Saving Democracy

Saving Democracy panelists

On June 29, 2018, we held "Saving Democracy," a bipartisan panel discussion on the state of our democracy — and in particular what each of us can do to protect its future. Below are some resources to help keep the discussion going.

Videos and Podcasts

Video of this year's event is coming soon, and the audio will be featured on the Dastardly Cleverness in the Service of Good podcast. Meanwhile here's last year's video and here's last year's first podcast episode.

If you'd like to sign up to hear when new material is available, send an email to

What You Can Do — The Short Version

1. Be informed and vote — in every election.

2. Better still, between elections show up for a public meeting now and then.

3. Talk with friends and family about politics — calmly, and listening openly. Social groups are one of the most powerful influences on how people vote.

More on What You Can Do

How to be an informed voter in a few minutes a day

Look at at least one major, nonpartisan, non-tabloid national newspaper. There aren’t many left, and you won’t go wrong with the New York Times or the Washington Post. And no they are not fake news.

Also read your local newspaper — and support it if you can. Most of the decisions that affect our lives are made locally, and we need local newspapers to pay attention for us.

Why newspapers? Because the experience of reading a carefully reported, well-reasoned newspaper article is very different from watching a short TV story or skimming a social media feed. It engages your rational mind, which is a safeguard against having your emotions exploited.

If you’re too rushed to read complete articles (and have already considered making adjustments in your life!) try daily news digest emails or podcasts, such as Axios AM, The Skimm, or The Daily.

Go ahead and enjoy your favorite biased outlets, whether on the right or the left. But make a point of checking out at least one biased outlet from the other side — and hold both sides to standards of factual accuracy and logical sense. There's a difference between biased and dishonest.

Learn to judge the quality of news sources — especially the ones you’re inclined to agree with. Here’s a guide: 7 Tips for Telling Real News from Fake.

Know who represents you at the local, state, and national levels, and how to get in touch with them. Believe it or not, they do want to hear from you, and they do pay attention. Members of Congress often remark on how little they hear from consitutents on important issues, and what a difference it makes when they do hear.

Find out where your local political party meets. Go to a meeting. If you think they should be doing something different, you can have an influence — more than you might think.

Join a civic group that advocates for what you believe in. In the "Democracy In America," published in 1835 and 1840, Alexis de Tocqueville identified America's voluntary associations as among the strongest features of its democracy. They still are.

Consider supporting national organizations working to save democracy, like the nonpartisan Protect Democracy, which has a Roadmap for Renewal of democracy.

Peaceful demonstrations can make a difference, especially if they're focused, well-organized, and part of a larger effort. Beware of being attracted to the excitement of rallies and ignoring other, less glamorous, but often more important work that needs to get done.

The same goes for social media. It's a good way to talk with friends and family and so have group influence (#3 under "The Short Version," above"). But watch out for "slacktivism" — letting likes, shares, or other fleeting gestures substitute for doing something more substantial, like volunteering or donating.

If you weren't in Debate Club in school, you may need some tips on how to have a useful argument — not a fight, but a rational, productive argument, the kind that's essential to a healthy democracy. Here's a list of very common but bad ways of arguing. You can learn positive techniques from books like this one.

A Reading List

If you feel like you need a primer (and you certainly wouldn't be alone), a great place to start is:

  • The Everything American Government Book, by Nick Ragone

If you're on the verge of despair and looking for some reason to hope:

  • The Soul of America, John Meacham

There are so many other books that can help in understanding where we are, how we got here, and where we may be going. Here are just a few that have made a particularly strong impression on us:

  • Alexander Hamilton, Ron Chernow
  • All the Truth Is Out, Matt Bai
  • American Creation, Joseph J. Ellis
  • Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neal Postman and Brave New World, Aldous Huxley
  • The Birth of the Modern Mind: The Intellectual History of the 17th and 18th Centuries, The Great Courses
  • The Death of Expertise, Tom Nichols
  • Democracy Despite Itself: Why a System That Shouldn’t Work at All Works So Well, Danny Oppenheimer and Mike Edwards
  • How Democracies Die, Steven Livitsky and Daniel Ziblatt
  • The Irony of American History, Reinhold Niebuhr
  • It’s Even Worse Than It Looks/Was, Thomas Mann and Norm Eisen
  • Nixonland, Rick Perlstein
  • On Tyranny, Timothy Snyder
  • The President's Club, Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy
  • Propaganda, Edward Bernays
  • The Retreat of Western Liberalism, Edward Luce
  • The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt

These two aren't about democracy or society, but they help very much in understanding how we think and make decisions (good ones and bad ones):

  • Thinking In Systems, Donella H. Meadows
  • Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman

By Our Panelists

Do You Have Comments or Ideas?

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About "Saving Democracy"

On May 17, 2017, our event "Is There Hope for Democracy?" filled the Irvine Auditorium in Monterey. A year later, with divisions in our country deepening, the discussion was ever more urgent. "Saving Democracy" brought together leading Democrats and Republicans to talk — with each other and with you — about where we go from here.

It happened June 29, 2018 in the auditorium of Twin Lakes Church in Aptos, from 7-9 p.m.

The event was recorded for TV and for the Dastardly Cleverness in the Service of Good podcast.

Taking Part:

Congressman Sam Farr served California’s Central Coast in the United States House of Representatives from 1993-2016. He was a leader in environmental and agricultural policy and played a leadership role in the creation of California State University, Monterey Bay. He served on committees that addressed veterans affairs, agriculture, appropriations, rural development and more. He previously served in the California State Assembly.

Debbie Mesloh was President Obama's Deputy Assistant U.S. Trade Representative for Public Affairs. She was the transition co-chair for Senator Kamala Harris, and held senior communications positions in the 2008 and 2012 Obama for America campaigns. Debbie is the President of the San Francisco Commission on the Status of Women, Co-Chair of the 2018 Bay Area Women’s Summit, a founding member of the Emerge America program for women candidates, and the former President of the San Francisco Women’s Political Committee.

Dan Schnur is a professor at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Communications and the University of California – Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies. He worked on four presidential and three gubernatorial campaigns as one of California’s leading Republican political strategists and is now a No Party Preference voter. He’s written for major newspapers and been a commentator for CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, and National Public Radio.

Kristin Olsen, the former California Assembly Republican Leader and Vice Chair of the California Republican Party, was elected to the Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors in June 2016. She began her term in January 2017, after representing Stanislaus and San Joaquin Counties in the Assembly since 2010. In 2016 she founded consulting firm Red Suit, LLC, a consulting firm where she helps others effectively work within the government sphere and political landscape.

Zach Friend is a public policy and communications expert who has worked for Barack Obama and John Kerry’s presidential campaigns, the White House Council of Economic Advisers, U.S. Senate, U.S. House of Representatives and the Democratic National Committee (DNC). He currently serves on the Board of Supervisors in Santa Cruz County, California. Zach is also a media commentator, and the author of the book “On Message.”

Spencer Critchley is an award-winning writer, producer, and communications consultant with experience in broadcasting, film, digital media, public relations, advertising, and music. He's the Managing Partner of Boots Road Group. Spencer has done work for both of Barack Obama's presidential campaigns, Congressman Farr, the Canadian Broadcasting Corp, NPR, the Emmy-winning film "Blink," the U.S. Dept. of Labor, and many others.

Members of the audience were invited to contribute their questions.

Tiny American flag in crowd at political rally