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A Call to Move Beyond Public Opinion to Public Judgment


For more detail and vision on building a wiser form of democracy built on citizen deliberation and dialogue, see Tom Atlee's book

The Tao of Democracy.

by Tom Atlee


Daily we watch our government do things which
then have dramatic effects on our lives. Does it
feel like we have government of the people, by
the people, and for the people? Does it feel like
our government is making wise decisions? Are
we happy with the way our government works?
Do we have any choice in the matter?



"The deliberative sense of the community should govern."

-- Alexander Hamilton, FEDERALIST No. 71



The American public is chronically divided over issues of war and peace, civil liberties, corporate behavior, jobs and welfare, abortion, budget priorities, the environment, technology and more. In good times, these debates can be a source of pride, a healthy hum in the background of life in our democracy. In bad times, however, they can feel like they're tearing our country apart or -- when we're feeling threatened -- "divisiveness" can feel tantamount to treason.

And what of the majority? Sometimes it seems like the majority has great wisdom that sees us through rocky times, over and over again. At other times it seems like the majority is ill-informed, shooting from the hip, or simply oblivious. Sometimes the majority feels like a mob. At other times -- as in the election of 2000 -- the alternatives are so close -- or public participation is so low -- that we're not even sure what the majority is, or if it matters. At other times, loud majority voices seem to get manufactured from nowhere by slick public relations campaigns.

So how do our representatives respond to all this? Sometimes it seems that they change their tunes overnight, depending on the vagaries of public opinion polls. At other times it seems like they push through policies that the overwhelming majority of us disagree with -- and we feel powerless to stop them. Sometimes politicians' independence from public opinion looks like admirably strong leadership. At other times, it just looks like someone else is controlling our government. We, the People, are not part of the picture.

What are we to make of all this? Does it feel like we can count on our government to make wise decisions that serve us well, that care for the common good, and that ensure a safe and healthy future?

If not, are there any creative, alternative ways to think about this, and take action? Who is supposed to deal with these matters? What should be the relationship between the thoughts and conversations of us ordinary citizens, and the actions of our leaders? Should public opinion rule what happens? How should our leaders lead?

In this essay I suggest that we can depend on neither public opinion nor strong leadership to produce the wisdom we need to deal with the public issues of the day. In fact, I propose that both public opinion and strong leadership are downright dangerous when confronting crises like the ones we're living through currently.

This wasn't always true, but it is true now. And it is particularly troubling because our current mess is quite unnecessary. We now have ways to make democracy not only less corrupt, but more dependable, effective and even wise. We can do this using the most fundamental resource of our democracy: We, the People.

We now know, for example, how to bring diverse ordinary citizens together in high quality conversations capable of producing wise policy guidelines for officials and the public. We know how to set up those conversations to help ensure that our representatives can and do serve us well. Decades of experience in citizen deliberations have taught us how to begin building a public dialogue infrastructure that can generate a democracy that really works -- at last.

But first we must realize the limits of "public opinion." Because, as Alexander Hamilton suggested, it is not public opinion that we need to guide us, but wise public judgment -- "the deliberative sense of the community."

In their 1994 book THE QUICKENING OF AMERICA: REBUILDING OUR NATION, REMAKING OUR LIVES, Frances Moore Lappé and Paul Martin Du Bois point out that public judgment "emerges only in hearing other points of view, thinking through the clash of values." They distinguish it from public opinion, "our knee-jerk reactions -- our undigested private thoughts about issues and controversies." Public judgment, in contrast, comes out of engaging respectfully and creatively with our differences.

We know that dealing with differences is a big part of public life. Sometimes we find ourselves opposing others because we each have different information or experiences. At other times conflicts arise because our values are different. Sometimes we share values -- such as community, freedom, and justice -- but we each define them differently, or apply them in different ways, or give them different priorities.

When we encounter such differences, we need good dialogue to help us hear each other. Many of us have experienced deep, rich conversations, but few of us have experienced them very often. But there are ways to help such dialogue happen, and people who know those ways.

Good dialogue with people unlike ourselves helps us get clearer on who we are, what we believe and what we should do. We can learn why we each respond in the ways that we do, and discover how someone might legitimately feel something that is very different from what we feel. Effective dialogue allows us to re-connect with our common humanity, find renewed feelings of empathy and compassion, and realize the vast common ground we actually share with each other, no matter how great our differences. When we've all been fully heard, we can let down our guard long enough to find answers together that work for all of us.

That fact holds tremendous promise for a democracy of empowered citizens who create community, wisdom and possibility out of their differences.

Although such high-quality dialogue is not always possible, and not with everyone, experience suggests that most ordinary people can do it with each other most of the time with very simple guidelines. Better yet, with training or facilitation to help them, nearly any group of people can come to understand each other and feel understood, and find a surprising amount of clarity and connection together they can use to address shared problems. This means that random ordinary people can work together to come to common-sense public judgment about issues that concern us all.

Public judgment, say Lappé and Du Bois, involves "discriminating reason, arrived at through talk and reflection." Public judgment is what diverse people come to, together, when they explore the values involved in various alternatives and the consequences of the choices they face.

Right now our politics -- even in theory -- is not based on real dialogue among diverse points of view. Instead, it is usually a battle between interest groups to influence public opinion and the decisions of our majoritarian leaders. This approach generates partisanship, not public judgment -- heat, not light -- opinions, not wisdom -- debate, not dialogue. This is not healthy -- especially when we face crises like our current one, where unwise decisions could generate horrendous consequences for us all.

A democratic society without public judgment is like a plane without wings. You can get it rolling, but it just doesn't fly. Public judgment is the only way to intelligently guide both public opinion and majoritarian leadership. Here's why:

Virtually every solution, choice or position has shortcomings, as well as strengths. Good decisions depend on decision-makers understanding and addressing both the strengths and weaknesses of each option. This almost always involves trade-offs. Our present political system usually handles this in a messy way: In their battle for influence, competing partisans ignore the complex trade-offs, promoting only the good parts of their own proposals, while trashing the weaknesses in their opponents' arguments.

Theoretically, the public is supposed to be able to use such debate to identify the best options. In practice, this seldom happens. This is because debate necessarily focuses on polarized positions and proposals. If you aren't supporting or attacking some position or proposal, our political system doesn't give you much of a forum.

In addition to overwhelming us with lots of biased information and even half-truths, this debate-centered political system makes it almost impossible to have the kind of shared exploration that would allow brilliant new alternatives to surface. Energy that could have been invested in creating better options gets wasted in attacking each other.

From the sidelines of these partisan battles, we ordinary citizens sense there's something missing... that we are being given false choices and inadequate information... that there is more going on -- and more possibilities -- than we are being allowed to see. Most of us know there is more to any issue than black and white, pro and con. But where can we go to explore the nuances together or to exercise our creative intelligence to find better solutions?

Nowhere. At least not now, not yet.

Meanwhile, our elected decision-makers go about the dirty work of making the trade-offs -- using their traditional political tools of PR, power-ploys, politicking and wheeling-and-dealing compromises that have little to do with the real issues at hand. This process results in low-quality decisions that few of us are happy with -- decisions which generate undesirable consequences, partisan we-told-you-so's, and a new round of unsatisfactory, conflict-ridden problem-solving.

Why do we keep doing it this way?

Institutions that support and use citizen deliberation and public judgment offer a sensible alternative. In these institutions, citizens come together to learn the strengths and limitations of each existing proposal -- and then face the tough choices together or else get creative enough to find new and better solutions that aren't so problematic. They can then advise their fellow citizens and representatives, raising the quality of public dialogue to new heights. And they can put the spotlight on public officials, keeping them answerable to We, the People.

Opinion pollster Daniel Yankelovich, in his book COMING TO PUBLIC JUDGMENT, calls public opinion good only "when the public accepts responsibility for the consequences of its views." (See also his "Seven Stages of Public Opinion" ) But we need to talk together to really face up to those consequences. Talking together makes a difference. James S. Fishkin has demonstrated with his "deliberative polling" that our views change -- often dramatically -- after we study an issue and dialogue with others who see it differently than we do. See

It takes real work to explore the consequences of our views with people who see issues differently. Most of us need help to hear each other, to be creative, and to come to terms with any difficult trade-offs involved. But if we have that help, we ordinary citizens can generate high-quality decisions that make sense to us. Our energy can then go into implementing those decisions, rather than resenting and resisting them and fighting among ourselves.

If we put our minds to it, we can do this right now in our churches and temples, community centers and non-profit organizations. But the real challenge will be to create official institutions for citizen deliberation to generate public judgment that are empowered to inform all other conversations among citizens and officials -- or even to create policies and laws directly. With such institutions, the latent wisdom of a community or country can awaken to its full life and power. (See Empowering the Wisdom of Our Humanity for a poignant example of the kind of wisdom we need.)



There are many tools to help in this, including:


1) Impartial resources for studying public issues -- materials that empower and encourage citizens to explore all sides of an issue, especially together. For example:

-- In Study Circles, ordinary people get together once or twice a week to study a public issue, reading balanced materials from a prepared booklet. They explore what they think should be done about the issue and often take action together. See Study packs and organizing guides are available from The Study Circles Resource Center

-- For some issues, interactive websites have been developed to provide citizens with an in-depth experience of the trade-offs of various competing proposals. An excellent example is Destination Democracy, a former project of the Benton Foundation which explored campaign finance reform. The whole interactive site is now archived at Such sites could and should exist for every issue.

-- The issue books developed by Public Agenda Foundation -- used in thousands of citizen deliberations sponsored by the National Issues Forums and supported by the Kettering Foundation -- spell out the consequences of three or four diverse options for dealing with a particular issue, so that participants can wrestle with the pros and cons and seek common ground. See

-- Civic Journalism attempts to engage people in public life by finding out what they are concerned about, providing them with balanced information about the issues involved, getting them talking about those issues, and reflecting what they say back to the larger community in broadcast, print and online media. See


2) Citizen deliberative councils - Temporary groups of citizens who reflect the diversity of the population, officially convened to deliberate on public concerns and provide guidance for officials and the public. See

-- Citizen consensus councils - One or two dozen citizens are officially selected, who embody the real diversity of their community or nation. For a few days or a few weeks, they deliberate on public needs or issues and then deliver their consensus recommendations to officials, the media and the public. Then they disband. See

-- Citizen technology panels called "consensus conferences" run every year by the Danish government involve ordinary citizens studying technological policy issues, cross-examining expert witnesses, and making recommendations that their Parliament takes seriously. See

-- In 1991 Macleans, Canada's leading newsweekly, convened a dozen Canadians scientifically selected to represent the demographic and political diversity of Canada. After intense conflict, and with expert facilitation, they managed to create a consensus vision for Canada in three days. Their approach is broadly replicable. See

-- Wisdom Councils of randomly selected citizens could be convened every year or quarter to articulate The People's concerns and perspectives. This form of citizen consensus council uses a particularly powerful process, dynamic facilitation, that uncovers unexpectedly innovative approaches to problems -- and transforms the people involved -- simply by following the group's interests and energy. This process (which could be used in other public conversations, as well) is especially valuable for generating public judgment because it turns any existing conflict into a stimulant to engage people's co-creativity. See and

These approaches, on the leading edge of citizen deliberation, need serious research to explore their workability in diverse circumstances.

Citizens' juries -- Far more widespread and tested than citizen consensus councils are citizens juries, which do not use consensus but are, in many other respects, similar to the Danish citizen technology panels noted above.

A citizens' jury consists of ten to twenty people chosen so that their collective diversity reflects the diversity of their community or country. These typical citizens study a public issue, proposal or even candidate and grill experts on its details and its social impact. Then they craft findings and recommendations which they deliver to authorities, and to the public through the media. Hundreds of them have been held. See

Descriptions of widespread use of citizens' juries and other such deliberative processes can be found at <>
Participatory environmental policy processes: experiences from North and South

Promoting and supporting all such efforts would go far to increase our country's ability to respond to future crises with greater wisdom than we're able to muster currently.

3) Stakeholder dialogues - Stakeholders are those who are affected by a situation. Gathering people who are involved in all aspects of a situation allows "the whole system" to be in on the conversation. The situation gets looked at fully, from all angles. Two powerful forms of stakeholder dialogue are:

-- Future search conferences - Representative stakeholders from all parts of a community or situation gather to look at their shared history, the forces currently shaping their shared lives, and the visions they can all buy into and work towards. See

-- Holistic Management is a step-by-step process for holistic decision-making that weaves all the important people and resources relating to an issue together into the pursuit of a shared goal which covers all the relevant dimensions of that issue. See


4) Scenario and visioning work - People explore possible futures -- those they want and those they don't want.

-- Scenario work helps people look at a wide variety of possible futures to test their responses and help them prepare for whatever might happen. It is especially vital in exploring the consequences of various proposals which, as we've seen, is central to developing public judgment.

-- Visioning work, on the other hand, usually helps people get clear on what kind of future they want to actively pursue together. Dozens of communities have developed shared visions and then taken action to realize those visions.

See for an introduction to both scenario work and visioning. Both are often used in the stakeholder dialogues described in (3), above.


5) Other proposals that incorporate citizen deliberation in official institutions include:

-- National Initiative for Democracy, which establishes a national "citizen initiative" process in which anyone can propose a law, which then must be reviewed by citizen councils like those in (2) -- along with many other qualifying steps -- before it can be voted on by all citizens. This proposal is packed with many remarkable innovations. See

-- Plan for a Healthy Democracy envisions a randomly selected citizens jury (like those in 2) which studies issues carefully and then interacts with a closed-circuit television audience of hundreds of fellow citizens before making its final recommendations. This model could be used to review ballot initiatives, competing candidates, and the performance of elected officials. See


6) Some organizations networking to build a deliberative democracy based on citizen dialogues


7) Some books from the leading edge of citizen deliberation and dialogue


The innovations listed above are only the tip of a vast iceberg of resources. Many other tools for promoting citizen deliberation and public judgment are described in and on the Innovations in Democracy website.

Two excellent reviews of citizen deliberative processes and the issues around them are
Participatory environmental policy processes: experiences from North and South and
Scientific Deliberative Polling and Deliberative Democracy



So where do we begin if we want to improve our nation's or our community's capacity for public judgment? It might be useful to start by learning a bit more about such subjects as citizen deliberation, public judgment, community wisdom, collective intelligence and the various methods for generating them -- perhaps exploring the Co-Intelligence Institute's websites and, and the links from them. 

Since transforming our public life isn't something we can accomplish by ourselves, it would probably be good to involve others in such study, and perhaps create a local "community of interest, practice and action" around this subject. Such a local group could send its members for facilitation training... could talk to local nonprofit groups, officials and media about improving the community through citizen deliberation... could lobby for public or private funds for much-needed research in this area... or could support organizations which are already working on innovations that could enhance the wisdom of our democracy.

Local groups could even set up citizen deliberative programs, pilot projects or even official institutions in their own communities, and network with other community groups who are doing the same thing, to share experiences. They could lobby together for official citizen deliberative functions at local, state and national levels -- and even do global experiments in cross-cultural citizen deliberation...

Above all, at this stage, we need to help issue-oriented activists and advocacy groups understand the need to build a more intelligent, wise democracy that is capable of addressing ALL issues more effectively. Otherwise, if everyone remains narrowly focused on their own issues, they'll remain frustrated by the obstacles and reversals that are built into our dysfunctional political system.



Although most people don't associate "wisdom" with "democracy", I think the Era of Consequences in which we are now living makes it clear that we won't have a democracy very long if we can't inject a lot more wisdom into it.

But what does that mean? What would a wise democracy be like? First of all, it would not -- by definition -- be foolish. It would not habitually do things that generated unnecessary conflicts and crises. It would not satisfy its immediate material or psychological needs at the long-term expense of other people or nature. Out of either compassionate understanding or enlightened self-interest, it would naturally seek broadly beneficial approaches that sustained or improved the quality of life for everyone and everything involved, now and in the future. Like the Iroquois, it would ask "What is good for the seventh generation after us?" In this way, its growing knowledge and power would not simultaneously increase its risk of destroying itself and everything it depended on, which would be the ultimate folly.

To persist in its wisdom, such a democracy would have many ways to learn -- individually and collectively -- from any action that failed to be broadly beneficial. Its mistakes would not become habits, but would provide grist for the whole society's learning and transformation. Its politics, education, economics, media and even statistics would all serve its collective capacity to learn and support life and aliveness. Much of its attention would be devoted to collective self-reflection, to enhance its collective capacity and to grow in its collective wisdom.

But where could such democratic wisdom come from? Traditionally, we've thought of a culture's wisdom as coming from its authorities -- from spiritual traditions and texts, from experts and elders, from its God or from Nature, and so on. As important as these are -- especially for individuals and groups -- a pluralistic democracy needs democratic sources of shared of wisdom if we wish to avoid authoritarian practices -- including the manipulation of public opinion -- every time we face an important issue or crisis.

I suggest that the best democratic source of wisdom is the citizenry exercising their public judgment through high-quality deliberative dialogue. At this stage of our culture's development we have a tremendous amount of theory, know-how and tools -- such as those listed above -- to support the exercise of public judgment. What we lack are the public understanding and will -- and the trained practitioners and established institutions -- to put all those theories and tools into practice on behalf of our common welfare.

The greater the crises we face, the greater the need for wisdom. Terrorism, war and other perceived threats often stimulate the engineering of unity -- what Noam Chomsky has rightly called (in a book by that title) "Manufacturing Consent." There is an urge to silence voices that diverge from the united front. Such suppression of diversity deprives us of the grist we need to generate real wisdom, at the very moment when that wisdom is most critical to our survival. The more divisive or dangerous the issue or circumstances, the more vital it is that public judgment be exercised to tap urgently needed wisdom. And public judgment REQUIRES that diversity and conflict be well utilized, not suppressed.

Nevertheless, it is understandable that a country would fall back on more authoritarian practices in a crisis, if it does not have infrastructure in place to dependably generate collective wisdom out of its conflicts and diversity. It must take coherent action, and it must do so rapidly. There is no time to train facilitators and decide on what's the best process to use. Leaders must act. And so they start manipulating the media and trimming freedoms of speech, press, thought, and association in order to produce at least an apparent consensus around whatever it is they're deciding to do.

So each crisis becomes a chance to develop these wisdom-generating capacities for the next crisis. As subsequent crises grow in scale, intensity and consequence, it becomes increasingly obvious that the issues, themselves, are less important than our society's capacity to handle them wisely. When issue-oriented citizens and organizations invest at least some of their resources into building our collective capacity to generate wise public judgment, then every issue will be handled better and we will be prepared to meet our next crisis more wisely than the last. That is the challenge we currently face.

Billions of dollars are spent each year for researching, developing and practicing the arts of war and profit. Perhaps it is time to demand that billions be invested in researching, developing and practicing the arts of wisdom, citizen deliberation and public judgment. Which expenditure do you think would provide us with greater quality of life and security?

It is time for our democracy to outgrow the manipulation of public opinion and start thinking wisely for itself. The troubling consequences of our "collective" decisions are growing more dramatic every day. It is time for us to free the heart, mind and voice of We, the People into its innate power to generate wisdom for the good of all.

Doing that one thing would make all the difference in the world.


(Sept 2001, revised Sept 2002)

See also

Principles of Public Participation
Beyond positions: a politics of civic co-creativity
An overview of the emerging deliberative democracy movement.
Fascinating references on deliberative democracy