Building a Wise Democracy as Crises Emerge
by Tom Atlee
Our democracy is in crisis, in a world of emerging crises.
Our democratic institutions are not adequate to address the crises
we face. These crises are becoming more familiar with each passing
- social inequities and injustices
- environmental degradation and climate change
- technological dangers (including but not limited to increasingly
available weapons of mass destruction)
- terrorism and extremism of all sorts
- the rising threat of global epidemics
- unsustainable, destructive economic activities
- the corruption of democracy, itself
... the list goes on and on....
These crises are interdependent, not isolated from each other.
Like a hundred brooks and streams, they and other crises could converge
into a raging torrent overflowing its banks and transforming the
landscape of our lives and the prospects for our children.
In spite of this, our democratic institutions continue to promote:
a) the relentless concentration of
b) the materialist culture orchestrated
by that power and
c) systematic denial of the problems
generated by (a) and (b).
Hard-fought battles and hard-won freedoms end up being co-opted
by the materialist project. The power of labor is harnessed to negotiate
pay raises, benefits and working conditions, instead of increasing
our ability to control our own work lives and communities. The power
of feminism fizzles into demands for equality in corporations, government
and the military, rather than leading the transformation of society
into a collaborative culture. "Labor-saving devices" increase
the complexity, pace and stress of our lives. "Liberation"
mutates into equal access to the culture of materialism. Too many
of us no longer strive for greater humanity, joy and meaning in
life. We settle for respectable, comfortable roles in our system's
profitable degradation of what is truly precious.
Still, growing millions of us -- each in our own way -- feel that
something is fundamentally wrong with the direction of our society.
Most of us, though, can't quite give it the attention it seems to
deserve, to sort it out and take effective action. It is so complex...
and our daily lives absorb all our energy and attention, leaving
us with only a haunting wish that something could be done about
it. This testifies to the awesome power of our culture to distract
so many of us from the ultimate essentials of life, even the survival
of our own children and the natural world upon which the children
of all species depend.
Perhaps the darkest irony is that democracy, itself, has been transformed
from the crown jewel of The Enlightenment into one of the most effective
and insidious tools used by Power to manipulate us, the citizenry,
the electorate, The People.
From manipulated elections and warped political deliberations to
the use of the Bill of Rights to protect and empower "corporate
personhood" ... from the usurpation of citizen power by faceless
international trade bureaucrats to the propaganda-laden entertainments
of our mass media ... from the reprogramming of citizens to think
like "consumers" to the near-universal complaint of "What
can one person do?" ... democracy has lost both its integrity
and its potency. It does little now but strut about amidst media-supported
pretense and illusion that fool fewer and fewer of the world's citizens
every year. It would be pathetic if it weren't so dangerous. We
can't afford to have such obliviousness at the helm of a civilization
heading into the great storms already visible on the horizon.
We need to change the character of democracy, and we need to do
it soon. If we are to meet the challenges of the 21st century, we
need to make democracy not only more functional, but truly wise.
I realize the terms "wise" and "democracy"
are not often seen together. We have often heard of wise leaders
-- and we will surely need such leaders. But if we put all our eggs
into that basket, there is a good chance we'll lose our democracy
and, with it, the wise, responsible leadership we were hoping for.
The concentrated power we give to leaders almost always corrupts
them. Ultimately, the problems of our collective fate always come
back to us. Always, that is, if we want to keep our democracy.
Catastrophe and hardship have throughout history been used as reasons
to concentrate power, to grab the reins, to turn over sovereignty
to The Man Who Can Make The Trains Run On Time -- the Hitlers and
the Mussolinis. Beyond that, with current and emerging enhancements
of concentrated political and military power, if we lose what democracy
we have, we may never get it back.
In summary: a democracy that is not wise will not be able to handle
the crises already emerging around us, and will be lost.
So now is the time -- while the worst of the coming catastrophes
are still over the horizon (though visible to the far sighted) --
to create a democracy that is wise enough to survive and thrive
in the Era of Consequences we are entering. We have resources right
now to do it, if we choose to channel them into activities that
will serve us in this historic effort.
There may be political space to work in, as well. As existing systems
become more unmanageable, those involved with them, including their
leaders, are increasingly searching for alternatives. Wherever that
happens, evolutionary opportunities open up. Breakthroughs can happen
when such opportunities are taken before the clamor for oversimplified,
strong leadership overwhelms our yearning to direct our collective
fate with our own collective common sense.
New possibilities open when we apply the co-intelligence perspective
to the realm of politics. In particular, certain co-intelligent
public conversations can provide us with seeds and building blocks
for the wise democracy we need. Most people have not experienced
conversations like this. However, properly designed, carried out,
and embedded in the political system, these conversations would
transform ordinary, isolated citizens into an unlimited source of
collective intelligence, wisdom and democratic guidance for the
So if we're going to turn to leaders, let us look for servant leaders
who will make it possible for We the People to powerfully and brilliantly
INTEGRAL DELIBERATIVE DEMOCRACY
This vision of wise democracy is also called "integral deliberative
- It is INTEGRAL because it combines many co-intelligent
approaches into a conversational loom upon which we can weave
our diverse perspectives -- even polarized views -- about public
issues into public wisdom and will. Gathering our differences
like strands of multicolored yarn, it brings forth more inclusive
ways of understanding our world and each other for mutual benefit.
- It is DELIBERATIVE because it achieves this
integration not through ivory tower model-making or dictatorial
force, but by respectful, creative conversation among diverse
ordinary people who truly hear each other, learn where their diverse
gifts fit into a larger whole, and find themselves changing together
in the process, connecting more deeply with themselves, with each
other, with more of what is real, and with their common interests
- It is DEMOCRACY because the whole system is
designed to empower the best that We the People, collectively,
have to offer. It is grounded in our potential for wisely guiding
and co-creating our collective affairs. Together we can be our
own wise sovereign, our own inspired leader.
Integral deliberative democracy includes our voting, but it makes
that basic democratic activity more meaningful and effective by
creating space for better choices to emerge and then deepening our
understanding of them and the trade-offs involved, expanding the
wisdom of our choosing. And then it does more, empowering us to
envision and actually build exciting common futures together. The
trademark of this new brand of democracy is groups of diverse citizens
deliberating on public problems and possibilities in ways -- and
with powers -- few of us have ever dreamed of.
THE VARIETIES OF CITIZEN DELIBERATION
Sometimes these groups may comprise a dozen or so citizens picked
at random to express the feelings of an entire population. Sometimes
they may contain several dozen diverse stakeholders whose familiarity
with a problem covers all the major viewpoints involved. Sometimes
hundreds or thousands of citizens may be involved in study, dialogue,
analysis, evaluation and creativity around critical issues. They
may volunteer, be chosen by the convenors, or elected by their fellow
Sometimes these citizens may focus on studying an issue. Sometimes
they may be voicing a range of public concerns about the overall
direction of their community or society. Sometimes they may be envisioning
possible futures -- good and bad -- dreaming together or tracking
trends or probable consequences. Sometimes they might be examining
the performance of candidates or officeholders, or monitoring the
progress of a governmental program or the ethical operations of
a corporation. They may be reviewing laws that have already been
passed, or they may be commenting on new ballot initiatives proposed
by nonprofit groups, corporate lawyers, legislators -- or other
There is no limit to the uses to which co-intelligent citizen panels
can be put. And, when you realize that we're not talking about the
all-too-familiar and torturous "committee meetings" and
"public hearings," but rather about deep, authentic, no-holds-barred
conversations that are designed (and usually facilitated) to get
at the heart of the matter and to evoke the best that the participants
have to offer -- then you realize that we're talking about a totally
unprecedented vision of democracy. Not only is it more potent and
potentially wise than the down-home vision of town hall democracy,
it is more scalable: We can establish viable integral deliberative
democracy in cities and countries with millions of people.
Most of the conversations that make up an integral deliberative
democracy happen all over the society -- in homes and churches,
in workplaces and libraries, in bars and cafes and classrooms --
in a thousand different forms -- generating a truly informed and
engaged population. However, integral deliberative democracy is
particularly marked by key conversations of selected (often randomly
selected) citizens who, as temporary deliberative councils, perform
various higher functions in the political process, including informing
all the other conversations going on.
These ordinary citizens -- who embody but do not "politically
represent" the diversity of their communities -- carry out
powerful, official deliberations ordinarily reserved for think tanks
and legislatures. They tap into the expertise around them, becoming
expert themselves. However, unlike most think tanks and legislatures,
these citizen councils bring to their expertise their communities'
values and a common sense appreciation of how the issues they're
studying impact ordinary people like themselves. They do not live
in ivory towers. They are not millionaire lawyer politicians. They
are us, The People.
But they are not just The People. They are The People
informed and engaged, a rich diversity in search of a wise consensus.
Their conclusions are not the sort that one finds in most opinion
polls and election tabulations. Delving deeply into all sides of
an issue, these folks are less susceptible to propaganda. Often
they know more about a subject than the legislators who are voting
on it in the congresses and parliaments of the world. Furthermore,
as ad hoc groups convened for a few days or weeks or months, they
are (like juries) much more immune to pressure than standing bodies
of professional politicians and bureaucrats.
They use leading-edge group processes, facilitation, and sometimes
advanced information and communications technologies to do their
research and dialogue -- and sometimes they even cross-examine leading
experts and officials. Such resources are not available to most
of us -- a fact which makes it hard for most of us to make sense
of all the dozens of complex issues we are called to comment or
vote on. The complexity of the issues we face makes it almost impossible
to exercise our individual citizenship
wisely. However, we can collectively make
precious communication and informational resources available to
small, officially-convened, randomly selected groups of us, to think
and act on our behalf and to inform us when they've gotten a handle
on what should be done. In this way, we can make our citizenship
meaningful once again -- as a whole society -- without all of us
having to get involved in endless meetings ourselves.
Because they are specially chosen, facilitated, and empowered to
learn, these citizen councils are able to go deeper and wider and
higher than most of us can. They are more able to see The Big Picture,
to find meaningful common ground among diverse perspectives, and
to craft truly wise recommendations for policy and action. Wisdom
is, after all, big-picture intelligence, applied to the real situations
we're involved in.
AN INCLUSIVE EVOLUTIONARY ADVENTURE
This exciting new direction for politics does not replace adversarial
debate and power politics. Rather, it contains them, and uses them
for its own purpose: the enhancement of the common good. Because
it uses co-intelligent processes, it can encourage both unity and
diversity, agreement and dissent, since both are valuable resources
for realizing the common good. It doesn't demand or require mass
participation, but empowers those who want to participate to do
so in more meaningful, effective ways. Above all, it taps the unfathomable
power of ordinary people to generate the collective wisdom we need
to navigate the rough waters ahead.
Furthermore, if, in time, those waters grow calmer and less dangerous
-- as indeed they should if we address our problems with real wisdom
-- integral deliberative democracy offers us a path to continually
realize new collective visions and co-create better futures together.
Whatever society we want, this is a powerful tool for getting there.
Not only can we use it to make our lives better, but also to pursue
our development as a civilization evolving consciously, on an ongoing
Those who want a healed natural world can use this tool to get
it. Those who want a society that promotes individual and group
development, can use this tool to create such a society. Those who
want more time, or more peace, or more justice, or more care for
our children, or more beauty in our cities, or more sustainable
economies -- in short, anything that serves the common good -- can
use integral deliberative democracy to further those goals.
This is all possible because ordinary people, when they have the
full information, when they have access to each other's perspectives
in a creative, respectful setting, when they are fully heard and
challenged to rise to the occasion on behalf of their whole community
or country or world, will gravitate towards what is most deeply
important to most people. It is natural. It is almost inevitable.
As long as we empower them to do it.
Those, on the other hand, who want to arrange things for their
own benefit at the expense of the lives, communities, nature, beauty,
meaning, and spirit of others, will find that integral deliberative
democracy frustrates them at every turn. If the system is designed
correctly, they will find few avenues to mold the minds of these
free, creative groups acting on behalf of their fellows and a healthy
This is not to say that everything will be perfect from the start
-- or ever -- or that every decision of such citizen councils will
satisfy all of us. "Perfection" is an irrelevant distraction.
The important thing is to be able to learn -- and apply what we
learn -- from wherever we start. I believe that the wisdom created
in co-intelligent conversations by ordinary members of a community
is the highest wisdom that that community as a whole is ready to
hear and ready to live. It is appropriate, useful wisdom -- a dependable
starting place for the learning that will happen next. Since it
will not be perfect wisdom (no wisdom is), the imperfections will
show up, to be explored in broad public conversation and by subsequent
citizen councils -- again hearing many viewpoints -- and worked
over into something even more wise.
This is important, especially for both the utopians and the cynics
among us. Integral deliberative democracy doesn't create some ideal
state and stop there. It is a process, not a destination. It helps
us create better wisdom and better social conditions each time around,
learning as we go. It is a way of creating our lives well together,
over and over, forever. It is a way of consciously evolving, together,
as a global culture, within and among our diverse local and group
It is a way of finding better paths, and being empowered to take
those paths, whenever the time is ripe or the need urgent.
All this is not part of any finalized blueprint. It is an opening
into new possibilities, the start of an adventure. Many different
techniques, approaches, visions and understandings already exist
around us and among us as resources for building the kind of political
culture we need. The co-intelligence perspective provides a sense
of how we might fit all these pieces together into coherent systems
that can be more powerful than their parts. What we each currently
view as our methodology, our profession, our life, is in fact a
strand of a mythic emerging fabric. It is waiting to be taken up
-- by ourselves and each other -- as part of a larger emerging pattern
of possibility we will weave into hopeful, life-serving futures
for our world.
I hope you can "smell the bakery around the corner" as
vividly as I can. I hope your mouth waters, your stomach grumbles,
and your visionary appetite expands -- as mine does -- at the enticing
possibilities so close, awaiting our eager arrival...
If enough people smell this bakery, we can be assured there will
be bread for all.
For more information on tools to pursue this vision, see
and Democratic Theory
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