Book Review: Healing the Heart of Democracy

February 7, 2017


The heart of diversity and inclusion is accepting and recognizing the value of differences. It’s a challenging philosophy to live by. Studies have found that civic engagement declines as diversity increases. It is simply easier to associate with and get along with people who are like us. But research has also found that diversity can increase creativity, innovation, adaptability, and productivity.


Healing the Heart of Democracy, by Parker J. Palmer, applies that philosophy to political discourse, which today is driven more and more by fear and distrust of ‘the other.’ 


A 2014 Stanford University study asked more than 1,000 people to evaluate scholarship candidates. Some applications contained racial cues, while others contained clues to political affiliation. The strongest predictor of who was chosen was not race (not by a long shot), but political affiliation. Democrats chose the in-party candidate 80% of the time, and Republicans selected the in-party candidate 69% of the time, with academic credentials making little to no difference. 


Shanto Iyengar, the author of the study, wrote, “Americans increasingly dislike people and groups on the other side of the political divide and face no social repercussions for the open expression of these attitudes.” 


While the majority of Americans make a good faith effort to accept and appreciate differences in race, culture, ability, and other facets of the human experience, differences in political ideology have come to be viewed as failures of morality, reflecting pure self-interest, malice, greed, racism, hard-heartedness, or lack of patriotism. 


In this worldview, compromise becomes immoral, giving in to evil. For the past 8 years, the Republican Congress was accused of being obstructionist. Now that power has shifted, the tables have turned. A January 26 headline in announced, “Democrats launch scorched-earth strategy against Trump.” The article read, “Democrats have opted for a hard-line, give-no-quarter posture, a reflection of a seething party base that will have it no other way.”


Healing the Heart of Democracy is a passionate call to our nation to embrace the tension of ideological differences. Parker writes: “Only in a totalitarian society is conflict ‘banished.’ … In a healthy democracy, public conflict is not only inevitable but prized.” 


Political diversity is extremely difficult, but it is also extremely important—important for finding creative solutions to complex problems, important for meeting the diverse needs of a diverse society, important for honoring conflicting values.


Parker writes eloquently and movingly about developing habits of the heart that allow us to engage with those we disagree with. He writes about the importance of having both chutzpah—the recognition that I have a voice that needs to be heard and the right to speak it—and humility—the recognition that “my truth is always partial and may not be true at all—so I need to listen with openness and respect, especially to ‘the other.’”


He quotes clergyman and peace activist William Sloane Coffin: “There are three kinds of patriots, two bad, one good. The bad are the uncritical lovers and the loveless critics. Good patriots carry on a lover’s quarrel with their country.”


Healing the Heart of Democracy was published in 2011, but it has never been more relevant than today. If you’re looking for a book that will both encourage and challenge you, read this one!

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