Breathing New Life into "We the People"

Wednesday, September 30, 2015 - 6:39am

Breathing New Life into "We the People"

A Charm Against the Language of Politics

Say over and over the names of things,
the clean nouns: weeping birch, bloodstone, tanager,
Banshee damask rose. Read field guides, atlases,
gravestones. At the store, bless each apple
by kind: McIntosh, Winesap, Delicious, Jonathan.
Enunciate the vegetables and herbs: okra, calendula.

Go deeper into the terms of some small landscape:
spiders, for example. Then, after a speech on
compromising the environment for technology,
recite the tough, silky structure of webs:
tropical stick, ladder web, mesh web, filmy dome, funnel,
trap door. When you have compared the candidates’ slippery
platforms, chant the spiders: comb footed, round headed,
garden cross, feather legged, ogre faced, black widow.
Remember that most short verbs are ethical: hatch, grow,
spin, trap, eat. Dig deep, pronounce clearly, pull the words
in over your head. Hole up
for the duration.

In this season of political madness, I’m grateful to have a “charm” against the language of politics. The “clean nouns” and “short verbs” Veronica Patterson prescribes can help the afflicted among us ward off the buffoonery and blathering, the racism and sexism and homophobia, the distortions and demonizing, the rhetorical cruelty, the cover-ups, the abysmal ignorance and flat-out lies that suck the marrow from our souls as the 2016 presidential marathon gains momentum. (Aside from that, I have no complaints about the campaign.)

A good poem speaks to our hearts as well as our minds. "A Charm Against the Language of Politics" ends by ministering to the disgust and despair many of us feel, advising us to “hole up for the duration.” But it’s a poem, not a guide to good citizenship, and I don’t intend to hole up. I want to stay engaged with the political process while keeping this poem in my pocket as an amulet to protect me against the evil spirits that prowl the public square.

Those evil spirits are intent on dividing us so deeply that there will be no more “we” in “We the People” — and thus no way for us to reach even a rough consensus on the common good to which we can hold our leaders accountable. Those evil spirits want to take us out of the action, neutralizing the people-power on which democracy depends by setting us against one another, creating a void that anti-democratic powers are more than eager to occupy.

Though much of our political discourse is toxic, “politics” itself is not a dirty word. It’s the ancient and honorable effort to come together across our differences and create a community in which the weak as well as the strong flourish, love and power collaborate, and justice and mercy have their day.

A girl goes with her mother to vote in the European elections in 2014.

(Enrique Balenzategui Arbizu / FlickrSome rights reserved.)

Yes, that’s a vision of politics that will never be fully achieved. But every time someone abandons that vision and turns to cynicism, democracy suffers one more wound in the death of a thousand cuts. Yes, Big Money is a Big Problem. But, as journalist Bill Moyers has said:

“The antidote, the only antidote, to the power of organized money in Washington is the power of organized people.”

Yes, the divide-and-conquer tactics deployed against us are powerful and unrelenting, but their success requires our collaboration. If we reject them in favor of Martin Luther King Jr.’s timeless vision of the Beloved Community, the tactics will fail.

Just as democracy can die a death of a thousand cuts, it can be given new life by a thousand acts of civility. As Wendell Berry reminds us, there are no big fixes to big problems, only a lot of little ones. Here are few ways we can play our small but vital roles in healing a wounded body politic.

1. Remember that “civility” in political discourse is not primarily about watching our tongues and minding our manners. It’s about valuing our differences, knowing that only through the creative conflict of ideas has the human race ever accomplished great things. Under the right conditions, all of us together are smarter than any one of us alone.

2. Understand that it’s more important to be in right relationship than it is to be right. This does not mean compromising your convictions for the sake of “niceness.” It means holding your differences with others in a way that can sustain dialogue over time, giving everyone a chance to speak, listen, and learn. The issues that divide us are complex; if we don’t hang in with each other long enough to sort them out we will never get anywhere near the best solutions.

3. Next time you talk with people who hold political beliefs that set your teeth on edge, turn from ire to inquiry. Ask them honest, open questions that allow you to learn something about their lives and help you understand why they believe what they do. The more you know about other people’s stories, the harder it is to dislike, distrust, or demonize them. Be prepared to tell your story, too.

4. If you’re active in a religious congregation, keep asking if it is truly safe for diversity. This means not only visible diversity but the invisible forms of “otherness” (from political persuasions to sexual orientations) that exist among people who look alike. Remember what the writer Anne Lamott once said:

“You can safely assume that you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates the same people you do.”

5. If you find yourself in a situation where someone is demeaning people who are “different,” don’t remain silent and don’t pick a fight. Say, very simply, “Those words are personally hurtful to me. I want to live in a world where we respect one another.” But say it only if you honestly feel connected with whoever is being demeaned because you know we’re all in this together.

Many of us believe that we are politically powerless, but that’s a lie told by those evil spirits. Obviously we have the power to vote, demonstrate, and actively support the candidates and causes of our choice. Equally, and perhaps more importantly, we have the power to resist the culture of hostility that’s gutting American politics — to act daily in ways that foster a culture of hospitality in which our humanity and our democracy can flourish. As author and activist Gregory Ellison II tells participants in his “Fearless Dialogues” project, “You can’t change the world, but at every moment, you can change what’s happening within three feet of you.”

Cultural change is slow, often vexing work that requires patience and hope. If we keep at it faithfully, day in and day out, all of us can contribute to the renewal of “We the People.” The “better angels of our nature” that Lincoln famously invoked have the power to breathe new life into us, our brothers and sisters, and democracy itself.

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Parker J. Palmer

is a columnist for On Being. His column appears every Wednesday.

He is a Quaker elder, educator, activist, and founder of the Center for Courage & Renewal. His books include Healing the Heart of Democracy, A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life, and Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation.

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I so needed this *charm*, this morning.

Words of wisdom -- we can always count on Parker Palmer for wisdom. Thankfully, he has re-opened my eyes, ears and heart to the necessity of "staying in the game" when all I really want to do is close the door and hope for all the bad stuff to just go away. I now am reminded that I can't do that if I intend to remain faithful.

Parker--These are sound and soothing words. Not to voice a counsel of despair, but your Moyers quote is from 2008; the Citizens United decision came down in 2010. Now corporations are considered people and money is equated with speech. You draw inspiration from Lincoln. Let's mention another former president--Jimmy Carter-- who has been out in the media referring to our current system as an "oligarchy." To invert an old metaphor, why do you now feel this talk of democracy isn't just "whistling Dixie?" That's no longer a rhetorical question. It's just that the landscape has shifted, and we'd better take account of that fact. What worked yesterday may not work tomorrow, and there's no going back, though sometimes history does rhyme. Hope springs eternal.

Thanks, Timothy, for your thoughtful comments. There's no question that Citizens United struck a near-mortal blow to the foundations of American democracy, and that thoughtful folks like Jimmy Carter (and Bill Moyers) are rightly using the word oligarchy to describe our current system. But if you ask such folks what can be done about it, I think their answer will be something like "organized campaigns of citizen action across lines that otherwise divide us -- and it's going to be a long, uphill battle that we may or may not win." One thing that interests me about the Big Money issue is that it's one on which people across the political spectrum agree. Sixteen states have called (by legislation or referendum) for a Constitutional amendment nullifying Citizens United, and another seventeen (as I understand it) have such calls in the pipeline. That's a small step down the long road toward such an amendment. But it's a step, and it would not have been taken had people from the political left, right, and center not had the kind of civil dialogue that allowed them to make common cause on this critical issue. Which takes me back to the point I hoped to make (at least glancingly) in my brief On Being piece: a culture change that supports dialogue instead of demonization is a necessary precursor to the political act of organizing to accomplish something as big as nullifying a Supreme Court decision. The Big Money issue is going to be with us for a long time and it may do us in. The same thing is true, of course, of the structural racism America's founders gave us in their bigoted definition of who "We the People" are -- a bigotry that's still with us in what Michelle Alexander has called "The New Jim Crow." But as far as I can tell, the only thing that can keep us from going over the cliff is organized action on the part of a redefined and inclusive "We the People," and that requires the culture change that allows us to talk with each other. Thanks again, Timothy, for posing your question and challenge in a way that opens to civil discourse and helps me think further into the issue. May you and your tribe flourish! Best, Parker

P.S. Here are a couple of websites where folks can learn about those calls for a Constitutional amendment and, if they wish, join an advocacy organization: and .

It's refreshing to engage in a little dialogue in this space, and you've interpreted my comment as intended. Your reply has spurred more thinking on my part and has challenged me back, so thank you, Parker! And thank you for the blessing. It's really quite touching, but left me puzzling over which tribes I may belong to! Will definitely check out the link you provided.

A propos of the notion of tribe, after reading David Berreby's book from about 10 years ago, "Us and Them: Understanding your Tribal Mind," I've expanded my understanding of the notion of "tribe."

Changing culture to be more humane and inclusive matrix of shared meaning seems a tall order, but surely a worthwhile aspiration. Human nature is characterized by bounded rationality, a viewpoint I adopt pretty much wholesale from the writings of Herbert Simon. The idea is that the perfect is the enemy of the good. People are just people. Bertrand Russell held that saintliness was surely a form of imbalance and self-deception, though I think he was being a bit harsh in that assessment. We don't have to agree with these thinkers in their entirety, but I think it's hard to do better than the writers of "Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness," by Thaler and Sunstein. Take the best of what behavioral economics and the humanities offer, work to build in appropriate incentives that are good for (human) people, and take it from there. That type of step-wise, incremental, realistic approach gives me a measure of optimism, but then again, who knows? The question that still haunts the meta-debate is whether people even want to have a discourse anymore. (Thinking is hard work, rationality is bounded, and cognitive resources are limited). One building block then is rebuilding exactly what you're suggesting, cultivating the art of real discourse. Have you read Jon Haidt's on the Righteous Mind? It's pretty good and on point, and I'd recommend it if you have time. Intellectual-types can debate these issues and parse the nuances, but real, organic debate and elevated discourse have got to move into the mainstream somehow, and that's pretty difficult when "he who pays the piper calls the tune," and frequently that tune is not one that appeals to the better angels of our nature. Best wishes and encouragement, Parker, to you and your tribe(s)!

An excellent and thought provoking dialogue... Thanks to you both! Timothy, I am reading Haidt now. Fascinating and so necessary that we explore the source and range of human moral understanding and see what can be done to apply it in the nuances of daily life. Parker, I am still standing in that tragic gap...and gladly so, given the alternative path of cynicism and despair I once walked. Standing in this gap is a position worth holding for a lifetime, though the work will surely carry on well beyond that. Many of us doing so with a measure of humility and respect and persistence is indeed the only possible route to healing of "We, the people." Thank you for leading us along this other way, my friend!

Today I will focus on the 3 feet around me. Thank you.

Call yourself to attention should you drift away from your raison d'etre and go through the motions of selfless engagement til the spark of humanness you possess comes readily to the fore. One quote to remember from an anonymous source, "I didn't tell you it would be easy. I told you it would be worth it."

Thank you, Parker. This is exactly what I needed to hear. We're having elections up here in Canada in just a few weeks, and I am so discouraged by the rhetoric, and the focus on divisive issues. I had already planned to write something about this on my blog, but didn't want to rant and rave. You've elevated my thinking and have given me lots of ideas, and I will definitely add this link to my post.

I am reposting this on my Unitarian Universalists page. Please please keep reminding us that we so have the ability to change the current culture of politics. And Thank You for continuing to encourage all in a peaceful yet active direction.

I choose to be hopeful. I believe that hope is bigger than fear, discouragement and weariness put together. I also believe that action is better than inaction. This is not a time to let frustration immobilize us – We the People! The ‘us’ I refer to is everyone: People who see things differently and are willing to struggle to a better future together.

I don't expect this comment to make it past the moderator... nonetheless... I'll write it... if only for the moderator's eyes.

Very hard for me to read this post. It feels like it's written from the perspective of a child who kicked a hornet's nest and is now trying to "reason" its way out of the unavoidable consequences. And the pedantic references to divisive politics - as if this weren't play number 1 from the left... the painful irony of being lectured about keeping the political discourse "civil" - in the face of arguably the most tempestuous political waters of my 40 something years - might even be comical if it weren't for the seriousness of the issues and the precarious state of the "union", over which this blog post purports concern.

On the contrary... It's quite clear that the real concern of the author is NOT to have to soberly engage and admit - wholesale - that the policies of the left are disastrous... as the evidence piles up to this conclusion with each passing geopolitical mis-calculation (Isis, Ukraine, Syria...) and snub from our adversaries... with every partial-birth abortion... with every illegal given a drivers license... and every activist "judge" that rules "racism!" when citizens attempt to make elections lawful legal affairs. How long do you think our republic can survive such ineptitude or judges actively plotting to shred the legal fabric of our nation? Or when the Commander in Chief, himself, STIRS racial tensions with inflammatory comments, propagating lies that he should be dispelling!

When I read that US military bases in Afghanistan ALLOW the rape of young boys by tribal leaders... my capacity for "civil discourse" on the matter is pretty much zero.

When I hear that full-term murdered babies are being preserved intact to be sold to research firms... my heart breaks at the blindness of the left to the very horrors for which they fight to preserve infanticide as the atrocious law of the land.

So please... spare me the lectures for the need for my discourse to be "civil"... or patient... or kind. Not when the positions and governance of the left are both passively AND actively destroying this country... "Civility" is a luxury we simply can't afford. People need to understand the gravity of the precarious state of things worldwide... and "civility" simply won't hold their attention.

Jon: Thank you for your honest response to the issue of civility, which implies a patient, intentional movement toward a reconciliation of opposites.

Like you, I am impatient with our current political process, however, I view it from a different perspective.

As a woman, I am impatient with others who would dictate what I can and cannot do with my body. I believe voting is a right we have as citizens and would hope that as we reach the age of 18, we are automatically 'registered' to vote. I believe we are a nation of immigrants and would like a path to citizenship that would remove the incentives that have produced so much illegal immigration.

As a mother, I weep over the loss of so many of our nation's young men and women in what I view as pointless wars. I also weep for the loss of so many in our nation at the end of a gun.

Like you, I weep over the hypocrisy that permits our military to allow rape and abuse of fellow service members as well as Afghan boys.

I do not share your perspective on our president or his presidency.

But, this is exactly the point: I'd like to listen to your perspective to see where we might be able to agree and move forward in those areas. They might not be the places where either your or I feel the most urgency, but we can still make some progress and in the process begin listening to one another.

Thank you, again, for your post.

In this protracted time of constant coverage of so much political blather, this post is so appreciated. I think I will print out Patterson's poem and carry it around with me for the next many months. During the visit by Pope Francis, the words that I found most hopeful were those that he directed towards Congress in reminding them that "You are called to defend and preserve the dignity of your fellow citizens in the tireless and demanding pursuit of the common good, for this is the chief aim of all politics." Almost simultaneously with the Pope's and Parker Palmer's messages, a similar message was delivered by Kathleen Dean Moore and Rachelle McCabe in their local presentation of , "In a Time of Extinction, a Call to Life." So many brave and heartfelt messages reminding us of what is really important and serving the common good. They are all so welcome.

Thank you Parker Palmer once again for showing us a way beyond despair at our seemingly broken political system. With civility, right relationship rather than being right, and changing what's happening within three feet of you, you've given me a specific way to move forward.

I'm an advocate for doing the political work that will defeat the dangerous right-wing ideology of the GOP but the advice in this post is also important to live out.....and I fail it often enough.

I had an encounter with a young single father named Ryan in the gym a week ago. I had commented to a few people that Trump was a silly candidate and he asked whom I supported. Sanders ....and he started to walk way scoffing.

My first reaction was anger at being dismissed but my next reaction was to ask him to come back and tell me why. I wanted to know - not because I wanted to win an argument. I asked because I wanted to understand him. And this created an opportunity for me to explain who I am and why I could possible support a candidate like Sanders.

We talked for maybe 10 minutes more and I found myself losing all feeling of anger. Both of us could see the other as someone we would and could talk to again - with respect and interest. The end result of this experience for me (and hopefully him) was sort of an affirmation of what is more important in our relationship with others.

That's counter-cultural if you think about it. What does our culture tell us all the time? That things are black and white. That people on one side are less than human and those on the other righteous.

Our relationship with people must be like this. It feels good - I can tell you that first-hand. I think it requires a little extra effort but it's a habit worth trying to practice.

This habit of the personal relationship is not incompatible with activism of standing for what you believe in your community. I know this is true. The experience of doing both makes you more effective in both arenas and perhaps more convincing. I know this is true too.

It's a nice realization to have tonight and it complements this post by one of my favorite faith/political thinkers, Parker Palmer.

Nationalism is an infantile disease. It is the measles of mankind.
- Albert Einstein

Is it not wonderful how the simplicity of a situation can slip by in the fog created by the media? The poem is a jewel and the various points so much a operational definition of good communication theory. I AM MOST DISAPPOINTED IN THE TEMPER OF political dialogue at this time.

Politics boggles my mind since the "art of government" seems to be lost. While I try to fully comprehend issues like climate change, and then look for candidates who support them, I often find myself up a creek without a paddle. It takes me time, research, evaluation and close listening to the facts before I can take a stand pro or con for any person running for an office. Only after this homework do I vote my conscience, my convictions.

The most important step was left out of the thing which will breath not new but "life into We The People." That step is when reading the Constitution we must realize the Articles and Amendments are written to implement the six conditions the preamble reveals is the intent of the document. A short example of how to study it is written by me. That explains what beach of those six conditions are meant to explain and how Amendment 10 has given "We The People" the authority to impeach any elected official or department head who commits as little as a Misdemeanor at work or home. How can the governors expect the governed not to commit crimes when the governors are themselves committing crimes against the people. Please understand, I don't disagree with the presentation here but I want "We The [common] People" to know the power of our constitutional democracy was given to the governed and not the governors.

It is basic human kindness and unconditional love that saves us.

Well said. Thank you, Parker, for your reflections and convictions in putting out love instead of hate. The quotes are inspiring. I shared your post.

Have You



with care

upon an alter


how you


been touched

how you


being touched

how you



how you








how it is

to kneel

how it is

to rise

and carry



After listening to your podcast with Rachel Naomi Remen I began reading her essays. In one she describes taking on the practice of slowly filling a bowl of water to the rim each morning and walking it carefully to her alter. It is a small action, a small habit and for me it has become a surprising daily nourishment, koan, a charm to carry into my day. Thank You!

Great column, Parker, to not only survive, but expand our consciousness in this time of political confusion, and this year more than usual deceit.

BTW, Krista's interview this Sunday morning with Martin Sheen also did a great job of opening spiritual discussion of modern politics.

I don't know if Krista has ever interviewed; Christopher Hedges or Morris Berman, but both would be capable of bringing some spiritual light to the discussion of our political structure moving toward or away from Empire or democracy.

Thanks again, Parker


Alan MacDonald
Wells, Maine

Diversity,its consensus can never last long, its death of unity ; for unity lives,breathes diversity to stay alive.

Just -- - a BIG "THANK YOU!

Thank you Parker for this beautiful post. What great consul on how to identify and call hateful and untrue speech for what it is, as well as how to move forward with purpose and agency. Thank you for speaking so clearly and eloquently.
Love will always have the final word.

The election of 2012 proved that united citizens can, and hopefully always will, be more powerful than the dollars of Citizens United.

Thank you. Beautifully stated and important to remember.

If we don’t hang in with each other long enough to sort [our differences] out we will never get anywhere near the best solutions.

Interesting observations. Good to share and think about.