Tom Atlee reports from 2047, on what living in a Wise Democracy will feel like
This is originally a blog post from Tom Atlee, founder of the Co-Intelligence Institute and its Wise Democracy project. It’s such an extraordinarily optimistic view of what a “wise democracy” would be, if tendencies like sortition, or whole-systems thinking, became a norm for our societies, that we wanted to run the post in full (here’s the original, with great references at the end).
What would life in the public realm be like in a wise democracy? Let’s indulge our imaginations for a moment…
I asked a future colleague in 2047 what her society was like, and this is what she told me…
*** In general, among all of us, there is a very strong sense of – and identity as – “We the People”. We see ourselves – all together – as the powerful, wise, self-governing force of our shared world. We are our own wise sovereign, a sensible collective guide arising from our informed, shared common sense.
*** Our idea of who is included in “us” is evolving, expanding. Given the rising challenges (and diverse repercussions) of climate chaos, resource shortages, and technological disruptions, we’re expanding our sense of whose voices should be included in our decision-making.
Just as more different people were given the vote over the two centuries before your time, we increasingly include the voices of other life forms and future generations in our time. Although this perspective has existed in many indigenous cultures for millennia, it is new for most of us. But it definitely makes us – and our collective wisdom – more grounded in reality.
*** We feel the government is US, not THEM. We feel that WE, ourselves, collectively, are running things, making our communities and country work well together. We are competently creating better prospects for our children and their children – and we are really proud of that.
*** We recognize that in addition to being citizens in our community and country, we are also stakeholders in issues that concern us and go beyond our physical location. So we work through diverse multi-stakeholder networks that collaborate within and across issue domains.
Those collaborating networks include people from public, private, nonprofit and civic sectors – often embracing multiple scales, as well – especially bioregional.
As those network collaborations have developed, we’ve come to realize they constitute a new type of governance that embraces traditional government institutions but in more inclusive, dynamic forms of whole-system governance.
Over the last decade we’ve focused on innovating ways for this multi-stakeholder network approach to guide and be guided by our collective aspirations and wisdom as citizens, to integrate both forms of democracy to produce something even better.
*** Most issues are getting addressed in ways that the vast majority of us – usually well over 80% – think are sensible, even across the usual ideological, demographic and stakeholder divides. We treasure and protect the systems we have instituted to achieve those results.
*** Many of us often watch randomly selected groups of our fellow citizens publicly work through difficult issues or create budgets using our citizen deliberative council approach – especially the national policy juries I’ll describe in a minute. Many of us participate in forums, chats and call-ins before, during, and after such formal deliberations. Viewing and participating in citizen deliberations is a major national pastime – in person and online.
After all, hot debates often surface and dramatic stories get told – there’s drama!! Since the results affect us all, we’re intensely curious each time to see how it will turn out. We have to admit, however, that as popular as these deliberations are, they only occasionally get better ratings than major sports events. (Some things never change!)
*** At the top of this ecosystem of citizen deliberations is the People’s Legislature we established in 2032 with the We the People amendment to the Constitution. Each year the federal government random selects 6000 residents who serve one year terms in a pool to consider high priority national issues.
Then, for each issue to be deliberated, an ad hoc “policy jury” of 120 paid jurors gets randomly selected from that pool to spend 6-12 weekends getting educated about their issue and formally deliberating on it, usually accompanied by the kind of broad citizen engagement I just mentioned.
Their resulting recommendations are formulated into legislation which gets submitted for approval to a large randomly selected group of 10,000 citizens – our Mini-Electorate – who together embody the diversity of the whole country and vote on things on behalf of the rest of us.
Mini-Electorate elections are SO much cheaper than national referendums, and experiments have shown they replicate full national elections quite exactly. Usually one Mini-Electorate votes on three proposals before they’re disbanded, but nobody knows which proposal until their process starts, which makes it hard to manipulate!
Our People’s Legislature, policy juries and Mini-Electorate – all run by random selection – are where our citizen wisdom exercises real power. Under certain conditions they can even override decisions made by other branches of government. They are intentionally very hard to manipulate and corrupt.
*** More and more people see political parties as anachronisms. Their remnants today are fringe, sort of quaint, like Civil War re-enactments. They’ve been largely replaced by self-organized, evolving political discussion forums and advocacy alliances that cross over and mix up what people used to see (in the old days) as Left and Right, liberal and conservative.
Most of us are now fully aware that such partisan over-simplifications don’t come close to reflecting our true diversity and creativity, to say nothing of our potential common ground on 90% of the issues we face.
*** Seeking that common ground, most people usually (but certainly not always!!) listen well to each other in political conversations and have learned how to use their differences creatively. Many methods for doing so are well known and widely used.
For many years we had to depend on professional facilitators, moderators and mediators to help us with this, but we are rapidly developing a broad cultural competence at doing it ourselves.
*** When there are political battles – which still happen occasionally – they are usually (not always) respectful and provide those of us observing them with useful information about the issues involved. But we tend to recognize and dismiss partisans who use personal attacks and undue emotional manipulation (especially fear) in their propaganda.
Most of us know we have far better ways to learn about and decide on the big issues in our society.
*** Engaged citizens frequently turn to the crowdsourced Deliberapedia to get a clear sense of the arguments that support various approaches to each issue. Many of us – especially activist types – add our two cents or rewrite sections to make them more complete or useful.
Deliberapedia increasingly covers novel solutions and emerging issues, which is good because some of the lesser-known issues and approaches are where the most important wisdom shows up first or is needed most.
We engage a mix of randomly selected experts and AI-augmented participatory rating systems to deal with any informational controversies that become unwieldly or unproductive.
*** Although so much of our governance activity is handled by policy juries, citizen-reviewed ballot initiatives (like the system you have in Oregon), and collaborating networks, we have maintained our representative republic, as well, centered on elected representatives. However, unlike in “the old days”, we really feel like our reps work for us, rather than over us or behind our backs with special interests.
Through the Darwinian dynamics of electoral politics in an era of democratic innovation, our reps have learned to see their mission as helping craft our expressed collective policy preferences into a consistent body of laws that all stakeholders can live with and support, and to make sure their constituents are engaged and cared for in the process.
We’re very proud of how we’re weaving representative democracy, direct democracy, citizen deliberative democracy and inclusive stakeholder collaborations into a potent and satisfying whole.
*** There is far less protest and money in politics than you experience – and far more productive conversation. We still find people trying to manipulate and polarize the population, but such efforts are becoming less effective as other aspects of our new political culture take hold.
We recall with some horror the old days when “politics” meant all-out polarized battle, often with little sober discussion or insight about what was really going on and what was really important. The spread of fascinating, creative public discussions among diverse people is successfully eclipsing efforts by partisans and foreign hackers to divide us with fear and hate.
And our thoughtful, well-established use of random selection impedes special interest manipulations. (Young people today can’t even grasp how insane political life was even 20 years ago!)
*** In international relations we push our diplomats to use wisdom-generating conversations rather than violence, threat, manipulation and deal-making. The goal is always to really hear each other and work together to find ways to meet everyone’s fundamental needs and legitimate interests.
This shift mimics what most of us are doing more and more in our homes and communities as we encourage self-organized interactions and willingness in ways that help us get more of what we want together. The biggest result of all this is that families, communities, countries and the world are much more peaceful than in your time.
This has resulted in a dramatic reorientation of vast resources from the military and policing towards mitigating, adapting to, and reducing suffering from climate-related disruptions and other emerging non-military security challenges.
*** Even in the face of such rising challenges, surveys indicate we – the general population – feel far less fear and more collective determination, creative engagement, and willingness to explore transformative approaches when addressing crisis-level issues like climate change, economic disruption, nuclear issues, emerging technologies, and the remnants of terrorism (there’s less of that now, but it’s often more dangerous).
We’ve come to understand that such crises – when viewed as symptoms of deeper dysfunctions – can help us focus on the need for fundamentally new approaches, including changing how our political, economic, and other systems are set up.
*** Along those lines, a more sustainable economy is evolving based on enhancing and sustaining our “quality of life” together right where we are, more than on consuming more stuff made in big factories and plantations far away. Resource constraints, public policies, and newly sensible technologies are combining to channel more economic activities into local interactions, enhanced by lots of sharing, gifting and mutual aid, mostly outside of the national money-based economy.
Much has been written about how our systems for eliciting public wisdom have contributed to our turning away from mass consumerism to more satisfying ways of life that happen to also be more sustainable.
*** Thanks to our spreading sense of ownership and participation in governance, governments no longer complain about scarcity of resources for programs and services. For one thing, there’s less need for top-down government as we return to doing more things for ourselves and each other, activating collaborative networks, and building mutually supportive communities.
For similar reasons, many remaining government programs don’t cost as much as they once did because so many people are involved in creating and implementing them, so they are far less bureaucratic than in the old days, resulting in smaller government.
Finally, we have wisely revised our tax systems, replacing taxes on income from productive work with taxes on activities that threaten or damage our “general welfare” (that great phrase from the US Constitution has become increasingly popular recently!). We mostly tax excess wealth and unproductive financial speculation.
We see taxes as a way to support our whole society’s wellbeing and to practice responsible citizenship, not as oppressive burdens.
*** We keep close watch over our public-wisdom generating processes to protect them from being corrupted. We monitor them with periodic review by both randomly selected citizen panels AND ongoing oversight by National Citizens Engaged – our independent association of past members of citizen deliberative councils.
Backing them up are very tough laws against efforts to corrupt the process or unduly influence the citizens who are selected to participate in it.
So those are highlights of what we’ve got going. But I want to emphasize to you how using random selection for our People’s Legislature, its policy juries, our Mini-Electorate, and most state and local citizen councils greatly reduces the problem of corruption which so dominated your politics and governance before the We the People Amendment.
We take seriously abolitionist Wendell Phillips’ 1852 warning that “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty—power is ever stealing from the many to the few…. The hand entrusted with power becomes … the necessary enemy of the people.”
Today the hand entrusted with power is overwhelmingly the people’s hand, guided by our high quality collective deliberation.
Random selection, as our democratic ancestors in ancient Athens knew, is a potent antidote to the corruptions of power and manipulations by elites. Unlike the ancient Athenians, though, we include every adult in our random selections and we use that process to maintain the integrity of our representative system – our republic – as well, so that we can have the best of both worlds.
Our various official and grassroots citizen councils enhance the “balance of power” America’s founders innovated when they equally empowered all three branches of government – legislative, executive, and judicial. We also use the eternal vigilance of the People’s collective wisdom to oversee the behavior of our media and those corporations upon which we still depend.
But I also want to emphasize how we sustain our newly healthy culture not just with vigilance but with wisdom – our collective wisdom. 89 years ago, theologian Henry Nelson Wieman warned, “The predicament of Western man …is a failure to develop wisdom proportionate to power …Wisdom in this context is the understanding of other minds and of one’s own mind in such a way that one knows what are his basic needs, the needs of others, and the most important needs of human kind.”
To which we would add “the needs of nature, the world, and future generations.” All our empowered participation would soon become a problem if it were not for the collective wisdom it has been designed to generate.
We are achieving the political culture I’ve described by catalyzing a leap in the wisdom that we – we ordinary people together – can co-create and apply to the conditions of our lives and the lives of our communities – as well as to the vibrancy of the world that our children’s great grandchildren will inherit.
Knowing the risks of “gigantic power” – social, political, economic, technological – we have given our collective wisdom the power to monitor the other forms of power we have collectively created, whose tremendous gifts come with dark shadows that can only be effectively illuminated and dissipated with the revealing light of the collective wisdom we generate together.
So we do that.