Public meetings devolve into shouting sessions. Talk shows - liberal and conservative - sound like schoolyard, name-calling brawls among bullies.

Sound-bite-ready quips tumble off politicians' lips.

Stop. It's time for civil, constructive discussion. Our democracy depends on it.

Community and national leaders are in a quagmire of issues that have an impact on everyday lives. The gridlock caused by petty arguments escalated by cutting, biting remarks only compounds the predicament.

Robust, rigorous, substantive conversation is essential to "government of the people, by the people, for the people."

"Democracy is a conversation," said Carolyn J. Lukensmeyer, executive director of the nonpartisan National Institute for Civil Discourse at the University of Arizona, at the Tucson Festival of Books.

"The quality of that conversation matters," she said. Rather than tossing up our hands and viewing the situation as a frustrating Sisyphean effort, we agree with Lukensmeyer that "this is a moment we should grasp."

A great nation cannot flourish under provisional government, Lukensmeyer reminded the festival audience.

Thus, government cannot continue to kick down the road decisions on major issues, some of which require systemic changes, and expect our nation to remain strong and powerful. Continued inaction will result in losing its position in the world.

Lukensmeyer is optimistic on the nation's future for many reasons, including:

• The nation's tradition of perseverance.

• Young people, new leaders with new ideas and energy.

• And the structure of government the Founding Fathers created. That excludes two-party dominance - which is not part of government. George Washington in 1796 warned of the ill-effects of political parties.

At the national level, Lukensmeyer said the shift in power from the congressional committees to the few in leadership positions has diminished effectiveness. She announced that the institute, which has an office in Washington, D.C., will be working with some congressional committees to help them become more effective and to shift the conversation.

At the local and individual level, Lukensmeyer encourages creating opportunities to hear one another.

She's the author of "Bringing Citizen Voices to the Table: A Guide for Public Managers," which includes case studies and strategies for citizen engagement. It is based on her experience as founder and former president of AmericaSpeaks, a nonpartisan, nonprofit group aimed at strengthening citizen voices in decision making.

Among her suggestions to creating open, honest conversation:

• Begin with accurate facts and information, and be willing to change your views if perceptions are inaccurate or based on out-of-date information.

• Create an environment conducive to discussion.

"People are social beings," she said. They will respond to the structures and signals on how to behave.

• Tell elected leaders how you feel about their behavior. Skip the hurtful personal attacks or character assassinations, but share your feelings on vitriolic rhetoric and the spread of inaccurate or misleading information.

Letters - handwritten or personally typed letters - have an impact. In this day of email mailing lists and mass distribution it can be difficult to discern viewpoints at the grass-roots level, but a person's letter carries weight. (Find addresses at or

Through civil discourse, we the people can create the nation we want. As the adage goes: "If it is to be, it is up to me."

Arizona Daily Star