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
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
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
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
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.
A FOOTNOTE ON ELECTIONS
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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