I’ve been very worried about the state of American democracy recently. I see the general quality of the candidates for President and wonder if this is the best we can do. I hear the tone and content of their public speaking, and marvel at how dumbed-down and personal it has become.
But last night, I had a reminder that American democracy doesn’t just take place every four years in a circus side-show; it takes place every day at the state and local level as well, help and I’m happy to say that my experience with it last night makes me feel a bit better about the state of American politics, and the general intelligence and public speaking skill of the average citizen when they talk about things that directly affect their daily lives.
I attended a Fort Lauderdale City Commission meeting specifically to speak against a development proposal that was up for a vote. The meeting room was packed with roughly 200 people, with an overflow crowd accommodated on another floor. Anyone who wanted to speak could register their name and be put into a queue.
And what a queue it was. No exact figures were released, but certainly well above 100 people signed up to speak. Those of us speaking were granted 3 minutes each. My wife got called past midnight, and I finally got my turn past 1am. (In true lean fashion, I only used 2 of my allotted 3 minutes.)
We finally left after almost 8 hours in the meeting, and it still was not over and the room was still substantially filled with people either waiting their turn or listening to the speakers. I can’t believe I spent almost a full work-day equivalent, but it was not a chore at all. I was fascinated by the entire process and came away with a few observations about the state of public speaking and democracy in America:
Although passions ran high—especially among the anti-project side—for the most part every speaker avoided ad hominem attacks or a strident tone. They were able to argue for their own side with both cogency and conviction without explicitly tearing down the other side. The incivility and incoherence at the national level has thankfully not yet trickled down to the local level.
I got the impression that “expert” speakers get paid by the word.
I was pleasantly surprised by the general quality of the ordinary citizen’s public speaking skills. The area of the city under discussion is generally affluent and well-educated, so this may have been a factor, but in general I rated them higher than some of the business audiences I face regularly.
I know a lot of the speakers had stage fright, but it was astounding to see how many confronted their own fear and went ahead anyway.
Although I’m not generally a fan of reading speeches, it’s a good idea if you’re not experienced. Those who read their own prepared remarks had clear messages while still being able to convey their authentic feelings.
One concern I had was how few young people attended. I don’t know if it’s because the topic is not one they care too much about, or a more general lack of interest in the political process.
The most impressive thing to me about last night’s meeting was the fact that so many people signed up to speak. It shows that people in America still believe their voice counts. At least at the retail level of politics, they can speak directly to their elected representatives and sway their opinions. In fact, in the end we did sway their opinions: they did not approve the developer’s plans. It’s an exhilarating feeling to participate and to make a difference, which is why I love public speaking so passionately.
If we can get that spirit to trickle up to the national level, the state of American democracy will be just fine.