Facilitating Dialogue in a Populist Era
Roma Mehta

As with many people, the US election in November for me was a wake-up call. How could I be so unaware of the deep seated resentments held by such a large portion of the population. I found myself wanting to be in dialogue with folks who held those views. But how? We seem to operate in immensely different worlds. It is difficult to imagine gathering much of diverse group literally around a kitchen table. Periodically, I do find myself in settings for such conversation but not very often. Online settings like specially created Facebook pages (I’m part of one) are very difficult because interjections from various people who do not adhere to stated ground rules very easily throw the conversation off course. I’m all for making the effort to keep trying but I think we all need to acknowledge the difficulty of the task.

I also appreciate, Jo, your family connection to Iowan populism but it’s important to temper such idealism with many of populism’s darker sides. Fred Harris ran for President on declaration of a“New Populism” in 1976 and did well enough in Iowa to consider himself “winnowed in.” Fred’s view of populism is one I still admire. However, an ugly side of populism occurs when demagoguery channels distrust of the “elites” into targeting anxieties onto portions of the population, often who are very vulnerable, as easy scapegoats.

As much as I would hope that dialogue and discussion can occur in a rational manner — which your conversation guidelines assume — we’re dealing with something much, much more emotional. In a word, I primarily wrestle in finding ways to actually bring people to the kitchen table in a frame of mind ready for dialogue than I do with the eventual design of a fruitful conversation format.

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