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Does More Participation Lead to Better Decisions?

It has been too long since I've written on this blog.  Truthfully, the events of the final months of my twin son's high school career have consumed a great deal of my attention recently.  But now that Paul and Isaac have graduated, chosen colleges and found summer jobs, I am re-focusing.  My sabbatical looms--seven more weeks and then I begin!  I am excited to begin my full-time focus on writing and reading, but I am also aware that I'd better re-commit to my daily writing practice now if I'm going to be in any shape for the amount of writing I'll soon be doing.  The blog is a good prompt--and a good excuse--for writing a little bit every day.

Even though I haven't been blogging, I have been thinking about the question at the heart of my sabbatical:  how can we notice, name and celebrate our experience of God in community?  Behind this BIG question are dozens of even bigger questions including, is human community to be trusted?  When groups of people get together, do they collectively have more wisdom, more insight than any one of them would have had alone?

My immediate, gut-level response to this question is YES.  I've grown up in a democracy, after all, and I'm accustomed to the idea that the rulers rule only with the consent of the governed.  Every American child learns that kings are more likely to be tyrants than elected presidents are.  Why?  Because one person can be ruled by their greed or paranoia or ego or mania but large groups of people bring the extremes of any one individual's desires or motivations into check.  

Trust in the wisdom of groups seems so essential to a democratic country that I am surprised every time I am reminded of how little we really believe in this principle.  We're a pretty political family so the news this week that Eric Cantor lost his primary election in Virginia was a topic of much discussion around our dinner table.  Dan and I repeated the comments we read in the Washington Post and elsewhere that suggested that Cantor's loss was "punishment" for his (very tentative) support for some kind of immigration reform.  But Isaac disagreed.  He thinks that elections say very little about people's stand on issues and a great deal about the sector of the population that votes.  

In other words, Cantor lost because very few people participated in the election.  Ezra Kline made this argument pretty persuasively on his Vox Media site yesterday (although a Washington Post blog this morning disputes his claim).  I can't judge whether or not turnout was resposible for Cantor's loss, but I do know that an election that is determined by such a small number of voters doesn't really mean anything about what "Americans want", especially when it comes to immigration reform.  The vast majority of Americans want some kind of path to citizenship for people living in this country illegally--a majority in both political parties.  But the majority of Americans do not vote in political primaries.  

There are certainly issues on which I believe the majority of Americans have the wrong opinion (for example, most support the death penalty).  But I still fundamentally believe that the more people who are involved with the decision, the better that decision will be.  The more people involved with elections, the better the candidates will become.  Involved, however, means more than showing up a voting on election day.  Good representatives are elected out of communities where a lots and lots of people are involved with the political process in all its forms--community meetings, public forums, local activism, fundraising and events.  

Any candidate or official who discourages participation, who does thing to reduce the number of people who vote or who attend meetings, immediately arouses my suspicision.  It's not just that they distrust the political process--they distrust the wisdom of groups.

One footnote:  It continues to amaze me how many church leaders are clearly distrustful the wisdom of their communities.  Experts regularly advise church leaders to "have minimal congregational involvement" if they want their churches to succeed.  What definition of success requires fewer people to feel like they have a stake in the vision and direction of an organization?