Beyond positions: a politics of civic co-creativity
The first version of this article was written
after the 2000
U.S. elections, when I spoke about the lessons we could
including lessons about position-centered politics. I revised
it somewhat after the 2008 elections, since Obama seems to
be exploring what politics and governance would be like when
they aren't primarily about positions.
Taking positions prevents us from moving
other, and with each other, to find options that better meet
needs of all involved, including the needs of the communities
and societies in which we live. It may be fruitful to take
this opportunity to imagine what politics would be like if it
focused on helping us all work together to solve our
collective problems and create a better future for
ourselves, our children and our world. -- Tom Atlee
Some say the problem with politics is the way we organize
and finance our campaigns. Some say the problem is how special interests
control our media, elections, governance, and much of the rest of
our society. Some say that the whole thing is just one big horrible
corrupt pointless mess. There are significant grains of truth in
all these assertions.
But I'd like to suggest something different. I'd like
to suggest that a big part of the problem with politics is with
positions. Rather, to be more exact, our politics is in such a mess
because it is based on "taking positions."
I know this may sound odd or trivial or abstract to
many of you. But bear with me for a minute. There's a door here
we could walk through to a better world.
Politicians are like soldiers and debaters. Soldiers
and debaters take positions. A position is something you take --
and then you hold it. You don't move. And then you win or lose.
Political platforms are collections of a party's or
candidate's "positions on the issues." Platforms are what
candidates stand on as they lob cannonballs, soundbites and spin-doctoring
at each other.
We can learn a lot about positions from the field
Let's imagine Sam and Charlie are negotiating. Using
an old style of negotiation, Sam cleverly gets Charlie to give up
lots of what Charlie wants so that Sam can get more of what Sam
wants. What they don't do is separate their "interests"
(what they each want) from their "positions" (what they
think will get them what they want).
Roger Fisher and William Ury's watershed 1981 book
presented a totally different, and very successful, method called
"principled negotiation." Using principled negotiation,
Sam and Charlie don't "hold" their positions: They set
them aside. Or they inquire into them. But what they focus on is
getting real clear about what their respective INTERESTS are. Then
they move together (which they can do since they're no longer stuck
in "positions") to discover new options that could satisfy
both of their interests. They shift from fighting to problem-solving,
from being adversaries to being colleagues.
When people use a process like this, they come up
with MUCH better solutions. It's easy to see why:
(a) When people's interests are fully understood
and taken into account, they don't have to defend themselves and
their positions. Their attention opens up, and they can be more
(b) When people really hear each other's needs,
they understand more about the problem at a deeper level, since
those needs are part of the structure of the problem.
(c) When people do a process like this, they come to SHARE the
problem. Instead of seeing each other AS the problem, they sit
on the same side working on a problem they share. (This helps
a lot: Not only is the other person seldom the real problem, but
people tend to BECOME a problem to the extent that they're treated
(d) In a collaborative process, all the parties
can muster together their many capacities and resources, and apply
them to solving their shared problem instead of undermining each
(e) All the parties end up committed to implementing
the solutions they create together, instead of holding back or
maneuvering for better chances to take advantage of each other.
Doesn't this sound better than the Presidential Debates?
Doesn't this sound better than what we see all too often in Congress
or Parliament? It is a different way of operating -- and it is an
approach that can be modeled and promoted from both the bottom and
the top of our political systems.
From the co-intelligence perspective, we could say
that focusing on positions evokes co-stupidity, whereas focusing
on interests (or needs) -- or even just deeply understanding each
other -- evokes co-intelligence.
In our individual and collective lives, we face many
problems. And we face choices about how to address them:
* We can see other people as partners in a shared
problem-solving effort -- or we can see them as the biggest part
of the problem. They're likely to oblige us, either way.
* We can realize that their interests and needs -- and our own
interests and needs -- are all part of the structure of the problem
itself, which it would be wise for us to understand. Or we can
ignore the real substance of the problem and just push our position
as The Solution, and see how far that gets us.
* We can invite the other parties to apply their
intelligence, creativity, information, and other resources to
solving our shared problem. Or we can have them apply all those
resources to outwitting, manipulating and defeating us (while
we try to do the same to them).
* We can take up the cause of their interests and
needs, and help them understand our own interests and needs --
that is, we can become partners in co-creating a better life for
both of us. Or we can exhaust ourselves and our resources in battle.
(How much did they say the most recent election cost the parties
involved -- hundreds of millions of dollars?)
As they say, life is filled with choices.
We see this pattern -- this understanding of each
other's interests and needs from a place of partnership -- in Nonviolent
Communication, Consensus Process,
Dynamic Facilitation, and
countless other powerful approaches to solving problems and meeting
needs. (See Co-Intelligent
Practices, Approaches, Processes and Organizations for descriptions
of these and other such processes.)
So what does all this have to do with politics?
It seems to me that that question itself shows how
far we have drifted away from creating collective lives that make
Politics is, in its essence -- and should be, in its
form -- the way a society goes about solving its collective problems
and creating its shared future. Politics is no more adversarial
-- in its essence -- than negotiation is. We can do politics as
adversaries or we can do politics as partners. There is overwhelming
evidence that human nature has the capacity for both cooperation
and battle. We can work together or we can fight -- and we can do
either one competently or sloppily.
Given all this, it seems to me that, in most circumstances,
it makes sense to do our best to try to work together competently.
I may be missing something here, but it seems kind of immature to
set up an entire political system so that the first thing we do
about our shared problems is fight with each other.
Yet that's exactly how our political system is set
up. It is organized as a majority-rules, winner-takes-all battleground
populated by competing parties with opposing positions who either
a) attempt to defeat each other
or, failing that,
b) compromise ("hammer out" solutions that give
only a bit of what they wanted)
or trade ("I'll support you
on Proposal X if you support
me on Proposal Y").
Notice that NONE of these approaches involve people
working together to find options that truly satisfy the needs and
interests of everyone involved.
So: What would a politics look like that DID involve
people in creative partnerships? Is such a politics even possible?
At the very least, we could have a politics that STARTED
from a place of co-operation. If and as that cooperation failed,
there could be ways of stepping back inch by inch into increasing
adversariality, with opportunities at every step for moving back
into partnership. That's what diplomats often do when they're trying
to avoid war. There's an awful lot of know-how about how to do this
-- not only basic theory, such as "tit
for tat", but scores of VERY powerful techniques for healing
relationships, coming to powerful shared understandings and creating
brilliant, unforeseen solutions together.
So I'll say here and now that I'm tired of a politics
where party platforms are designed to say what The XYZ Parties will
do to solve the country's or community's problems when they take
power. If we have to have platforms, let them propose what kinds
of conversations The XYZ Parties will organize to help the country
or community work together to find top-quality solutions to their
shared problems -- and conversations to clarify what better futures
they'd like to make together. That approach would make some co-intelligent
sense. Perhaps some third party could explore the possibility....
I actually describe such a politics in "The
story of Pat and Pat, the view from the year 2020" <http://www.co-intelligence.org/S-PatandPat.html>.
It's a futuristic, down-home story about how Patrick and Patricia
McFallow become co-mayors of Threshold, Iowa, in 2016. During their
four-year mayorship they engage thousands of citizens in powerful,
empowering conversations about what they want their community to
be like and how they can change it. Of course, the community starts
changing, brilliantly and fast. When the next election rolls around,
every political party is advocating some version of what Pat and
Pat pioneered. This is natural. (Note that the emerging Transition
Towns movement and the Transpartisan
movement are founded on some very similar "beyond positions"
I sometimes imagine a traditional politician showing
up in a town like Threshold, Iowa, that's lived for a while with
such a truly co-intelligent politics. He'd say, "Vote for me.
I have the best position on the issues." The citizens would
look at him like he was from Mars. "What are you talking about?
Who cares what your positions are! On any issue in this town, none
of us knows what the best solution is until we explore it real well
with each other. You are stuck in your own head, man. If you want
to get anywhere with us, offer us some new ways to work on things
Scores of democratic innovations are being proposed
-- new voting methods, teledemocracy ideas, ways to give the public
better control of the media, democratic skill-building... The list
goes on. I actually collect such
innovative ideas, and hope someday to help weave them into an
ongoing conversation about how to make our politics more co-intelligent.
But I can't help feeling that the answer we most need lies deeper
than most of these reach.
Politics shouldn't be FOCUSED on choosing who will
lead us or who will make decisions on our behalf (as the representative
democracy people advocate) -- although this is one necessary piece
of the whole. Nor should politics strive for all of us to vote on
every single issue (as the direct
democracy people advocate, but few average citizens could actually
do, especially well). Rather, I think it should focus on those things
that will help our whole society or community make wise decisions,
solve shared problems successfully (and track the consequences of
those solutions), and create our future together sustainably --
over and over, forever and ever.
Traditional democracy provided us with a good beginning
to the project of developing our collective
intelligence. Now we need another major step forward. Here and
there in this world, I suspect, we would probably find everything
we need to begin building a powerful new, co-intelligent politics.
I'm doing the best I can to find and publicize pieces of the puzzle
as I find them.
It seems to me that if we can put the whole puzzle
together, we'll discover we have a new world, right there. It would
be a very special world, a very special culture -- one that could
renew itself over and over, as the natural world does.
And it seems to me that if we can't put the puzzle
together, we won't be here long. We'll pull each other and our world
Pass it on.
For more on this approach
to politics, see
of Public Participation
A Call to Move
Beyond Public Opinion to Public Judgment
and other articles on
Political and Democratic Theory
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