As a high school youth with an interest in farming, ag teachers encouraged my participation in the local chapter of the Future Farmers of America (FFA). It was supposed to build character and help keep us out of trouble. Lord knows, I needed help with both! All in all, the FFA did its part in that regard.
In addition to cattle judging and forestry, one suggested activity was participation on the parliamentary procedure team. It came complete with annual federation, district, state, and national competitions. I accidentally staged my very own coup one day when the person attempting to preside over an early practice session was so flustered by what rules applied in which situation that I stood up, walked to the front, requested the gavel, and told him to sit down. Little did I know it would be a permanent arrangement until I graduated a couple of years later. To this day, poorly run meetings get under my skin!
These meetings followed Robert’s Rules of Order, and in those days I knew them like the back of my hand. Motions moved and seconded. Point of order. Table the motion. Suspend the rules. We even practiced filibustering once or twice while we attended to the imaginary agenda items assigned by our teachers – much ado about camp dates, shop purchases and so on. After quite a bit of practice we won the federation competition. We were flawless at the district level, but another school was flawless as well, plus a bit more polished. They won the competition by a fraction of a point. Maybe it is just me but it’s more satisfying to win on a day when you don’t play well than to lose on a day when you do. We went home that day, still proud but disappointed.
In retrospect, participating on that team was my first real introduction to how democracy was supposed to work. People introduced motions representing their point of view on the matters at hand. If seconded, a healthy debate occurred, followed by a vote. Sure you could expect a few knuckleheaded amendments now and then but overall it was a plain and simple process. There were no special interest groups. No lobbyists. No corporate campaign contributions given for the sake of influence. Just the will of the people! Admittedly, in this case “the people” was limited to the six individuals occupying the officer positions on the team – president, vice-president, secretary, treasurer, reporter, and sentinel working with fabricated business, but still it set my expectations for what good governance was supposed to be. (In retrospect, I’m not sure why a high school ag club needed a sentinel stationed by the door, but better prepared than not, I suppose!)
I’ve often thought it was one of the universe’s pranks that with an expertise in parliamentary procedure, I wound up serving among the Religious Society of Friends, which has absolutely no use for such practices in its business proceedings. Most of us have never heard of Robert’s Rules of Order and even if we had, we’d want to know why his order should be preferred over others. As it turns out, Robert was a military officer who designed the rules when asked to preside over a church meeting. He did an admirable job, but if you know Friends you know that little nugget of information alone would stir up a controversy of its own in most places.
Voting is not part of Friends’ practice. A spoken suggestion or recommendation does not necessarily die for lack of a second because sometimes a still, small voice is precisely where the truth is found. As a religious group, the intended goal is always to seek truthfulness rather than merely be proved “right” by a vote. The assembled group desires to discern where God is leading them on a matter. Friends’ practice speaks of “the sense of the meeting,” believing that when we seek to listen to the Spirit together we can be led to unity. It’s a beautiful process when it works, but can be as ugly as anything else when it doesn’t. Unity can be elusive because, as the saying goes, “Opinions are like noses. Everybody’s got one.” When Friends’ business goes off the rails, it is usually because we can’t quite hear where the Spirit is calling us because we have not set aside our own personal convictions and listened with an open heart. In those moments Friends’ practice reminds me of democracy without the luxury of a vote. Anyone and everyone can voice their opinion, but there is no good way to bring the discussion to an end make a satisfactory decision.
I suppose those high school FFA experiences planted the seeds for how democracy worked, but as is often the case, reality falls short of the game. Divided interests usually compete against each other, with brokered deals and compromise paving a clear albeit usually pothole-littered path forward. In part that is because we are a wonderfully diverse and opinionated people chasing our version of the American dream. Plus, there are more than six high school teenagers participating in the discussion! But on the other hand, it suggests that some days it is difficult to know what exactly is united among the residents of these fifty states.
Three things from Friends’ process (which itself can be idealistic) have real value in situations like this one. First, everyone has an opportunity to add their voice to the conversation at hand. Speaking to a matter and being heard is, in itself, an empowering and affirming thing. Second, individual opinion is seasoned by and considered within a concern for the whole rather than securing votes for one side or the other. Working for “us all” feels different than trying to prevail over “them.” Third, decisions attempt to embrace the full range of the conversation rather than reduce it to a collection of yeas and nays. That is a recognition that is often sorely lacking in the parliamentary process. “Majority” is not synonymous with “the whole.” Neither is it a guarantee that a majority decision reflects “truth” unless “truth” is equal to the will of the people. History shows us that that is a dangerous assumption. The more troubling thing is the galvanization of individuals into sects or parties that can become completely dismissive of others in the pursuit of their own agendas. Concern for the entirety of the group falls by the wayside in pursuit of winning the vote because, well, we’re pretty sure our view is what would be best for everyone.
Those tidbits from Friends’ process have reprogrammed my parliamentary leanings. I treasure the right to vote in this country but I detest the partisanship that can’t find unity within its respective parties, let alone work consistently for the good of the whole. Good, healthy debate is difficult to find, often replaced by mudslinging and lies. I don’t know about you, but I find it is tough to make an informed choice when I don’t have trustworthy information! Decision making is much better when we enter the process knowing that we have a mutual responsibility for whole. When that is kept in mind, a majority vote has a more trustworthy feel.
Sometime ago while researching a project, I learned that the public school system played an instrumental role in fostering a sense of national identity within the U.S. It was an incomplete picture, to be sure; but one useful outcome was its creation of a sense of group identity that united disparate groups looking to put down roots in this land. I don’t know if it will be possible to draft a narrative that includes and unites us nationally or globally, but the lack of a compelling group identity is a deep fracture that often has us at odds with one another while we frantically maneuver for our own survival. It is no wonder that so many of us fend first and foremost for our particular point of view. And why not? It is intertwined with our sense of identity and safety. For that reason, it can be difficult to do anything else.
There is story that circulates among Friends about a meeting (non-Quakers, think congregation or church) that was considering installing air conditioning in the building. Some folks were tired of sweating their way through worship and then needing to peal themselves off the benches when they stood up. Wasn’t it time to add a little modern convenience? Others were adamantly opposed to the idea. There were better uses for that money. They didn’t come to worship to be comfortable, and anyway it was just for one season out of the year. After a few months of deliberation, the group decided to proceed with the installation of the air conditioning. At the conclusion of the meeting, one person who had been loudly opposed to the idea wrote a substantial check to support the project. When asked why they would give such a sizable contribution to a cause they opposed, the person answered, “I participated in the process. I had my say. I may not care for air conditioning, but I do care about this group. If this is our decision, then I will do my part to support it.” That is an example, whether real or apocryphal, that calls me back to my center.
As I look within to consider my own participation I realize that in the democratic process, my vote is my voice. It is not a loud voice and it doesn’t carry very far, but it matters – to me, if no one else. Like many, I too feel a need to vote for my own self-interest. I get it. Life seems simultaneously precious and precarious. Some visions for the American and global community are at odds with things I value. I want to preserve the things that matter and change the ones that work against a positive future for all. It is difficult to gauge the value and cost of these competing visions because they are not always clearly presented or honestly critiqued. As everyone claws their way toward their own dream, we worry our own efforts and progress will be undermined. It is difficult to work for the good of the whole when we can’t agree on what constitutes “good” and who is included in the “whole.”
I also notice I have a distrust of party agendas. I wonder if there is a difference between vision and agenda. Visions inspire me to work toward an articulated goal where much is to be figured out along the way, whereas an agenda often seems like a to-do list designed to toe the line toward predetermined priorities that leave little room for adjustment in light of new information or changing circumstances.
Thinking about the vote, I’m reminded of the early lessons I learned in canning summer produce from the garden. If you want a quality product at the end of the process, you need to work with quality ingredients from the outset. Otherwise you’ll be disappointed in the end. Quality after the election is only as good as the quality before the election. I know several who choose not to vote because they don’t like any of the choices. I can appreciate that sentiment and in fact, often share it, but I’d urge us not to let that form of inertia interfere with our contribution to the future of our collective lives.
In these musings, three themes emerge for me: participation, group identity, and trustworthy process. I want the opportunity to participate. I want to have a say in the groups from which I derive a sense of identity and purpose. I want those groups to conduct their work through processes that are equitable and above board. If I want that for myself, I need to insist on that for you as well.
When it was time to adjourn those FFA meetings, now over four decades ago, as president I said these words during the closing ceremony: “As we mingle with others, let us be diligent in labor, just in our dealings, courteous to everyone and, above all, honest and fair in the game of life.” Even today, I can approve of that statement with or without a vote. In that spirit, I will carry on.