Is the Public Well-Informed Enough to be Trusted with Democracy?

OZY.com is an interesting news feed that includes occasional provocative questions for their audience under the name “Third Rail”. Recently they asked their readers if the public is well-informed enough to be trusted with democracy. My response (below) explores how their question distracts us from some very important problems with America’s political system and some promising possibilities for its future.

Dear OZY Third Rail folks,

You ask “Is the Public Well-Informed Enough to be Trusted with Democracy?

Your question dances around an even bigger, even more important situation, without actually acknowledging it and its related question:

Is it realistic to depend on our current form of democracy when its collective intelligence is undermined by dynamics like the following?

(a) There is an almost infinite number of issues, candidates and proposals – all of which are quite complex – such that no individual citizen can possibly truly understand the choices they are presented with.

(b) Both the choices and most of the information surrounding those choices are presented by polarized “sides” (as dictated by our winner-take-all majoritarian system) which reduce the actual complexity of what’s involved to soundbites.

(c) Journalistic neutrality – always a struggle – is being increasingly eroded and corrupted by the money-based power dynamics of ownership and advertising.

(d) The weakening of traditional informational “gatekeepers” and the rise of highly participatory mass media has produced a wild uproar of informational noise that drives citizens further into oversimplified “sides” or out of political conversations altogether.

When we truly face this deeper challenge and search for new ways of doing democracy – avoiding the undesirable but currently re-emerging alternatives of authoritarianism and technocratic bureaucracy – we discover exciting options that just need to be intelligently integrated into our existing politics and governance – and which might then have a chance to expand into radically new forms of democracy that access and empower the potential wisdom and resourcefulness of every whole community and country.

The most obvious example of such new approaches is the expansion of the jury model into the realm of public problem-solving and policy-guidance. Going by many names – citizen juries, policy juries, consensus councils, civic councils, citizen assemblies, citizen deliberative councils and more – they basically involve randomly selecting* a dozen to several hundred citizens (often scientifically balanced demographically) to form an ad hoc council to deeply investigate a public issue, proposal or candidate. They are given access to balanced briefing materials, experts, and partisans they can interview and cross-examine, and then helped to hear each other, to think together, and to come to shared conclusions about what makes sense to do about the subject they are considering.

Most people have no idea that hundreds of such citizen councils have been held around the world, convened by government agencies, nonprofit organizations, or groups of concerned citizens. Some political theoreticians and visionaries have proposed expanding this model into “citizen legislatures” that have real law-making power. But we don’t have to go that far. All we need to do is recognize how already existing citizen deliberative councils have advised public officials, stakeholder groups and/or the broad electorate with a truly legitimate voice of “we the people” that’s far more informed, thoughtful, and integrated than the kind of divided partisan voices we hear through dysfunctional public forums, opinion polls and surveys of isolated public individuals, and the electoral activity of voters manipulated and confused by factors like (a)-(d) above. To have a more informed democracy, we can retain our existing electoral and representative systems but augment them with this new voice-of-the-whole AND with adequate media to make that voice clearly visible to the world.

This approach suggests a new approach to democracy that provides new answers to your question: The public CAN BE informed enough to be trusted with democracy IF they are provided with trustworthy councils of their peers who are given sufficient support to wisely digest the complex choices we all face as citizens. These councils can provide us with more neutral, deliberative information and perspectives than the various pundits, interest groups, and targeted political advertisements upon which most public opinion is based today, so distorted by rampant ignorance and unnecessary divisiveness.

To this “public voice” option we could add the rapidly expanding dynamic of multi-sector, multi-stakeholder, multi-scale networks collaborating across traditional boundaries to more effectively get work done on the ground in specific realms of public concern. Because such collaborations include but reach beyond governments to include businesses, nonprofits, public service agencies, community benefit organizations, diverse advocacy groups, activists and others, they introduce the possibility of aligned activity among all the players engaged in specific public domains. Although this dynamic is outside the normal realm of politics and government, it is definitely an emerging form of GOVERNANCE, since it increasingly shapes the policies, directions, and activities of all the major players functioning in each and every public domain. This dynamic is already taking shape in many forms – both prototypical and advanced – around the world. The prospect of integrating it with a wholesome, deliberative voice of the people – especially with the latter providing stakeholders with guidance about the public’s values and aspirations – could offer an even more dramatic manifestation of deep democratic ideals: It combines democracy as “rule by ordinary people” with democracy as “decisions made by the parties effected”.

I could provide you with many links to material supporting these visionary possibilities. One place to start which attempts to embrace the fullness of these dynamics is the Wise Democracy Project.

Coheartedly,
Tom Atlee
Co-Intelligence Institute
Eugene, Oregon

* Since you raised the example of ancient Athenian democracy, I’d like to point out that 90% of government posts in ancient Athens were filled by randomly selected citizens and many of the proposals voted on by citizens in the Assembly were developed by randomly selected citizens in the 500-person “boule”, which had many other duties as well (about whose only role you note was putting Socrates to death). Aristotle observed that in Athens “It is accepted as democratic when public offices are allocated by lot; and as oligarchic when they are filled by election.” Interesting – both in its own right and in the fact that so few Americans who know about Athenian democracy know about this defining characteristic (technically called “sortition”), of which all that is left in our current democratic system is randomly selected trial juries – which also make many mistakes, which the design of modern citizen deliberative councils go far to correct. See my post “What is it about Random Selection??” for more.

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Tom Atlee, The Co-Intelligence Institute, POB 493, Eugene, OR 97440

Evoking and engaging the wisdom and resourcefulness of the whole on behalf of the whole

*** Visit the Wise Democracy Pattern Language Project ***

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