Know Your Neighbors
Know Your Neighbors: Sun City's Forum Club Offers a Model for Open, Neighborly Political DiscussionsWritten by Anita Rufus
One is a banker; another is a Nobel Prize-winner, a third a teacher, yet another a writer. Many are happily retired. Some are well-informed on the news of the day; others are interested in exploring new ways to approach old problems; all are willing to engage with their neighbors for some good old-fashioned “exchanges of opinion.” (That’s what my mother used to call “arguments.”)
The Sun City Palm Desert Forum Club is one of the many organizations that cater to the interests of Sun City residents. The Forum features monthly facilitators on current topics with participants seated at large round tables, each with a designated discussion leader. Their format has the facilitator give background information about that meeting’s topic for up to 40 minutes. Each table then considers various questions related to the topic for about 30 minutes, and then offers their table’s conclusions and/or suggestions to the whole group.
I addressed the group several years ago, so when Forum board member Colt Stewart asked if I would be interested in facilitating November’s meeting to reflect on the recent midterm election results, I immediately said, “Absolutely!” Then I began to do my homework: These are interested, informed people, and I was committed to taking a nonpartisan approach to evaluating not only the election results, but what to expect over the next two years leading up to the presidential election.
My preparation included doing background research on midterm election results historically, specifically related to turnout and whether we should motivate or punish nonvoters to get more participation in the electoral process; immigration policies, including past presidents who have acted unilaterally and granted amnesty to those here illegally; the California state initiative process, and how it has evolved from its original purpose of empowering ordinary citizens; state voting laws, including districts drawn to protect incumbents or limit voting rights; the Affordable Care Act; and recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions that have led to unprecedented political campaign spending.
Over dinner before the event with Forum president Jane Graham (“I showed up for a meeting, and they needed a president, so I volunteered”) and Stewart, we went over some of the questions the group had generated. While they anticipated talking about the “why” of the election (“Did the president’s ratings cause the elections results, or are voters sending another message?”), I said I also wanted each table to attempt to arrive at suggestions for solutions about how we move the local, state and national agendas forward.
In my opening statement, I told the group that I believe this midterm election was basically about … nothing. The Republicans were running against President Obama, and the Democrats were running away from him. Neither party put forth policy agendas that voters were being asked to support; rather, we were asked to be afraid and vote “against,” particularly based on the overwhelming number of political ads that bombarded us throughout the process.
As Stewart and I visited the tables to answer questions that had arisen, I was pleased to find that participants were actively listening to each other, as the discussion leaders focused on what their report back to the full group should include. Participants seemed genuinely interested in exploring the policy issues and eschewing the politics—a position I had strongly encouraged.
However, there were a few instances in which political buzz words and sound bites were put into play. One man challenged me on the immigration issue.
“The Senate sent a bipartisan bill to the House over a year ago,” I said. “The speaker of the House doesn’t want to bring it up for a vote, because it would pass—but it would be with predominantly Democratic votes, and he doesn’t want that to happen. So they’ve chosen to do nothing but threaten the president if he takes any unilateral action, even though any action Congress takes can overcome any such executive order.”
“But what about the hundreds of bills that the House sent to the Senate, that majority leader Reid has been sitting on?” he blustered.
“That’s true,” I replied, “but what you’re talking about right now is immigration—not all those other issues.”
“Aw,” he sputtered, crossing his arms across his chest, “nobody here wants to hear what I have to say anyway.”
What do Forum participants expect over the next two years? Basically, they do not expect much to change. They suggested some restrictions on campaign financing, overhauling the California initiative process, expanding mail-in voting, filibuster reform in the Senate, and common-sense immigration reform. They decried the political gridlock, but are concerned about policies being pushed through that may not withstand time. They want cooperation, but not necessarily capitulation.
There are few open events around the desert that encourage the exchange of ideas in the way that the Forum does. While some local groups sponsor high-profile speakers brought in for those who can afford to pay to hear one-sided presentations (with perhaps a few pre-cleared questions), the Forum is a good model for the kind of open dialogues about issues that we should encourage—and in which we should participate.
It’s often said that there are certain subjects we should never broach with our neighbors—politics, religion, race, etc. Thankfully, the Forum breaks that mold.