Any city could emulate Sweden’s transpartisan festival…

In Sweden there’s a week-long annual political festival called Almadalen Week involving vibrant, respectful conversations of a kind that some Americans are calling “transpartisan”.  What is remarkable about this little-known event is that any city anywhere could claim such a festival as part of their civic identity and thereby attract thousands of political tourists to their local economy – making quite a name for themselves in the process.  This is an initiative that could go a long way towards transforming polarized political cultures.

In my morning email yesterday I received the following from democracy activist and catalyst John Steiner about his and some colleagues’ intention to bring together the whole field of transpartisan activity:

“We’re looking at a big tent which includes transpartisans, non-partisans, bi-partisans, post-partisans, civic engagers, left-right alliancers, collective intelligencers/we the people of many kinds, problem solvers, leaders of the whole, etc., etc., and part of our work is to demonstrate that the whole is bigger than the sum of its parts and there is power in the shared intent of strengthening/transforming democracy…. The reason I particularly like the word transpartisan (which I have now let go of as THE word [that describes all these things]!) is because one can be a transpartisan Democrat, a transpartisan Republican, a transpartisan Green, a transpartisan Libertarian, a transpartisan Independent, a transpartisan Transpartisan, as long as one wants to be at the table — local, regional, national, virtual — with respect, civility and empathy to work on behalf of the ‘common good’.”

Synchronistically, in the same batch of emails I received a link from activist Mark Robinowitz who focuses on peak energy and the national security state, among other things. He pointed me to a recent DemocracyNow! interview with former US Congressman Dennis Kucinich at Sweden’s 8-day “Almadalen Week”. Almadalen Week – which I’d never heard of before – is a massive political discussion event that has happened in the same town every year for the last 40 years. It seems best described as “a national transpartisan festival” because it embodies the kind of inclusivity and dynamism epitomized in Steiner’s description above, as well as being fun and very big. The 2013 celebration included 2285 official events organized by approximately 1300 organizers and attended by an estimated 20,000 persons – not including the audiences at speeches by the eight main political parties participating. The 2014 celebration had 3308 events listed in its catalog.

Kucinich notes its visionary power like this: “Can you imagine where people of every political persuasion come together in an open space, freely discussing and debating in a sense of joy, like a festival? And the thinking is very deep. And it’s consequential. I believe that what’s happening here has the potential to catch on all around the world, in terms of improving the level of political dialogue and enabling people to try to find a way to reach common ground.” This is so similar to the transpartisan vision of diverse partisans and nonpartisans “coming to the table… with respect, civility and empathy to work on behalf of the ‘common good’.”

Much to my surprise, Kucinich and DemocracyNow! interviewer Amy Goodman responded to this event mostly by suggesting that the US needs the kind of proportional representation that exists in most parliamentary systems. While I support that idea, I can’t help noticing that Almadalen Week is itself a truly remarkable political innovation that has, as Kucinich notes, “the potential to catch on all around the world.” It is one town’s big annual tourist event, shaped but not controlled by Sweden’s political parties.

Now, political parties exist in abundance in the US, even if American politics are dominated by the two mainstream parties.  Americans wouldn’t have to wait for proportional representation before holding a Almadalen-like festival. In Sweden this is not something organized by the national government or considered to be an official part of their democratic infrastructure, so it could be organized by anyone.

So many cities search for big-idea identities to inspire community pride and attract tourists and businesses. It seems to me that any city in any country could decide that it was going to organize an annual transpartisan dialogue celebration as its civic identity and attract thousands of people, producing tremendous benefits for its local economy and its national and global reputation.

Democracy activists and proponents of transpartisanship who would like to see more cross-party conversations and problem-solving activities could search for a city where this idea could catch fire and help them get it rolling. In other words, an Almadalen-like political celebration could happen anywhere as a bottom-up initiative. (I suspect it would be even more powerful if it utilized processes like Open Space, World Cafe, Dynamic Facilitation, and Appreciative Inquiry to support breakthroughs during the week….)

Finally, in his note to me, Robinowitz identified the link as “a citizens event in Sweden that seems similar to what you’re advocating for.” In a broad sense, this is true. But in a more rigorous and important sense, it is not. I believe cross-partisan dialogue is extremely healthy for any political culture. BUT/AND such dialogue seldom generates a coherent, powerful “voice of the whole”.

In this regard, there are two significant differences between Almadalen-style events and the citizen deliberative councils that I advocate:
(1) Anyone can participate in Almadalen’s event, meaning that the individuals involved are a self-selected group who don’t actually represent or embody the larger society from which they come.
(2) In Almadalen there is no effort to help the diverse participants come to shared, coherent understandings and agreements about how their society should handle the issues they collectively face or to generate a shared vision for their whole country.

In a citizen deliberative council, the members are almost always chosen by random selection to embody a legitimate cross-section of their community’s or country’s demographic diversity. And then that diverse group is challenged and supported to come up with solutions that most or all of them support.

This doesn’t make citizen deliberative councils more important than transpartisan festivals – or proportional representation, for that matter. In fact, there are powerful potential synergies between all these innovations. In the end, I believe many such changes are needed to make democracy vital, wise, and wholesome. I think issue activists of all kinds would be wise to put some energy into changing their democratic cultures and political systems. All their issues and proposals would be much better handled if they did.


PS: References for Almedalen Week:

Wikipedia on Almedalen Week
Almedalen Week FAQ
What an Almedalen Week looks like
Almedalen Week Spirit and 40th Anniversary

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Excerpt edited from Dennis Kucinich’s DemocracyNow! interview

Former U.S. congressmember and presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich speaks to Democracy Now! while in Sweden to observe the political festival Almedalen Week, which brings together people from all points on the political spectrum. Kucinich says the United States needs a similarly inclusive political process. “You come here and you see so many different political persuasions represented, and our politics back at home are monochromatic,” Kucinich says. “We need to awaken those sentiments in America and one way to do it is proportional representation.”… Kucinich served in the in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1997 to 2013, and ran for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008 and 2012.


(This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.)

AMY GOODMAN: And we end today’s show with a very familiar voice in U.S. politics, here at the University of Uppsala in Visby, Sweden.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. We’re broadcasting from Visby, Sweden, from the largest Swedish island of Gotland, where Almedalen is taking place. That is this mass gathering of tens of thousands of people of every party debating the issues of the day, sort of like a political convention in the United States except all of them together and more.

So, we’re joined by Dennis Kucinich. That might surprise some of the people who are listening and watching right now, the former congressmember who lives in Washington right now. What are you doing in Almedalen?

DENNIS KUCINICH: Well, I found out about this amazing event here, and I had to see it for myself. Can you imagine where people of every political persuasion come together in an open space, freely discussing and debating in a sense of joy, like a festival? And the thinking is very deep. And it’s consequential. I believe that what’s happening here has the potential to catch on all around the world, in terms of improving the level of political dialogue and enabling people to try to find a way to reach common ground.

AMY GOODMAN: Joy in politics, you said?

DENNIS KUCINICH: Yeah, absolutely. There should be. I mean, the fact that we don’t have that is a testimony to our disconnecting ourselves from our own hearts, what it is we desire. You know, life should not be a funeral march to the grave. We should have the capacity for being able to lift up not just public dialogue, but lift up each other in a greater cause of nationhood. And so, when you see the kind of internecine conflict that happens in the United States—the partisan divide, the dichotomous thinking, the separation from each other—there is a different thing happening here in Sweden at Almedalen, which is a sense of a common bond as citizens with a common purpose for the nation. And people come together here. And the thing that impresses me is how quickly on the street you can get into the deepest discussions that have consequence. And so, that’s why—you know, having been here only for two days, I’ve had a chance to meet people from every level of society, decision makers as well as citizens, and there’s a sense that things matter in these kind of discussions, which are direct, relatively low-key, nonconfrontational, matter-of-fact. And behind it is—what animates it is a sense of commitment to each other and to the nation.

AMY GOODMAN: Proportional representation is really the name of the game in Sweden, right? Anyone who gets—I think it’s 4 percent of the vote, can be represented in Parliament. Can you comment on this? It’s a growing movement in the United States.

DENNIS KUCINICH: Well, it should happen. So, it’s really, you know, a step towards democratization, so that points of view that are held in the general populace are not squelched because they don’t reach some numerical significance that we call a majority. You know, majority politics are all very interesting, but what’s happening in the United States, with an increasing—increasingly blurring the differences between the two parties, there’s a hunger for alternatives, and there’s a hunger for those alternatives to find a means of inclusion into the process. So, certainly, you know, that’s one way to do it. And we need to broaden our discussion in America. When you come here and you see so many different political persuasions represented, and our politics back home are monochromatic—I mean, increasingly. It’s grey, and you can’t really tell the difference. Here, you can. But at the same time, there’s a common commitment to the nation. We need to awaken those sentiments in America. And one way to do it is proportional representation.

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