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Clark: Rules For Political Omnivores

03/01/10 7:55AM By Susan Clark
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(HOST)  Michael Pollan's books "The Omnivore's Dilemma," and "Food Rules," offer Americans a simple guide for choosing healthy foods. Commentator Susan Clark would like to see a similar set of rules for the average citizen making political decisions.

(CLARK) We omnivores have to make decisions continually about what to eat.

The Omnivore's Dilemma is kind of like Democracy's Dilemma. Governing ourselves involves too many options - and some of them, in fact, are poison.

As Michael Pollan explains, modern life has only made "eating right" more complicated. A government-subsidized agricultural-industrial machine spends millions to sell us processed foods. The chips, sodas and meals-in-a-bag are so far from their original ingredients that Pollan doesn't call them "foods," but "edible foodlike substances." They appeal to our innate passion for fat, sugar, and salt - but add to obesity, diabetes, and other food-related illness.

Happily, after years of research, Pollan has boiled "eating right" down to three catchy rules:     

Eat food.
Mostly plants.
Not too much.

How about a similar set of rules for how to participate in public life?

Our first rule would echo Pollan's first rule to eat real food, not over-processed foodlike substances. The political equivalent? Talk about real issues! Be suspicious of oversimplified political narratives appealing to our basest instincts. Spin doctors are as good as food engineers at creating things that we'll like - but that don't necessarily provide healthy answers.

Rule Two? Know Your Ingredients. New studies on cultural cognition suggest that many Americans, overwhelmed by political issues, look for short-cuts. We seek leaders who seem to "speak our language" and symbolize our values. But we may not take enough time to analyze whether or not their policies take us where we want to go. Politically and gastronomically, it pays to read the label - including the fine print.

Rule Three: Be a Democracy Omnivore. Being open to all sides of an issue means we can create policies that reflect the best of each. Sticking with one TV channel for all of your news is the equivalent of eating from only one food group. Different points of view add healthy roughage to your political diet - try a little of everything.

Rule Four: Start Local. Pollan urges us to understand where our food comes from. Get to know the producers. Grow it yourself when you can. Cooking it yourself makes the connection even richer.

The democratic parallel is clear. For too many Americans, our "public life" - if we even have one - is reduced to writing a check to an organization we hope will "do our democracy for us": others will sort out the issues, be our voice in the legislature, and even help our neighbors in need.

The "slow food" movement urges us to appreciate the sources, natural strength, and beauty of our sustenance. How about some "slow democracy"? Find venues where your work will be connected with real change. Engage in the ingenuity, complexity, and vibrancy of community deliberation. Chew the fat.

On Town Meeting Day, be a political omnivore. And remember:

Discuss real issues.
With different people.
Listen more than you talk.

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