to the Vietnam War, today plays with the Boston Pops. He says there are only two sides now: the people who care, and those who really don't.

No matter what side you're on, it's not fine to think that yours is the only side that should make all the decisions. That's not what democracy is all about.

And if you're really interested in getting your way, consider this: bitter partisanship isn't the best way to persuade people to support your ideas.

Many years ago, when I was very, very short, some kids on the playground demanded to know who I was backing for president. I was only six, so the truth was: I had no idea, but asked to choose, I did.

My answer got me beat up - badly - and shoved under the merry-go-round. Not a nice place to be.

This bloody experience did not make me want to learn more about the candidate favored by the kids who put me there.

Today, I'm still not afraid to choose, and my political opinions are based on facts, not playground bullies. But here's a good question: with the serious problems this country has right now, is partisan name-calling the best way to get us across the finish line with some real solutions?

Do we really think that politicians, humiliated by critics and opponents, will ever be in the mood to compromise?

Nonpartisan discussion, on the other hand, and especially by ordinary citizens, can produce progress. So that's what we're doing at Public Agenda: providing opportunities for dialogue, looking at the pros and cons of various proposals so that you can decide what side you're on, and what kind of world you want to create.

Social Media: New Opportunities For Dialogue

Each of our websites and social networks has a slightly different focus, and the great thing is, every person who logs on - every person in this room - sees the world with slightly different eyes. Shouldn't your voice be part of the discussion on immigration, education, foreign policy and health care? You can talk about those issues and others on our web site, on Twitter and on Facebook.

And how about Swamp Thing: the 1950s horror movie-size national debt? Shouldn't your voice be part of the process as elected officials decide what to cut, who and what to tax, and how much to spend, on what?

The deficit commission makes its recommendations in December; we recommend you log onto Our Fiscal Future, learn about your choices, and take a stand.

And shouldn't you be part of the decision-making as our nation figures out what to do about climate change, which fuels to use, and how to pay for it all? You'll find that debate underway at Who Turned Out The Lights and on Twitter at @TheEnergyBook.

Journalists have an important role to play here: democracy depends on objective discovery of the facts. The change is painful, but there's opportunity, too. Journalism is transforming into a format with very strong participation from the people who used to be just the audience. This new, louder chase for news, truth and opinion doesn't have to be a partisan affair.

Political parties are important. But they should be a means to an end, not an end in themselves. John Adams once said:

"In politics, the middle way is none at all."
But when dealing with really serious problems, none at all isn't always an option. If Adams' words were a tweet, I might tweet back with this quote, from Ben Franklin:
"We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately."
Widespread participation is what makes our democracy hang together. So make sure that you are part of it, and all sides are invited.


08.01 Supported Students Graduate: Training For New College Completion Initiative Kicks off in Miami

Monday, August 1st, 2011 | Allison Rizzolo

College completion can be a precarious path for many students, especially those enrolled in community college. Students need support to succeed, and providing this support is the aim of Completion by Design.

This new initiative, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, imagines a world where community college students receive the support, inspiration and challenge they need to succeed. The partners in Completion by Design aim to prevent loss and increase momentum throughout the college process, from before students set foot on campus to the moment they graduate.

To kick off the planning year of Completion by Design, several of our staff members headed to Miami Dade College for an engagement facilitation training session. The event brought together over 70 participants from each of the CbD community colleges. These participants represented colleges in four different states and ranged from faculty and administrators to financial aid associates and student counselors.

At the end of the training, our goal was to send these representatives back to their campuses, ready to facilitate and record productive and engaging meetings on their campuses about the success of their students.

Public Agenda's Will Friedman, Alison Kadlec, Isaac Rowlett and Jyoti Gupta joined our partners at the Center for Civic Participation and the Center for Public Deliberation, and used some of our tested and proven methods to train the participants in basic facilitation skills for small group discussions. The participants took turns role playing and practiced the skills of moderating and recording. After each session, participants, observers and trainers debriefed, assessing themselves and others and offering comments and feedback.

"People at the beginning felt very confident that facilitation was easy," said Isaac. "They run meetings and head up classrooms on a regular basis. Yet what we heard is that they found true facilitation to be much more complex than what they had anticipated, and they were eager to continue to learn more."

Challenges to meaningful, authentic and comprehensive facilitation abound. Ensuring that everyone has the opportunity to speak, remaining neutral, balancing competing perspectives, dealing with time constraints and addressing some deeply and personally important issues are just some of the skills the facilitators worked to develop at this training.

Following the training, the representatives headed back to their campuses prepared to facilitate, throughout the next year, internal discussions with faculty, administration, student services and others about the challenges behind college completion, focusing especially on preventing loss and improving momentum. By encouraging these discussions, community colleges will determine where they are losing students and work to fix these loss points.

"The exciting thing," said Jyoti, "is that the energy around facilitation and the local and campus capacity building this training provided can be applied to any student success effort going forward in the future."


07.11 Don't Know Much About FAFSA

Monday, July 11th, 2011 | Allison Rizzolo

What does "FAFSA" mean to you?

Were you able to recognize the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, the gateway paperwork to both federal and institutional aid? If not, you’re not alone: a full half of all young adults—those who benefit directly from the FAFSA—don’t know what it is, according to a new Public Agenda survey, One Degree of Separation: How Young Americans Who Don't Finish College See Their Chances for Success. What’s more, among young people with only high school diplomas, less than three in 10 know that FAFSA has something to do with financial aid.

The survey, the third in a series probing young people's attitudes on higher education and college completion, examined the views of more than 600 young adults aged 26 to 34 years old, both those who completed either a college degree or postsecondary certificate and those whose highest credential is a high school diploma.

Last month we told you how, among participants in the first survey of this series, seven in 10 of those students who left college before getting a degree did not have financial aid or scholarships. Meanwhile, previous Public Agenda research shows that the public's belief that a college education is necessary to get ahead is rising. These knowledge gaps about how to find help to pay for school, then, can be fatal hurdles for young people.

It’s not that young people with only a high school diploma don’t want to pursue higher education. Among participants in One Degree of Separation, nearly 4 in 10 say they've given "a lot of thought" to going back to school. And students who don’t have a college diploma are less confident about their financial future: only 36 percent of high school graduates say it's "very likely" they'll be financially secure in their lifetime, compared to 55 percent of college graduates.

Yet, while high school graduates admit to doubts about their financial future without a college degree, they are also greatly skeptical that going into debt for college would be worth it. Only 37 percent of high school graduates "strongly agree" that, even if you have to take out a loan, going college is worth it in the long run. Some 54 percent of college graduates strongly agree. Among both groups, almost nine in 10 agree that students have to borrow too much money to pay for college.

What do you think? Did you or your children complete the FAFSA form? Do students these days have to take out too much money to pay for college? Is a college education worth it in the long run?

The complete One Degree of Separation report, including full survey details and methodology, is available at Previous surveys in this series, which was sponsored by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, revealed other critical hurdles that keep young people from completing their education, such as the difficulty of juggling school, work and family life; and the limited counseling many students receive. Have a look at the reports in the series and weigh in on your thoughts here.


06.10 Getting Across the Finish Line in Education

Friday, June 10th, 2011 | Scott Bittle

There's good news this week on getting more young people through high school – and bad news on getting them beyond it.

The "Diplomas Count" report, produced by Education Week and Editorial Projects in Education, found high school graduation rates have increased significantly after two years of decline. The high school graduation rate is 72 percent, a jump of three points in just a year. But 1.2 million students still fail to earn diplomas. And a staggering number of those dropouts, fully one in five, come from just 25 school districts, almost all major urban school systems.

Those diplomas are crucial if students are to get the post-secondary education they increasingly need to get ahead. While that's usually been defined as a four-year college, in fact there are many other options, such as community colleges and trade schools, and the report looks at the challenges facing those students.

One of those challenges, of course, is money. In a separate report, The Education Trust concludes the average low-income family must pay or borrow a much bigger share of its annual income – 72 percent -- to send a child to a four-year college. By contrast, middle-class families only need to contribute 27 percent of their income, and high-income families 14 percent.

Young people who don't complete postsecondary education are more likely to be lower-income – and they're mostly facing the financial burden on their own, according to Public Agenda's With Their Whole Lives Ahead of Them study. Nearly 6 in 10 students in our study who left higher education without graduating say they had to pay their own college costs, rather than being able to count on help from their families. About 7 in 10 of those who leave school report that they did not have scholarships or financial aid, compared with about 4 in 10 of those who graduate.

And 3 in 10 of those who didn't graduate said they have college loans, giving them the worst of both worlds: no diploma, but still with loans to pay.

In the end, young people told us the biggest factor in failing to get a diploma is the difficult juggling act they face in handling school, work and family obligations. Frequently, something's got to give, and the thing that often gives is completing school.

Our statistics tell the story, but this tale is something young people can tell themselves. Have a look at this video which Public Agenda produced in partnership with Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board and the Pathways Project:

More About This Video


06.03 Teachers and the Tests

Friday, June 3rd, 2011 | Scott Bittle

New York and Los Angeles are moving ahead with plans to use standardized testing designed to grade teachers as well as students. In Public Agenda's research, we've found that it isn't so much that teachers don't think tests can play a role in grading teachers – but they do say other ideas are more effective.

The conventional wisdom among many education reformers has been that teachers resist all kinds of evaluation, but in fact they're open to a number of ideas, according to the research we conducted with Learning Point Associates.

Nearly all teachers (92 percent) rated the level of student interest and engagement as an excellent or good indicator of teacher effectiveness. Teachers also gave excellent or good ratings to how much their own students learn compared with other students (72 percent) as well as feedback from principals and administrators (70 percent).

While more than half (56 percent) of the teachers we surveyed said how well students perform on district’s standardized tests is also an excellent or good indicator, the intensity of their support is much lower. Only 12 percent of teachers gave standardized tests the top "excellent" rating, lower than they gave any of the other measures of effectiveness. By contrast, 46 percent say student engagement is an "excellent" indicator. And 75 percent of all teachers said that student test scores are a lot less important than other measures.

And newer teachers are actually less likely to see standardized tests as a good indicator than more experienced educators. Half of those who have been teaching for less than five years say student performance on standardized tests is a fair or poor indicator. Only 32 percent of teachers who have been teaching more than 20 years agree.

None of this settles the question of what really is the best way of grading teachers—it can only suggest what scales teachers would choose for themselves. But the data can tell us which ideas teachers would be receptive to and which they might resist-- and they do resist the idea of test scores as the only indicator, or even the most important indicator, of how a teacher performs.


05.16 College Presidents Are Too Complacent

Monday, May 16th, 2011 | Scott Bittle

The Chronicle of Higher Education is calling its new major survey of the public and college presidents "A Crisis of Confidence," but Public Agenda co-founder Daniel Yankelovich has a different take. He argues that data shows more complacency among college presidents than crisis.

The Chronicle survey, conducted with the Pew Research Center, finds the public's concern about college costs at an all-time high, and that 1 in 3 college presidents say higher education is moving in the wrong direction.

Yankelovich argues that the survey also shows a lot of satisfaction with things as they are -- perhaps too much:

Though some Americans grumble about not getting great value for their money, the vast majority are pretty well satisfied with the performance of higher education. Most Americans who have been exposed to higher education feel that their investment has been a sound one. A majority of college presidents believe that higher education is moving in the right direction. Almost four out of five (76 percent) say they are convinced that our higher-education system is doing a good or an excellent job of providing value for the money spent by students and their families.

That could mean both the public and college leaders are still reacting to the "old normal," and not grappoing with the trends that threaten social mobility, he writes.

From the perspective of the trends that trouble me, this high level of satisfaction signals a lack of awareness of the dangers that lie ahead. The message I get from the survey of college presidents is, "We are doing just fine under difficult circumstances. If you send us more money and better-prepared high-school students, we can do an even better job." Neither the general public nor the presidents of our colleges seem conscious of the seriousness of the threat; they therefore lack the sense of urgency needed to confront it.

You can read Yankelovich's full op-ed at the Chronicle of Higher Education.

For more on the challenges facing higher education -- and how both the public and college stakeholders see them, check out Public Agenda's research on higher education.


05.13 The Optimism Gap: Are Washington and the Public on the Same Track?

Friday, May 13th, 2011 | Scott Bittle

Reprinted from The Huffington Post

Part of leadership is conveying an air of optimism and confidence. Any management book, any memoir by a general, politician or basketball coach will tell you that. But what does it mean when leaders are more optimistic than the people they're supposed to be leading?

That's certainly been the situation in Washington over the past year. As part of a project to track attitudes about the national debt, Public Agenda has been using a Harris Interactive survey to examine the views of "Beltway influencers" -- which include executive and legislative staff, media, and executives in nonprofits and interest groups who shape policy. And these policymakers are significantly more confident that the country is "moving in the right direction," as opposed to being "seriously off on the wrong track," than the general public.

About half of the leaders we've surveyed since March 2010 say the country's moving in the right direction (48 percent said this in our most recent round of research, completed in April).

By contrast, 70 percent of the public told the CBS/New York Times survey in April that America is on the wrong track: a more than 20-point gap. What's more, this gap has widened: in February and October 2010, the CBS/Times survey (which uses the same wording as Harris) showed about six in 10 saying the nation's "seriously off on the wrong track."

The right direction/wrong track formulation has been around for decades now, and one reason why pollsters love it is that it's a gut-check question. You don't need to follow the news closely to answer it. Even the image is powerful and clear: is the country going off the rails or not?

Americans have always seen themselves as an optimistic nation. We've had generation gaps, credibility gaps, all kinds of divides between how leaders and experts look at problems compared to the public at large. But an optimism gap is something fundamental. There are multiple signs that the nation is in an uneasy mood, and has been for a while. The CBS/Times survey hasn't found a majority of the public saying we're moving in the right direction since 2003. Just last week, Gallup reported that fewer than half of Americans say young people today will have a better life than their parents, the first time that's happened in 30 years.

One possible reason is that the public sees a slipping of fortunes in their lives that they haven't seen before. In another Public Agenda survey, we found a significant number of Americans, even the four in 10 who say they're "struggling a lot" in the current economy, are more concerned about sliding down the ladder in the long term than about getting by today. They're more worried about paying for college and having a secure retirement than about paying the rent or mortgage in the short term. They also say that doing something about higher education costs, job training and preserving Social Security and Medicare would help them more than short-term fixes.

Another explanation may be about the leaders. President Obama likes to say "we are the people we have been waiting for," and people in Washington may take this to heart. Whatever their partisan differences, people believe they're inside the Beltway for a reason. They believe their policies are right and will work -- and if their party has been elected to office, they believe the public is behind them. This is just as true of Obama supporters as it is for the Tea Partiers. So if your side holds the reins of power -- and in a divided government both parties can make that claim -- then you've got reason for optimism. You might win. The world you're trying to create may still come to pass.

Plus, at least the Washington elites are at the table, and they generally understand the choices they face. That isn't always true of the public -- and that's not entirely the public's fault.

The problem is that the obsessive maneuvering, the bitter rhetoric, the obscure parliamentary tactics that are all part of "winning" the Beltway game don't look like progress to the public. They look confusing, off-putting, and not particularly relevant to what's worrying most Americans. At any given moment, it's very difficult for the average American who isn't obsessed with politics to figure out how any of this debate will really improve their lives. They don't get much help in sorting through the options before them, or the challenges the country faces. They're not sure whether a better world is on the way, because the way politicians and the media operate make it difficult to choose between different visions, or even see if what they're being offered is a better world at all.

That, in the end, may be the real threat in the optimism gap. It's another sign of a broader disconnect between leaders and the public. Leaders who can't make the public share their sense of optimism and promise may be managing the country, but they're not leading it. And unless those inside the Beltway do a better job of conveying why what they're doing matters -- why there's grounds for optimism -- then it's hard to see how that inside-the-Beltway sense of progress will carry over into outside the Beltway support.


05.05 Changing the Debate on Relations with the Muslim World

Thursday, May 5th, 2011 | Scott Bittle

The killing of Osama bin Laden is a huge victory for the United States in the struggle against al Qaeda – a measure of justice for 9/11, a display of resolve and skill by our armed forces, and an action greeted with enormous relief by the public. It’s impossible to say what all the implications will be, but perhaps there’s an opportunity to change the debate about one of the biggest challenges facing our nation.

The difficult questions that still surround America’s role in the Muslim world are a prime example of the need to help the public up their “learning curve” on complex issues, write Public Agenda’s co-founder Dan Yankelovich and President Will Friedman in their new book, Toward Wiser Public Judgment. Muslim extremists have always been a small fraction of the Muslim population, most of whom reject violence. But for years, “Muslim extremists have successfully made us scapegoats for the failure of so many Muslim nations to build their own just and prosperous societies,” they write.

Meanwhile, Americans have been wrestling with their views about a religion and culture that many admit they don’t understand. Surveys show the public dissatisfied with the war in Iraq for years, and growing more doubtful about Afghanistan. And surveys also show most Americans think we’ve put too much emphasis on military solutions, rather than diplomatic ones, in dealing with terrorism.

Presenting the public with choices – real value-based alternatives for policy – could be enormously helpful in moving the public forward. Setting options side by side enables the public to weigh options, consider alternatives and come to considered judgment about what strategy the United States should follow.

The good news is that there have been huge changes in the Muslim world over the past year. Even before bin Laden’s death, international surveys showed support plummeting for both him and al Qaeda in Muslim countries. In addition, as many commentators have pointed out, al Qaeda hasn’t been a factor in the protests sweeping countries like Egypt and Libya this year. The “Arab spring” has been driven by citizens tired of aging, authoritarian regimes and ready for change.

That suggests events are outstripping the extremists, and the Muslim world may be turning against them. That’s an opportunity for the United States. Since 9/11, we never really grabbed onto the opportunities to engage Americans in building a better relationship with the Muslim world. Now we may have another chance – if we can seize it.


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