Skip to Content

Healing the Heart of Democracy | Introduction

from the Paperback of Healing the Heart of Democracy

by Parker J. Palmer (2014)


See the new Discussion Guide and VideosBuy the book at your favorite bookseller
Barnes & Noble
Books a Million
& audio at

Use the new Discussion Guide & Videos in your community.

[Our] basic problem is not political, it is apolitical and human. One of the most important things to do is to keep cutting deliberately through political lines and barriers and emphasizing the fact that these are largely fabrications and that there is another dimension, a genuine reality, totally opposed to the fictions of politics: the human dimension which politics pretend to arrogate entirely to themselves. This is the necessary first step along the long way toward the perhaps impossible task of purifying, humanizing and somehow illuminating politics themselves.

—Thomas Merton1

“Healing the Heart of Democracy”* was first published as a hardbound book in September 2011. Writing this introduction to the 2014 paperback edition allows me to share a few things I’ve learned over the past three years as I’ve been drawn deeper into American politics. It also gives me a chance to tell some stories about people I’ve met whose commitment to “a politics worthy of the human spirit” has both informed and inspired me.

As Thomas Merton says in the epigraph to this new Introduction, the task of “purifying, humanizing and somehow illuminating politics” may be impossible. But the hopeful experiences I’ve had in the wake of this book have reinforced the guidance a wise mentor gave me years ago:

“Just because something is impossible doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it!”

* A special note to readers who believe that America is not a democracy but a Republic: please see my footnote on that issue at the end of the Prelude.


Let’s Talk About Us

As I listen in on private and public conversations about the problems of American democracy, I’m struck time and again by how often our political talk is about people who aren’t in the room. We almost always talk about them—“those people” in Washington, D.C., or in our state capitols—the people we hold responsible for all our political pathologies.Rarely to do we talk about us, the people who are in the room, about our nation’s problems and how we can help solve them. I was aware of this fact when I wrote the book, which is why I included this paragraph in a list of things this book is not about:

I will say little about “them,” the people in Washington, D.C., on whom we like to blame our ills. My focus is on “We the People,” whose will is key to democracy. If we cannot come together with enough trust to discern the general will—and support leaders who are responsive to it while resisting the rest—we will forfeit the “Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”2

Given what I’ve seen and heard over the past three years, I wish I had said more about the problems that come with our obsession with “them,” so I will correct that lapse here. Talking about “those people” instead of talking with each other is a poor excuse for genuine political discourse. It is also a path to political disempowerment, a way to make sure that “We the People” will have little or no leverage on the social and economic problems that concern us, and no way to discern and give voice to the common good.

There’s a simple way to test those claims. Think about everyday experiences outside of politics—in your family, neighborhood, workplace, or the voluntary associations to which you belong. In settings of that sort, when was the last time you solved a problem by talking about people who weren’t in the room? Almost certainly, the answer is “Never.” That kind of talk is little more than venting and kvetching, a cheap excuse for honest engagement with whatever is troubling us. It may create the illusion that we have spoken up and done what we can, but it never rises to the level of responsible problem-oriented discourse.

Being grown-ups in our private and public lives means taking responsibility for whatever is within our reach. And politics is always within our reach—if we understand it first and foremost as the business of “We the People,” and only secondarily as the business of the people we elect to office. Every time we talk with family, friends, classmates, colleagues, or strangers—including those who see things differently than we do—about the state of the Union, we have a chance to assume our share of responsibility for a democracy founded on citizen convictions about the common good. In statistical terms, our individual shares are insignificant, to be sure. In moral terms, however, they are vital. History has always been made by individuals doing their small parts in ways that have the potential to add up to something big.

But these days, “We the People” have a great deal of trouble talking across our lines of difference about the common good—so much trouble that many of us doubt the very concept of a “common good.” Deformed by a divisive political culture, we’re less inclined to differ with each other honestly than to demonize each other mercilessly. That’s why it’s so seductive to gather with folks who share our view of what’s wrong and do little more than complain about all those “wrongdoers” who aren’t in the room.

If we want to “create a politics worthy of the human spirit,” we must find ways to bridge our differences, whether they are defined by age, gender, class, race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, or political ideology. Then we must seek patches of common ground on the issues we care most about. This is more than a feel-good exercise. If we cannot reach a rough consensus on what most of us want, we have no way to hold our elected officials accountable to the will of the people.

Every time we fail to bridge our differences, we succumb to the divide-and-conquer tactics so skillfully deployed by individuals and institutions whose objective is to take us out of the political equation. Question: Why are billions of dollars spent annually on cable TV performances of political “infotainment” that are all heat and no light? On disseminating disinformation and agitprop online? On PACs that can produce and purchase air time for fact-free attack ads that offer no solutions? Answer: To make “We the People” so fearful and suspicious of each other that we will become even more divided and politically impotent.

Too many Americans have fallen for this systematic campaign of disempowerment. Without any evidence other than the screed they see on a TV screen or computer monitor, they’ve embraced the premise that holding the tension of our differences in a creative way—a way that opens our minds and hearts to each other, and to a rough consensus on the common good—is impossible or even undesirable. But they are wrong about that, and the proof is close at hand.

We engage in creative tension-holding every day in every dimension of our lives, seeking and finding patches of common ground. We do it with our partners, our children, and our friends as we work to keep our relationships healthy and whole. We do it in the workplace—in nonprofits and business and industry—as we come together to solve practical problems. We’ve been doing it for ages in every academic field from the humanities to the sciences. If that were not so, knowledge would never have advanced, and scientists would still believe that earth, air, fire, and water are the elements of which everything is made!

Human beings have a well-demonstrated capacity to hold the tension of differences in ways that lead to creative outcomes and advances. It is not an impossible dream to believe we can apply that capacity to politics. In fact, our capacity for creative tension-holding is what made the American experiment possible in the first place. As I argue in this book, America’s founders—despite the bigotry that limited their conception of who “We the People” were—had the genius to establish the first form of government in which differences, conflict, and tension were understood not as the enemies of a good social order but as the engines of a better social order.


Big Money and Little La Veta

As “We the People” retreat from the public square and resort to private gripe sessions with those who think like us, we create a vacuum at the center of America’s public life. Politics abhors a vacuum as much as nature does, so nondemocratic powers rush in to fill the void—especially the power called “big money.”

Of course, big money has been a threat to democracy for a long time. But the threat has grown more menacing in recent years, and its consequences have become more visible as the middle class has shrunk while wealth and income inequalities have expanded. So more and more Americans have become acutely aware of the power of big money.

Awareness is a good thing, but it can be a two-edged sword. On the one hand, we need to know what a loud voice big money has in political decision making, especially in the wake of Citizens United. That, of course, is the name of the 2010 Supreme Court decision that lifted certain legal limitations on corporate political advocacy, on the grounds that corporations have the same Constitutional right to free speech as individual citizens.3 Apparently it made no difference to the majority of justices that corporations, unlike individuals, can finance massive amplifications of their messages to make their voices heard.

We cannot be good citizens without knowing about all this, but for some people that knowledge inhibits rather than promotes active citizenship. When the Supreme Court gave big money even more power, it made many Americans feel even more strongly that their small voices do not count. “There’s no way for ordinary people to beat big money,” they say, “so why not just throw in the towel?” Wrongly held, our knowledge of the power wielded by big money can accelerate our retreat from politics, discouraging us from being the participants that democracy demands and reducing us to mere spectators of a political game being played exclusively by “them.”

But those who want to throw in the towel may be textbook examples of how a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. In the 2011 edition of this book, I quoted Bill Moyers: “The antidote, the only antidote, to the power of organized money is the power of organized people.”4 Today, in 2014, I can point to a real-world manifestation of Moyers’s words. Via legislation or referendum, sixteen states have now called for a Constitutional Amendment to nullify the impact of Citizens United, and at least fifteen more states have such calls in the pipeline. That’s happened only because people from left, center, and right on the political spectrum have learned how to hold their differences creatively, find common ground, and make common cause on an issue that effects the common good as they all understand it.

As I travel the country talking about “healing the heart of democracy,” I ask audiences how many are aware of this grassroots movement to amend the Constitution.5 At best, a few hands go up, and often none do. The media—including those that are not wholly owned by the left or the right—have done a poor job of covering this important emerging story. So “We the People” need to tell the story to each other. As Pete Seeger said, “The key to the future of the world is finding the optimistic stories and letting them be known.”6

Here’s a story that Seeger would have loved. In November 2011, two months after this book came out, I saw a column titled “One Man Makes Occupy Stand” by reporter Anthony Mestas in a Colorado newspaper called The Pueblo Chieftain.7 That’s how I learned what was happening in La Veta, Colorado, a town of about 800 people:

As thousands of protesters continue in nationwide Occupy Wall Street demonstrations, one man is leading his own show of solidarity in the shadows of the picturesque Spanish Peaks.

Roderick “Rod” House, 71, of La Veta on Friday pitched a tent on a patch of green next to the town’s library and said he plans to camp out until Thursday at noon in an effort to encourage conversation.

“We need to have a conversation about the problems our country is in. I am not here to tell you what to do. I am here to encourage us how to learn how to communicate,” House said Monday, still cold under an overcast sky with a calm wind blowing.

One line later, these words caught my attention: “[House] said that after reading Healing the Heart of Democracy by Parker J. Palmer, he was inspired to create Occupy La Veta.” House described the book to another reporter as one that is, “Passionate about democracy and speaks about the heart of the occupy protests.”8

House served as a radar technician in the U.S. Air Force for four years. “I used to be a patriot back when I was a Republican conservative and I kind of lost my patriotism and I am getting it back because this is my country and I served it when I was 19 to 23 years old,” House said, adjusting a hat bearing the inscription “question authority.” “I love my country and I want to help fix it,” he added.

“Our . . . democracy is broken. Our politics are corrupted by money and that takes away the representation of the people. That is what they are protesting, I think.” House said his goal is not to get everything to happen all at once, but to get the people in the country to talk to each other.

He has worked since he was 12 years old and has paid taxes since then. “I don’t want anything. I have everything I need. I have a happy marriage, a paid-for house, a paid-for truck, a paid-for motorcycle, everything is perfectly fine,” House said. “I am not here to say, ‘Give me.’ I am here to say, ‘Stop fraud, stealing, buying politicians’ . . . I have 10 grandchildren and I care about their future and that is why I am here.”

Of course, opinions differ on the importance and impact of the Occupy movement.9 In my mind, Occupy accomplished something remarkable, even if the movement disappears. It etched the slogan “We are the 99%” into the popular consciousness, and launched a national conversation about income and wealth inequality that goes on to this day. Through a few months of direct action, Occupy took Americans to a level of economic awareness that some economists and columnists had been trying to achieve for years, without success.

But arguing about the efficacy of the Occupy movement misses the point of the Rod House story. The point is that none of us—no matter how small the scope of our action may be, or how far off the beaten track we live—is without ways to make our voice heard and invite others to speak their voices as well. As House said of his one-man movement, “My country is broken. I can’t do anything about it. I’m an old man. I don’t have a voice, but by doing THIS . . . I do.”10

By speaking his voice, House helped a number of people in his hometown become more thoughtful not only about some critical problems in this country, but also about the critical role “We the People” play in finding solutions.

As soon as I learned about Occupy La Veta, I got in touch with Anthony Mestas, the reporter who wrote the original story. He put me in touch with Rod and his wife, Loanne Shackelford, people I am now glad to count among my friends. Their Occupy experience has led them even deeper into citizen engagement: they convened a “general assembly” at the La Veta Library, attended by thirty-six citizens of Huerfano County, and led a book study of Healing the Heart of Democracy.11 Their invitation to the book study, published as a letter to the editor in The Pueblo Chieftain, included these words:

Democracy is weakened when we only speak with those who share our views. . . . To be effective, we need the participation of folks from across the political spectrum—left, right, somewhere in the middle, and politically disengaged—and all walks of life—ranchers, teachers, business owners, the financially secure and those struggling to make ends meet, new comers and old-timers. In other words, we need you—yes, you!12

As I told Phil Haslanger, who wrote an op-ed column about this story in the Madison, Wisconsin, Capital Times, what Rod House did constitutes a review of my book that means more to me than any kind of academic praise: “He reviewed the book with his life.”13


Our Deepest Political Divide

Some people take heart when they hear the Rod House story. Stories like this encourage them to take small but meaningful citizen actions that, multiplied many times over, can help renew our democracy.

When I shared the story with a gathering of K–12 teachers suffering from the way local politicians were using them as scapegoats for problems over which teachers have no control, one of them said, “If Rod can do something like this in La Veta, Colorado, we can do it in Madison, Wisconsin. We need an open conversation about what’s really happening in public education in our state.”

But other people are unmoved. They dismiss the Rod House story as “just another feel-good anecdote.” Silently or aloud they say, “What difference does it make that a seventy-one-year-old man pitched a tent on the library grounds in a tiny town in the Colorado mountains and spent a week out there as winter settled in? That’s a lot of effort and discomfort for no visible result. He didn’t even get major media coverage.”

As I’ve traveled the country with Healing the Heart of Democracy, I’ve begun to think that for those of us who want to mobilize “We the People” across our lines of difference, the great divide is not between the left and the right. It is between people who hear stories like that of Rod House as sources of inspiration for citizen action and those who dismiss them as sentimental and politically irrelevant.

This divide reaches much deeper than the simplistic “hope vs. cynicism” frame in which it is often presented. Instead, it reflects three fundamental differences in the way people understand power—differences that must be addressed if we want to activate more “people power” in response to the current crisis in American democracy.

First, there is the divide between (a) people who believe in the power of ideas, values, commitments, and visions—aka the power of the human heart—and (b) those who believe that power comes only from possessing or having access to social status, wealth, positional leadership, and the capacity to command institutional resources. This is the divide between those who believe that power is found within us as well as outside us, and those for whom all power is external to the self.

Second, there is the divide between (a) people who believe in “the power of one” to act on the heart’s imperatives, especially when such an act calls a community of shared concern into being, and (b) those who believe that ordinary people, alone or together, are fundamentally powerless in a society dominated by mass institutions. This is a variant on the first divide, of course. But here, those who disbelieve in the power of the human heart have doubled down on their disbelief. Not only do they regard the heart as inherently powerless—they believe it remains powerless even when we follow the heart’s imperatives with personal and communal actions. To the argument that community has the capacity to multiply personal power many times over, they respond, “A thousand times zero is zero.”

Third, there is the divide between (a) those who believe in the power of small, slow, invisible, underground processes, and (b) those who believe that only processes that yield large-scale visible results in the short term qualify as powerful. The former understand the importance of political infrastructure, and have the patience to work away at strengthening it, even when their work is slow to yield measurable outcomes and never generates headlines. The latter seek quick fixes that look like solutions, whether or not they solve anything—and, if they fail to achieve them, either jump to the next quick fix or quit the field.

As I began to reject the traditional left-right notion of our great political divide in favor of a schema built on different assumptions about the nature of power, I began to see something hopeful. Redefined this way, the “great divide” does not parallel the left-right divide: it is nonpartisan. To cite but two examples, both the Occupy Movement and the Tea Party are made up of people who believe in the power of ideas and values, the power of one multiplied in community, and the power of invisible, long-term, infrastructure work. On these counts, at least, there is no fundamental difference between groups that are poles apart ideologically.

Here, it seems to me, is an important area of common ground between the left and the right that deserves exploration: a deeply shared belief in the pivotal role that “We the People” play in American democracy.

If I am right about this alternative way of seeing the “great divide” among us, it gives me more hope that left and right can come together around the conception of the common good I wrote about in the hardbound edition of this book:

Even if we could achieve respectful discourse, I doubt that we could reach widespread agreement on the details of the common good: Americans are deeply divided on issues ranging from supporting public education to financing health care to the role of government itself. We may not be able to agree on the details, but if we believe in our form of government, we must agree on an alternative definition that makes preserving democracy itself the focus of our concern. We must be able to say, in unison: It is in the common good to hold our political differences and the conflicts they create in a way that does not unravel the civic community on which democracy depends.14


People Can Change

In March 2011, shortly after I sent the final draft of this book to the publisher, I had an experience that brought to life much of what I had written about. I participated in the annual three-day Congressional Civil Rights Pilgrimage sponsored by the Faith & Politics Institute in Washington, D.C., and led by Congressman John Lewis.15 The pilgrimage began in Birmingham, Alabama, moved on to Montgomery, and ended in Selma, where we marked the forty-sixth anniversary of Bloody Sunday, a pivotal event in American political history.

On Sunday, March 7, 1965, six hundred nonviolent protesters, many of them young, gathered at the foot of Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge to begin a fifty-mile march to the Alabama State Capital in Montgomery, a protest against the ongoing exclusion of African Americans from the electoral process. When they reached the other side of the bridge, the marchers were brutalized by state and local police, mounted and on foot, with billy clubs and tear gas. This atrocity, witnessed on television by millions of Americans, scandalized the nation. It also generated enough political momentum in Congress that President Lyndon Johnson was able to sign a Voting Rights Act into law five months after the march.

The 1965 march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge was led by John Lewis, then twenty-five years old and chair of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. As leader, he was one of the first to be beaten by the police, who fractured his skull and left marks he bears to this day. It left another kind of mark on me in March 2011 to follow the seventy-one-year-old John Lewis—U.S. Representative from Georgia’s 5th Congressional District since 1987, and winner of the Presidential Medal of Freedom—across the bridge where forty-six years earlier he had led others in a courageous exercise of people power.

During the three days of the Civil Rights Pilgrimage, I was reminded time and again of themes that are key to this book: the centrality of the “habits of the heart” that we develop in the local venues of our lives; the patience it takes to stay engaged in small, often invisible ways with the American experiment in democracy; the importance of faithfully holding the tension between what is and what might be, and creating the kind of tension that might arouse “the better angels of our nature.”

The twenty-five-year-old John Lewis and his age-mates in the Civil Rights movement were the descendants of generations of people who had suffered the worst America has to offer, but had not given up on the vision of freedom, justice, and equality that represents this county at its best. Those people nurtured that vision in their children and grandchildren at home, in the neighborhood, in classrooms, and especially in churches, creating a steady multigenerational stream of “underground” activity that was largely invisible to white Americans until it rose up to claim our attention in the 1950s and 1960s.

With the exception of such places as the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and the Rosa Parks Library and Museum, every stop we made on the Congressional Civil Rights Pilgrimage was at a church—the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, and the Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church in Selma—where we heard sermons, sang songs, and felt history. Through study, practice, and prayer, civil rights activists had prepared for action in places like these. And when those actions brought the wrath of the politicians and police down upon their heads, the activists returned to these places to heal, regroup, and act again.

The few white Americans who were aware of the black church prior to the Civil Rights movement generally discounted its political relevance. As a boy growing up in an affluent white suburb of Chicago in the 1940s and 1950s, I remember being told by a white clergyperson that African American religion was all about “pie in the sky when you die by-and-by,” a phrase used by capitalists who were unconsciously and ironically parroting Marx’s notion of “religion as the opiate of the people.” “Pie-in-the-sky” was a racist, dismissive, and profoundly ignorant characterization of the role of the black churches in the United States.

In fact, these churches birthed a form of social activism that eventually transformed the lay and the law of the land. Like the tiny church I wrote about in Chapter II of this book, these churches had long been helping oppressed people develop habits of the heart that empowered them to become participants in the democratic process.*†

* In the last five sections of Chapter VI—starting with the section titled “Congregations and Habits of the Heart”—I explore what congregations can do to help create “a politics worthy of the human spirit.” For an example of how an interfaith group of congregations has put those ideas into action, see the “Season of Civility” project at Sponsored by the Wisconsin Council of Churches and the Interfaith Conference of Greater Milwaukee, this 2013 project trained more than four hundred people of faith across the state to facilitate civil discourse in their communities. Leaders of six traditions—Baha’i, Buddhist, Christian, Islamic, Jewish, and Unitarian Universalist—translated the five habits of the heart I explore in Chapter II into their own theological language, supported by texts from their traditions, creating study guides for their members. These guides are available as downloadable PDFs at the “Seasons of Civility” website. The Council is developing a new “habits of the heart” initiative for 2014 and onward. For more information see

At the end of the Pilgrimage, after we had marched across the bridge, we boarded a bus to take us to the Montgomery Airport for the flight home. By happenstance, I sat just behind John Lewis and one of his staffers where I overheard Lewis telling a story.

In 1961, he and a friend were at a bus station in Rock Hill, South Carolina, when several young white men attacked and beat them bloody with baseball bats. Lewis and his friend “did not fight back, and they declined to press charges.”16 They simply treated their wounds and went on with their Civil Rights work.

In 2009, forty-eight years after this event, a white man about John Lewis’s age walked into his office on Capitol Hill, accompanied by his middle-aged son. “Mr. Lewis,” he said, “my name is Elwin Wilson. I’m one of the men who beat you in that bus station back in 1961. I want to atone for the terrible thing I did, so I’ve come to seek your forgiveness. Will you forgive me?” Lewis said, “I forgave him, we embraced, he and his son and I wept, and then we talked.”

As Lewis came to the end of this remarkable and moving story, he leaned back in his seat on the bus. He gazed out the window for a while as we passed through a countryside that was once a killing ground for the Ku Klux Klan, of which Elwin Wilson had been a member. Then, in a very soft voice—as if speaking to himself about the story he had just told and all of the memories that must have been moving in him—Lewis said, “People can change . . . People can change . . .”

At that moment, I felt as if I had seen deep into the soul of a true “healer of the heart of democracy.” I saw the faith in our shared humanity that has kept John Lewis on the march for all these years, despite the abundant evidence that we are capable of being unloving, untruthful, and unjust. I thought of this good man again on June 25, 2013, when the Supreme Court struck down a key section of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that Lewis had helped make possible with his own blood, sweat, and tears.17

As I say in the Prelude to this book, “The democratic experiment is endless, unless we blow up the lab, and the explosives to do the job are found within us. But so also is the heart’s alchemy that can turn suffering into community, conflict into the energy of creativity, and tension into an opening toward the common good.”18

When I heard John Lewis say, “People can change . . . People can change . . . ,” I felt a sense of hope, not simply for “them” but for me.

The belief that change is possible—personal as well as social change— can keep us engaged with this endless experiment for the long haul, doing whatever we can to help democracy not only survive but thrive.


1. Thomas Merton, The Hidden Ground of Love (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1985), p. 272.

2. See Chapter I, following the heading “Diversity, Tension, and Democracy.”

3. The ruling removed “the previous ban on corporations and organizations using their treasury funds for direct advocacy. These groups were freed to expressly endorse or call to vote for or against specific candidates, actions that were previously prohibited.” For further details, see

4. See Chapter I, following the heading “Diversity, Tension, and Democracy.”

5. The national “Move to Amend” campaign is at

6. New York Times, “Pete Seeger, Champion of Folk Music and Social Change, Dies at 94,” by Jon Pareles (Jan. 28, 2014), p. A1. See

7. See

8. Huerfano Journal, “Occupy La Veta Has Begun,” by Shane Clouse (Thursday, Dec. 8, 2011). See

9. See and

10. Huerfano Journal, loc. cit.

11. Huerfano Journal, “Occupy Comes to Huerfano County,” by Susan Simons (Thursday, Feb. 9, 2012). See

12. From private correspondence with Rod House and Loanne Shackelford.

13. The Capital Times, “He Reviewed the Book with his Life,” by Phil Haslanger (Jan. 19, 2012). See

14. See Chapter II, following the heading “Citizenship and the Common Good.”

15. See

16. See

17. See

18. See Prelude, p. 9.


About the Author

Parker J. Palmer, founder and Senior Partner of the Center for Courage & Renewal, is a world-renowned writer, speaker and activist who focuses on issues in education, community, leadership, spirituality and social change. He has reached millions worldwide through his nine books, including Let Your Life Speak, The Courage to Teach, A Hidden Wholeness, and Healing the Heart of Democracy. Parker holds a Ph.D. in sociology from the University of California at Berkeley, along with eleven honorary doctorates, two Distinguished Achievement Awards from the National Educational Press Association, and an Award of Excellence from the Associated Church Press. In 2010, Palmer was given the William Rainey Harper Award whose previous recipients include Margaret Mead, Elie Wiesel, and Paolo Freire. In 2011, he was named an Utne Reader Visionary, one of “25 people who are changing your world.”