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The Common Ground of Peace and Democracy


Peacemaking, mediation, community organizing, democracy-building and the promotion of sustainability all center on a common skill:

The capacity to help people come together to pursue their interests, satisfy their needs, and realize their dreams -- both individual and collective -- within the context of the common good.

The phrase "the common good" embraces a spectrum of progressively larger goods ranging from immediate mutual benefit to the vibrant long-term healthy human and natural communities -- with activities being wiser the broader the scope of their benefits across the range of possible beneficiaries.


I've lately been talking with friends about peace and democracy. We've been finding there are more connections between these two phenomena than we ever realized. I'd like to share where I've come so far through these conversations. The ideas have to "cook" a lot more yet, I think, but some of our tentative conclusions might interest you.

It seems that the lives we most wish for, both individually and collectively, have at least these two characteristics in common:

The presence and expansion of
our capacity
to pursue our dreams
and satisfy our needs,
individually and collectively


An absence or lowering of
our desire for and attachment to
what cannot be attained
or universally sustained.

I crafted this wording to embrace some interesting details. For example, "capacity" is intended to include both the FREEDOM to do something and the ABILITY to do it. And when we explore the idea of detaching ourselves from things that "cannot be universally sustained," we find that that includes not getting attached to things that we discover to be impermanent, unsustainable or harmful. This, it turns out, covers Buddhism, sustainability, sanity, and social justice all in one breath!

Collaboration is woven invisibly into this, too. For example, our capacity to pursue our dreams and satisfy our needs increases if we work with others and in partnership with what life brings to us. And being free from fixed ideas, obsessions and old patterns and solutions can help us work with others and with the opportunities and resources life brings. So these things relate to each other in interesting ways.

As I explored how all of this would play out at a collective level, I came upon a third principle that overlaps the others:

We are best off
when we pursue our interests and happiness,
individually and together,
in the context of the common good.

The more I looked at these three principles, they more they seemed to underlie some of the most desirable phenomena in life, including

  • morality
  • peace
  • democracy
  • community
  • sustainability and
  • wisdom

There is much to explore in how all these phenomena relate to each other in light of these principles. Here I want to explore how this perspective provides intriguing insights into peace and democracy.


Peace and Democracy

Let's look at peace first. We can identify two kinds of peace, each relating to one of the first two factors noted above. What we might call "tranquil peace" involves freedom from desire or attachment. That's the peace many find in meditation or in "letting go, letting God." But there is also the freedom and ability to pursue our dreams and satisfy our needs -- what we might call "vital peace," the energized peace of active Life. That is the kind of peace we see in a bustling, beautiful, productive community or rainforest.

Upon close inspection, we find ways that these two seemingly opposite types of peace support each other. The more we let go of attachment to what is impossible or unhealthy, the more we free ourselves to further what is healthy and real. And the more free and able we are to satisfy our deepest needs and pursue any dream we choose, the easier it is to let go of any particular desire that is unhealthy or unattainable.

So peace can be approached from either angle. It is most supported by simultaneously freeing ourselves and others from attachment while increasing our (and their) capacities. The fact that this can be pursued not only by ourselves, but perhaps best with each other -- and supported by culture, institutions and political processes -- is a delightful fact, one that leads directly to our other topic -- democracy.

When we look at democracy, we often see two dimensions -- freedom and responsibility. Freedom is associated with our pursuit of our self-interest. Responsibility is associated with pursuing the common good, or at least letting go of aspects of our self-interest that harm the common good. Democracy, at its best, integrates these by providing ways to further our self-interest by aligning with the interests of others and the common good. This capacity (c, above) is, ideally, what public life and civil society are all about.

So where do peace and democracy come from? From many places.

  • Cultures make peace and democracy natural or difficult.
  • Social systems enhance or interfere with peace and democracy.
  • Individual awareness, attitudes and habits support or undermine peace or the democratic process.

We find we can enhance peace and democracy at individual, cultural and systemic levels.

We also find that real peace and real democracy support each other, since they are ultimately manifestations of the same thing:

Peace and democracy both involve, above all,
the co-creation of our individual and collective well-being.

If a certain "peace" does not reflect this fact -- if it is merely the absence of war -- it is only half a peace, and will not last.

If a certain democracy does not reflect this -- if it is merely people voting in a manipulated society -- it is only half a democracy, and will not last.

Full peace and full democracy -- peace and democracy that are healthy enough to last -- both involve the simultaneous co-creation of our individual and collective well-being.


Peerness, Domination and War

Peace and democracy both thrive where the power used is "power-with" -- the kind of power that enables people to simultaneously co-create their individual and collective well-being.

Peace and democracy both fail where the power used is the capacity to dominate, control or prevail.

Where power is seen more neutrally, as the capacity to influence people and events, then peace and democracy thrive to the extent that power is balanced in various ways among groups and individuals. Various forms of this social power, and ways they are balanced, are described in "Democracy a Social Power Analysis".

One fact about social power has been repeatedly commented on by many who study it: Where there are great differences in social power, that power will be abused, as people downshift into forms of self-interest that are alienated from the common good.

Overly powerful people too often succumb to the illusion of control. They believe they are free to satisfy their every whim and pursue their wildest dreams. They see other people and things as resources for their purposes. The imbalance of power cuts them off from important corrective feedback that tells them they live in context with other lives upon which they depend -- and that those other lives have needs and dreams of their own.

It is not just evil, greedy people who think that way. All of us can think that, whenever our beliefs or social situation help us to take certain powers or privileges for granted. Many of us, for example, view nature as only a resource for the fulfillment of human wishes. Or we may view certain other people primarily as means to our ends, or as essentially less than us and ours. To the extent we nurture and act on these assumptions, we are participating in and supporting power imbalances that are unhealthy for everyone involved, and for Life.

In the meantime, at the losing end of the power imbalance, many people are downshifting into alienated self-interest, as well. The more the power and resources of the system are pressed into the service of the few, the less there is for everyone else. In an atmosphere of extreme scarcity or danger, people often become more self-protective or manipulative in order to survive, or close down totally, shutting out the rest of the world, psychologically, materially or ideologically. This happens at both individual and collective levels.

This dynamic supports those who hold concentrated, irresponsible social power. They promote the perception of scarcity and of their role as providers of scarce satisfaction, security and meaning. Demagogues often get disempowered people to support each other in an ingrown group -- led by the demagogue -- that shuts out the rest of the world. Usually this involves a sense of danger -- from scapegoats within and enemies without -- and a continual appeal to tight boundaries and solidarity under the leadership of the demagogue.

This approach contrasts vividly with both peace and democracy. It shows us a dramatic contraction of what constitutes human welfare, and of what constitutes the common good.

Whenever we explore the role of power imbalances, we soon find ourselves face to face with issues of justice and peerness. Justice protects the weak from the strong, including the minority from the majority. Peerness honors the basic legitimacy (or even sacredness) of all beings, all lives, and their right to participate in the design and implementation of their future, in collaboration with others. These are things that can be personally affirmed in word and deed, as well as shared in a culture and institutionalized in political, economic, social and governmental systems.

And this is why the evolution of democracy is a story of expanding equity, of broader enfranchisement, of extended human rights -- in short, of greater peerness -- at least in theory, if not always in practice.

Whose voices should be at the table where we create our future together and share the bounty of our collective efforts? First it was the white propertied men, then all white men, then all men, then women, then youth, and now animals and plants are starting to be included. Each empowered group makes way for the next, progressively loosening the grip of domination.

So the dominators have to use less direct, more manipulative strategies.



The evolution of civilization moves from violence to intelligence, slides backwards to manipulation and then progresses to co-intelligence.

Civilization began as empires ruled by top-down force within and battle without. This raw form of power was legitimized by "might makes right" and by patriarchal religions whose hierarchical deities authorized hierarchical kings, warlords, and emperors.

When empire began to give way to democracy in the Enlightenment, reason became more honored than force. The best argument won -- but winning was still the objective. "Let's use our words, not our fists, children!" -- with debate as the highest form of discourse. Battle metaphors ruled, but society felt that replacing armaments with arguments would make us a more civilized society. Logical, factual and moral rightness -- as demonstrated through debate -- became the standard for legitimacy.

But it turns out that logic, facts, morality and words can be bent in clever ways that distort or hide the truth. And sometimes there are diverse truths, each surrounded by complexities and nuances few people can take the time to comprehend. So people soon learned to use words to manipulate. This was easiest in the absence of dialogue -- in the absence of truly exploratory conversation. One-way mass media made mass manipulation easy. Even debates between pundits and call-in talk shows usually manage to avoid real dialogue, even when they provide a forum for multiple viewpoints.

As long as there is no dialogue, greater truth can be avoided.

Then came Gandhi and King. They tapped a force more powerful than weapons -- the power of our common humanity, stimulated by dramatic, nonviolent direct action. They used that ancient new power to force dominant social powerholders and adversaries into a condition of peerness in which real dialogue could occur.

Dialogue -- collaborative and collective applications of intelligence to discover greater truth and possibility -- became the foundation of conflict resolution. It became the respected alternative to war. Diplomacy was dialogue. Alternative dispute resolution grew as an alternative to litigation. Dialogue became the sin qua non of peace. And as more political issues were framed as conflicts between stakeholders -- especially in environmental controversies -- dialogue became increasingly used in political situations, where it began overflowing into community development activities.

The power of collaborative dialogue was brought to business through such negotiation books as Getting to Yes. Soon its power to generate new options, new relationships, new understandings -- new capacity -- became recognized by the business world. Consultants developed variants of dialogue to an extraordinary degree, so that now there are hundreds, many of which have expanded into "whole systems approaches" where people from every part of an organization or community participate in powerfully structured dialogues whose outcomes arise from and inform the whole organization or community.

These advances overflowed into the rapidly growing field of deliberative democracy, reaching a pinnacle of innovation in the various forms of citizen deliberative council. Increasingly, dialogue is becoming the sought-after standard on the leading edge of democratic practice.

The evolutionary challenge now is to empower the dialogue of the people so it can perform its historic role as the 21st century balance and corrective to the manipulative and domineering activities of centralized powerholders.

Thanks to all these developments of sophisticated, powerful forms of dialogue, we now know how to resolve conflict. We know how to utilize differences. We know how to tap the deep humanity, common sense, and spirit within every person, in group settings. We know how to build common ground and shared vision. We know how to explore scenarios and consequences. We know how to bring expertise on tap to the citizenry, and how to make politicians answerable. We know how to organize populations for nonviolent civilian-based defense.

When The People are busy co-creating their individual and collective well-being, and ensuring the well-being of the future, there is no time for war and no need for it. Nor would efforts at domination or manipulation be tolerated. There are only resources available for peace and democracy.

The evolutionary trajectory of both peace and democracy is the progressive inclusion and empowerment of more and more lives and Life, itself -- and the progressive letting go of exclusivity, privilege and domination of people and nature -- to allow for greater peer dialogue towards the co-creation of met needs and realized dreams. This is the essence of both Peace and Democracy. And it is the essence of our times.

Only as a whole community or society comes to serve the interests of its members and to support them in their efforts to satisfy their needs and pursue their dreams -- individually and collectively -- does it become more democratic. And only then does it become more peaceful. And sustainable. And wise.

Peace is the path. Democracy is the vehicle we use to travel it together as a civilization.

We are all
in this


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