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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 day:

  • 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 power,
     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 times ahead.

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 lead ourselves.


This vision of wise democracy is also called "integral deliberative democracy."

  • 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 and dreams.
  • 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.


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 citizens.

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 citizen panels.

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.


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 basis.

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 future.

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 cultures.

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

Co-Intelligent Political and Democratic Theory


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