June 8, 2014

The Village Square hopes to gather reasonable folks to discuss tough issues

Let’s start breaking bread together to create a national wave of citizens who won’t let the current political gridlock, nastiness and inaction stand.

Allan Katz has a dream of citizens with differing viewpoints gathered in comfortable settings, sharing a meal, rationally discussing the hot issues of the day.

He has seen it happen in Tallahassee, Fla., where conversations led to an almost complete cease-fire on negative local political advertising.

In advance of our hot political primary summer, it sounds too good to be true — but certainly worth attempting.

Katz, a former U.S. ambassador to Portugal now teaching at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, calls his idea The Village Square and he has made Kansas City its national headquarters.

“I believe there is a hunger in this land for rational conversation,” he said.

Amen. Let’s start breaking bread together to create a national wave of citizens who won’t let the current political gridlock, nastiness and inaction stand.

It would be hard to find anyone defending the current state of affairs in Congress. U.S. Rep. Kevin Yoder, a Kansas Republican, calls the situation “horrible and heartbreaking.”

Missouri Democratic U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, Yoder’s frequent buddy on panels demonstrating collegiality, describes “political tribalism” at its historic peak, damaging taxpayers and the world.

Among the consequences of these fractures is a nation without a budget, coherent immigration and energy policies or adequate mental health benefits. Meanwhile the deficit and reforms to Social Security and Medicare remain out of reach of fixes.

The Village Square has three simple tools. A “civility bell” to interrupt anyone who strays outside civil discourse, a no-clapping rule to respect all speakers, and an on-spot fact checker.

“We want to create space for those who like to discuss issues in civil, comfortable setting,” said Katz. “And we want it to be fun, in series of venues and events.”

The devolution of civility in Congress accelerated as political parties became more demanding, conference committee clout dimmed, and chamber leaders tightened the reins on what gets debated.

Those who break ranks with their party get a primary opponent. Redistricting secures incumbents.

As expectations grew for elected leaders to be seen in home districts every weekend, time for bipartisan socializing and friendships diminished. And the 24-7 news cycle with partisans retreating into silos of MSNBC vs. Fox has left many Americans feeling cut off and cut out.

There are too many penalties today to those who compromise — and too many orchestrated distractions at many Congressional town hall meetings. Partisans now have handbooks for the faithful on how to effectively disrupt and dominate a town hall.

Yoder held one town hall where signs appeared that he hates old people. Really, he assures listeners, he loves his 102-year-old grandmother.

The Village Square has captured the attention of the Bloch Family Foundation, which is offering a $150,000 matching grant to help boost its efforts.

“This isn’t an eat-your-broccoli crowd,” Katz said. He’s not pushing an agenda or a position. The bipartisan co-chairs in Kansas City are Republican Peggy Dunn, and Mary Bloch, a Democrat.

Katz is hoping for conversations on the tough issues that communities want to discuss. Mayor Sly James suggests streetcars and the future of the airport would be good topics for conversations. In Florida, even gatherings addressing guns and health care managed to occur without shouting.

Events begin this fall. It’s worth a shot. Many reasonable thinkers desperately need a new channel to tune into. Food and friendly talk just might be the ticket.

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