Politics, Dialogue, and the Evolution of Democracy -- Introduction


Citation: Kenneth Cloke. Politics, Dialogue, and the Evolution of Democracy.  GoodMedia Press. 2018.

Ken Cloke wrote Politics, Dialogue, and the Evolution of Democracy, which was published by GoodMedia Press in 2018.  It is a fabulous book, stock full of ideas about better ways of engaging in politics that will help save our democracy--and that of others.  While we obviously cannot post the whole book on Beyond Intractability, Ken generously gave us permission to post several sections, the first of which follows below.  The other excerpts, and a link to the book's page on GoodMedia Press (where you can buy the whole book for just $24.95!) are immediately below. 

Buy the Book | Table of Contents 

ExceprtsIntroduction | Power, Rights, and Interests | Truth and Falsity | Meditative, Interest-Based Approaches to Political Conflicts | Power, Rights, & Interests in Political Discussions | 20 Ways to Talk about Political Differences, | Algorithm for Political Dialogue | Global Pandemics, National Borders and Political Problem Solving


This excerpt is from the Introduction, pages xiii-xx.  




Words like ‘freedom,’ ‘justice,’ and ‘democracy’ are not common concepts; on the contrary, they are rare. People are not born knowing what these are. It takes enormous, and above all, individual effort to arrive at the respect for other people that these words imply. —James Baldwin

The 20th century has been characterized by three developments of great political importance: the growth of democracy, the growth of corporate power, and the growth of propaganda as a means of protecting corporate power against democracy. —Alex Cary

The fire, the energy, and the life of democracy is popular pressure. Democracy itself is a government constantly responding to continuous pressures of it people. The only hope for democracy is that more people and more groups will become articulate and exert pressure upon their government … Can there be a more fundamental, democratic program than a democratically minded and participating people? Can man envisage a more sublime program on earththan the people having faith in their fellow men and themselves? A program of co-operation instead of competition? This, then, is the job ahead …  —Saul Alinsky


OVER THE COURSE OF CENTURIES, WE HAVE BECOME IMMENSELY POWERFUL, unimaginably wealthy and highly advanced in technology, medicine and health care delivery — yet many people on the planet live in poverty, without electricity, rudimentary medical care, sanitation or running water. In math and science, we have achieved more in the last three decades than in previous millennia, yet we have hardly advanced at all in our ability to get along, to communicate about our differences, or to solve our social, economic and political problems without slaughtering each other.

Human populations have skyrocketed, social media has proliferated and the world has shrunk, connecting diverse cultures and conflicting social traditions that previously had little connection with one another, thereby exacerbating social, economic, political and environmental problems that can no longer be solved locally, even by the most powerful nation states.

So, on the one hand, we have advanced rapidly in knowledge, skills and capacities; on the other, we remain mired in ancient enmities and antiquated methodologies. Nowhere is this clearer than in the attitudes and behaviors, processes and relationships, skills and capacities we bring to resolving our social, economic and political conflicts.

While it has long been considered preferable simply to destroy or vanquish our opponents, it is no longer possible to do so without simultaneously harming ourselves. In the first place, these “opponents” are simply people, who see things differently, with whom it is possible to talk, negotiate and solve problems. In the second, we increasingly think and act, communicate and relate, touch and are touched, internationally, bypassing borders that once sheltered us and intensified our isolation, encouraging us, at least in our imagination, to separate ourselves from those who looked, thought and acted differently.

As a result of these changes, without our fully realizing it, the form of our society, economics and politics has shifted, forcing us now to consider how we will respond to racial, religious, gender and other forms of diversity; requiring us to learn how to cooperate in solving global environmental, health, migration and other complex problems; and driving us to do so in ways that are at least as complex, diverse, intricate, far-reaching, multidimensional and multifaceted as the problems themselves.

What is clear at the outset is that divisive win/lose approaches, hostile biases and stereotypes, adversarial assumptions and antagonistic zerosum methodologies unnecessarily pit us against each other, mistakenly cause us to identify each other as the problem, and diminish our ability to work together and collaborate in resolving issues that impact all of us.

Rather than tracing our political system’s ills to the immorality, or flawed personalities or evil of individual politicians, any genuinely democratic process requires us to consider the political system as a whole, in which the characters of individual politicians do not distract our attention from joint problem-solving, or discovering deeper, underlying issues and unnoticed opportunities, including how it might be possible to:

  • Reimagine the ways we organize and exercise political power
  • Respect our differences and discuss our conflicts in ways that promote learning and keep us connected as human beings
  • Collaborate and use our differences to design richer, more complex and effective problem-solving strategies.


We have thought of democracy as consisting largely of casting votes for representatives in periodic elections and come to accept the adversarial campaigns and brutal competitions for power, money and prestige that seem to inevitably accompany them. Yet as James Baldwin eloquently points out in the epigraph at the opening of this introduction, the implications of democracy are far deeper and more essential, and require enormous effort to preserve. It is increasingly clear that democracy requires a number of higher order attitudes and intentions, processes and relationships, skills and capacities to be successful, and that these include respect for other people, as Baldwin suggests — but also respect for their diverse ideas, beliefs and interests, and for the right of each and all of us to have a voice in every part of the political process — not merely through our elected representatives, but directly, as owners of an inalienable right to govern ourselves.

More deeply, the political impact of prejudice and unresolved conflict is always to enfeeble democracy and empower autocracy, leading in extreme cases to fascism and dictatorship. A shocking recent study by professors Steven V. Miler and Nicholas T. Davis found that intolerant white people’s fears that democracy benefits immigrants and other races led them to support authoritarian ideas, including military rule, or a strongman or dictator who would ignore legislatures and election results. Similarly, the World Values Survey found that while 92 percent of more than 73,000 people in 57 countries thought democracy was a good way to govern, there has been a significant loss of trust in government and increase in support for a strong leader “who does not have to bother with parliament and elections.”


As Naomi Klein declared in a disarmingly simple, yet profoundly farreaching phrase, “Democracy is not just the right to vote, it is the right to live in dignity.” Dignity, diversity and democracy are in fact inseparable, and those who do not have the ability to participate in discussing or making decisions about the issues that impact their lives inevitably, in some measure, lose both self-respect and the respect of others. More profoundly, the denial of dignity and respect for others tacitly legitimizes unjust social, economic and political systems that tolerate domination, oppression and exploitation, and permit the powerful to prey on and subordinate the powerless.

The difficulty is that democracy is not the simplest form of government, in part because it requires a higher order of skills to be exercised by its citizens, who not only need to be educated and capable of critical, independent thought so as to make intelligent decisions, but also to know how to communicate, negotiate and solve problems collaboratively with their opponents; how to welcome those who are different or disagreeable; and include even those who would exclude others.

Among the skills required of those who would practice democracy is therefore the ability to use systems and processes that are inherently respectful and dignifying — not just toward those who are like us or agree with us, but critically and especially toward those who aren’t and don’t — especially toward those with whom we are in conflict. More broadly, the attitudes, skills and capacities required of citizens in any genuine “government of, by and for the people,” necessarily include a number that are crucial in conflict resolution, especially these:

  • Active, empathetic and responsive listening
  • Appreciative inquiry
  • Non-violent communication
  • Emotional intelligence
  • Collaborative, mutual gain and interest-based negotiation
  • Consensus building
  • Prejudice reduction and bias awareness
  • Support for diversity and cross-cultural communication
  • Team and community building
  • Mediation
  • Restorative justice and circles
  • Open heart-to-heart conversations
  • Apology and acknowledgment
  • Forgiveness and reconciliation
  • Dialogue facilitation
  • Informal problem-solving
  • Conflict coaching
  • Conflict resolution consulting
  • Participatory feedback and evaluation
  • Conflict resolution systems design

In short, for democracy to evolve, adapt to current conditions and live up to its promise, we need to develop and significantly improve our attitudes and behaviors, processes and relationships, and skills and capacities in using a broad range of communication, diversity, collaboration and interest-based conflict resolution methods, some of which are ancient and common to all cultures, and others that have been invented, discovered, practiced, critiqued or extended only in the last few decades.

We also need to develop enhanced attitudes and behaviors, processes and relationships, and skills and capacities in reducing resistance, overcoming impasse, building trust, encouraging participation, valuing diversity and dissent, redressing injustices, community organizing, reducing bureaucracy, supporting political honesty and transparency, encouraging feedback and evaluation, educating people in critical thinking, and understanding and accepting ambiguity and complexity.

In part because we have lacked these skills, democracy has been constrained and constricted, as Alex Cary describes in the second epigraph listed above, through the use of power- and rights-based adversarial processes, which include not just crude forms of political propaganda, but vicious campaign advertising, soft money bribery, and the corruption that is encouraged by lobbying and campaign contributions. These combine to reduce politics as a whole to hostile power contests between elected representatives funded and controlled by wealthy contributors. It is as true today as it was decades ago, as Justice Louis Brandeis warned: “We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.” And at the same time, as another Supreme Court Justice, Robert Jackson, observed, "It is not the function of government to keep the citizen from falling into error; it is the function of the citizen to keep the government from falling into error." Only an active, collaborative, educated and skilled democratic citizenry can make this happen.

Because of the debasement and corruption of the political process by money, normal adversarial, power- and rights-based, incremental approaches to reform inevitably confront a barrier or limit in the unwillingness of the wealthy to surrender their prestige, wealth and power; and in their ability, through ownership of the media and financial sway over politicians, to block, channel and forestall efforts to bring about essential, transformational, systemic change.

We therefore require a different, innovative set of attitudes and behaviors, processes and relationships, skills and capacities that will allow us to bypass and remove these barriers, in ways that do not reinforce the unequal, adversarial assumptions that gave rise to, and continue to justify them. In short, we require a revolution in the way we engage in social, economic and political conflicts, in the forms of problem-solving, decision-making and conflict resolution, — a nonviolent revolution, whose principle methods are those of communication, dialogue and mediation — or what I have described as a conflict revolution.

The third epigraph by Saul Alinsky that opens this introduction fittingly identifies what I believe is the road to this revolution; that is: a shift from isolating, adversarial, power- and rights-based forms of political activity to participatory, collaborative, interest-based forms that seek to strengthen dignity and respect toward others, along with the interactive, collaborative attitudes and behaviors, processes and relationships, skills and capacities that are needed for direct, participatory forms of democracy to evolve and flourish.

To initiate this transformation and allow it to percolate, replicate and expand throughout our social, economic and political systems; to shift our focus from power and rights to interest-based forms of problemsolving, decision-making and conflict resolution; to move from representative to direct, participatory forms of democracy, will require: first, a clear understanding of the nature of both the problem and the solution; second, the kind of popular pressure for which Saul Alinsky was well-known; and third, a new set of conflict resolution attitudes and behaviors, processes and relationships, skills and capacities that can help make the transition easier, more likely and sustainable.

The level of skills and capacities needed to change individual politicians or selected social, economic or political policies are significantly less complex and challenging than those required to alter the nature of power itself, or to introduce new forms of political dialogue and democratic governance that do not legitimize or rely on domination, but seek its eradication.


Domination generally means being at the mercy of the arbitrary will or power of another and controlled by them, regardless of whether that control is exercised directly or indirectly, and regardless of who is subject to it. Domination implies the end of democracy, as it grants a monopoly of social, economic and political control to those who govern — but it also, on an interpersonal level, signifies the loss of genuine relationship, as can be seen in couples and families, schools and workplaces. As a result, it triggers resentment, resistance and revolt, and permits the use of only a limited, inferior, one-sided form of problem-solving. Worst of all, it constricts our capacity for empathy, openness, honesty and awareness, and our ability to feel genuine love or affection for others.

Politics, as will appear more clearly in the chapters that follow, has always consisted of two parts, pitted and warring against each other. On the one hand, it is a form of social problem-solving. On the other hand, it is a method of domination, designed to defend the status, wealth and power of a few over the many they seek to rule or control.

The proposition of this book is that it is possible for us, by developing higher order attitudes and behaviors, processes and relationships, skills and capacities, especially in dialogue and conflict resolution, to improve our ability to resolve chronic political conflicts, by turning our differences into improved relationships and more successful problemsolving, strengthening democracy and reducing the need to dominate others politically.

The key component in producing this shift is public dialogue, which invites people to come together and constructively discuss their differences. For this reason, much of what follows is focused on developing dialogue techniques and searching for ways of applying them to difficult and dangerous political topics, and the chronic conflicts that lie hidden beneath their surface.