Innovate Democracy: A Generational Challenge

Democracy is an audacious (possibly ridiculous) idea, one never attempted in all of history before America’s founders placed their history-changing all-in (we’re-finished-if-we’re-wrong) bet that kings were no longer required – that ordinary people could self-govern. Of course, therein lies our challenge – in a country without a king, someone has got to make a few decisions.

The framers built a system of governance that forced us to keep an uneasy peace across different groups in order to solve problems (someone please tell Congress). They knew what we sometimes forget today – human nature being what it is, we need each other in order to fully comprehend (and possibly solve) each challenge ahead of us.

Even before electricity, muddling through citizenship wasn’t likely our first choice on how to spend an evening. But now with the sheer volume of excitement we can experience from our couch, we’re less willing to suffer through the marginal entertainment value of talking to (annoying) people who don’t see it our way.

We now know that an unintended consequence of the digital age is dramatically less direct contact with our “neighbors,” particularly the ones we don’t agree with politically (or look like us demographically). Simultaneously, a global world fuels instantaneous equal and opposite reactions by relatively small groups of furious people who sweep the rest of us 24/7 into their escalating anger and invite us to choose up sides.

And we have taken sides.

These are developments with real danger to the underpinnings of democracy. Our decision to avoid mixing it up constructively with the “other” is essentially a decision to sit out what makes democracy stable. We are no longer having the conversations required to run anything as big as a country, or even as small as a one-stoplight town. And we’re closing the door to the human connectedness that has always been a prerequisite for healing division.

So unless we’re going to call it a day for democracy and go back to having a king, it is the challenge of our time to innovate democracy. And we think the best place to start is the way we did it the first time – we’ve got to re-embrace the generative power of divergent opinion in democracy. We’ve got to love and seek out the differences between us as a strength in solving problems. And like the first time we did it way back in 1776, it’s going to have to happen between regular people who share hometowns. If there is nothing else we can agree on now, surely we know we can’t look to Washington to get this done.

The Jefferson Dinner is simply one tool we’re offering to do that. You can also check out our companion project Book Club on Race and regular Village Square program offerings. You can even do something as simple as have lunch with someone. (Read Patricia Nelson Limerick’s Dining with Jeff for inspiration.)

The good news is innovating democracy is kind of fun, because it has to include having cool interactions with people who look and think differently than you do (and we guarantee it’s more fun that turning on the television to find the regular 24/7 news third-grade political slugfest). If you try to have a little fun while you do it, your joy will inspire others.  Self-governance is kind of a wild ride, we may as well just embrace it.


Request an invitation or volunteer to host a group.


Jefferson Dinners is a project of The Village Square, supported by a grant from the Bridge Alliance and in partnership with the 92Y.