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Perspectives on Democracy


by Tom Atlee


I see at least three ways to view democracy:

1) The Power Perspective
2) The Participation Perspective
3) The Intelligence Perspective

The power perspective
sees democracy as an effort to balance social power. History is a chronicle of societies where social power has been concentrated in a few hands. Democracy proposes that social power be distributed as widely and evenly as possible and, where it must be concentrated, it is made constitutionally answerable to those over whom it is exercised.

Not surprisingly, the power perspective on democracy is concerned with institutions, constitutions, and other formal arrangements that impose structure and balance on social power relationships. It sees power as an essentially competitive phenomenon: we all seek more power to pursue our own interests.

The theory behind this is articulated in John Atlee's article, "Democracy: A Social Power Analysis." On the practical side, Ralph Nader's "Concord Principles" offers specific proposals to further democratize American institutions.

The participation perspective
sees democracy as an activity through which citizens participate in their community. Participation is considered a basic human need, a natural outgrowth of our social nature. Public life in general, and political activity in particular, allow us to partake in and shape a larger world beyond ourselves. Furthermore, democratic activity enables us to better understand and develop (or "actualize") ourselves through active relationships with other people. Power is seen as a cooperative, rather than competitive phenomenon - something we get by working together.

From this participatory perspective, democracy is something we do and live, not something we have or make. Improving our "living democracy" is a matter of developing and using democratic forums and learning democratic skills. This is the approach advocated by Frances Moore Lappé and Paul Du Bois in "Living Democracy."

The intelligence perspective
sees democracy as a factor that supports the exercise of collective intelligence. By "collective intelligence" I mean a group's or society's capacity to respond, collectively, to its changing circumstances; to make creative use of opportunities; to articulate and pursue visions and purposes; and to evolve as a culture. This view is articulated in the articles listed at Co-Intelligent Political and Democratic Theory. The emerging political form at the leading edge of this perspective is the Citizen Consensus Council.

Briefly, here's the logic of the "intelligence perspective" on democracy: Authoritarian groups can be no more intelligent than their leaders. Such groups tend to be less intelligent than democratic groups because excess power tends to distort the powerholders' ability to think and feel clearly and appropriately. Furthermore, authoritarian systems tend to neglect or suppress the potential contributions of non-leaders.

An intelligent group or society finds ways to utilize (and even enhance) the knowledge, perspectives and aptitudes of all its members. It knows how to combine these things to generate wise collective understandings and actions. People advocating collective intelligence will, therefore, advocate balanced power relationships. They will also make a point of creating forums where fringe or emerging ideas can be explored, so that no potential resource for the collective intelligence gets overlooked. They're inspired not only by their love for justice but also by their love for their community's intelligent solutions, creative ideas, survival and success.

From the perspective of collective intelligence, the reason we want a balance of power is to enable knowledgeable, wise mass participation in collective inquiry and decision-making. But participation, itself, is not enough. The quality of participation, the processes used, the group culture, the psychospiritual maturity of the participants, feedback mechanisms, and numerous other factors can all be addressed to increase the quality of collective insight and action. The study of collective intelligence embraces everything that could influence a group, organization or society's ability to interact intelligently with its actual circumstances.

While the power perspective on democracy focuses on institutions - and the participation perspective focuses on the democratic arts - the intelligence perspective focuses on collective dynamics and learning in groups, communties and whole societies. Things like consensus, dialogue, mediation, meditation, systems theory, holistic paradigms, the scientific method, therapy, tolerance, online collaborative tools and social networks and so on can all be used to facilitate collective intelligence.

All three perspectives combined can provide us with an in-depth, 3-D, vibrantly alive sense of what democracy is all about. Democratic societies would greatly benefit from the institutionalized participation of citizens in collectively intelligent processes the outcomes of which are empowered to shape the policies and activities of society. Although democracy activists tend to focus on one or another of these perspectives at any given time, it behooves us all to keep the other perspectives in mind as we work. The crises in which we find ourselves demand that we strive for the highest forms of democracy of which we are capable.


All too often, elections are equated with democracy. Our government and mass media use elections as the test of whether or not some country is democratic.

Elections are only one possible tool to make concentrated power answerable to the people. By themselves, they constitute a minimalist form of democratic participation. And, unfortunately - because they are so easy to manipulate and usually offer premature, inadequate choices - elections can actually impede social intelligence.

The purpose of elections is to generate legitimate democratic authority through which a group or society can direct itself. This purpose requires that elections be free of manipulation; that the electorate have access to all relevant information; that the real views of the population are actually reflected in the values, personalities and positions of available candidates; that the electorate actually educate themselves and vote; that elected officials can be corrected and recalled; etc.

To the extent these conditions are not met, candidate advocacy can be a distraction from the real work of democracy. It may be more productive in the long run to reform the electoral process itself (to meet the conditions above) or to use the political energy generated during election years to involve people in real democracy - in efforts to balance power, to practice the democratic arts, and to develop groups and networks capable of collective intelligence.

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