Good politics outside the Beltway?

Story highlights

  • Americans like to complain about the political gridlock in Congress where nothing much gets done
  • Christopher Karpowitz and Chad Raphael: Public forums can be used to successfully tackle big issues

Christopher F. Karpowitz is co-director of the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy and associate professor of political science at Brigham Young University. Chad Raphael is professor of communications at Santa Clara University. They are authors of "Deliberation, Democracy, and Civic Forums" (Cambridge University Press). The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the authors.

(CNN)Americans like to complain about the endless political gridlock in our capital. But if we're honest we need to look in the mirror too. Many of us abandoned the field by not voting in last year's midterm elections. Those of us who did vote elected more fire breathers than bridge builders to Congress.

What's more, when we're invited to tell our representatives what we want, we can be as demagogic as they are. Remember the Town Hall meetings in the summer of 2009, which erupted in shouting matches between citizens and legislators over health care? Who can forget the Massachusetts woman holding a picture of President Obama defaced to look like Hitler, who demanded to know why former Rep. Barney Frank supported the "Nazi policy" of extending health care to all? His frank response: "Ma'am, trying to have a conversation with you would be like trying to argue with a dining room table. I have no interest in doing it."
Rather than blame our leaders for the dysfunction, we need to change the game. We can turn to public forums to tackle big issues of the day.
    Consider two efforts to move beyond the contentious debate about climate change.
    In Washington, the Senate made a splash by voting for the first time to acknowledge that global warming is really happening. Unfortunately, senators couldn't agree on whether humans are changing the climate and what to do about it. Stalemate.
    Outside of the Beltway, in Southeast Florida, it's been five years since the region adopted a comprehensive climate action plan with 110 steps aimed at mitigating its dangers and reducing the region's carbon emissions. As research by