The politics of listening


The US House of Representatives was not successful in passing a bill to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act. This is being portrayed as a failure of policy and leadership, with blame leaving virtually no person, party, or organization in Washington unscathed. At the same time, there is a general consensus that parts of the Affordable Care Act are in need of a policy fix. For instance, insurance premiums are rising, not enough healthy and young people are signing up, and insurance companies are not finding it profitable to enter the marketplace across the board. Each of these are separate but related issues that require a set of solutions that expand and enhance access for all citizens to quality, affordable care.

There are ideological, practical, financial, and philosophical divides on these and other issues related to health care, as there are with any number of other social and economic issues now confronting political leaders. With such divisions, “debate” and argument and protest will often become emotionally charged, leading the most dispassionate among us screaming in frustration and the most passionate among us engaging in rhetoric and behavior that is frankly unbecoming of a people who claim to cherish their freedoms of speech and assembly.

Freedom is not, as Janice Joplin sings, just another word for nothing left to lose. Freedom is more than fierce individuality; freedom is real only when a person lives, acts, thinks, speaks, or believes without fear of oppression, censorship, or emotional, social, financial or physical retribution for a livelihood, behavior, thought, message, or belief that is somehow different than that of any other person or any group of other people.

What are missing from the arguments around health care are two things: freedom (citizens do not feel as though they can speak openly) and politics.

Yes, politics is missing from the argument. To be sure, I do not mean party politics; there is certainly enough of that occurring to make us want to curl up with George Washington’s Farewell Address by a soft fire and think about “happier times” when at least one man dreamed of a country without factions.

Politics and political participation are often measured and discussed in terms of voice and action. How many of us are voting? How many attending community or local council meetings? How large was the protest? Who is still writing letters to the editor of a newspaper, or expressing their view of politics on social media or other website?

Passivity is considered a civic and political ill. As former US Senator and Florida Governor Bob Graham writes in America, the Owner’s Manual, civics is not a spectator sport.

However, a certain amount of inaction is necessary in a politics designed to produce responsive policies. Inaction that consists of listening and striving to understand can be the most meaningful form of political participation in a society, and it is a form that is now ill practiced.

The decision to stop, sit, and listen can be the most courageous political act a person can take. Our 24/7 media, always connected social media and networks, and politics of promises and bluster, push us all to speak first, speak over someone second, speak third, and maybe, if we are still engaged, listen fourth.

On Monday, April 3, 2017, the College of Health and Public Affairs, with support from the School of Public Administration and Center for Public and Nonprofit Management, is convening a Community Conversation on Health Care. This is the second such conversation, the first having occurred on December 22, 2008 following a call from the Obama transition team to citizens around the country.

In 2008, with 70+ people crammed into a room fit for 30, we demonstrated that civil discussion is possible, that individuals from different backgrounds and with different values, can sit in a single space without once raising a voice in anger or disgust, or raising a fist in intimidation, or raising a photo of any political leader defaced to look like Hitler.

In these times, when we have social fragmentation more manifest than any we have seen in recent and perhaps long-term memory, we aim to demonstrate the potential of politics once again to be a unifying force, discussion to be a means to understanding the complexity of our individual and collective lives, and listening to be the tool most underused in a society that is known through its history to be civil but often in word only and not always in deed.

This is a political event; it is not an event with a policy agenda, partisan agenda, or to produce an advocacy outcome beyond process. This is about the politics of listening.

RSVP to attend through email to, or write to the same for more information.


Published by Prof. dr. Thomas Bryer

Dr. Thomas Bryer is professor in the School of Public Administration at the University of Central Florida, Fulbright Scholar and Specialist, Professor at Kaunas University of Technology (Lithuania) and Visiting Professor Edge Hill University (United Kingdom).

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