Democracy in Crisis: Breakdown and Breakthrough

I’ll talk about democracy in a minute.  But first a note about crises and evolution.

Evolutionary science tells us that crises and catastrophes are cauldrons of co-creativity, generating new forms.

Perhaps the most dramatic example is how the 70 heavier-than-iron elements get created in supernovae explosions of dying stars, some of which burst so violently they are as bright as a whole galaxy.  You can’t get much more catastrophically creative than that.

Here are two potent examples from the deep history of our own planet: 

1.  Over a billion years ago there was an “oxygen crisis”, in which existing photosynthetic bacteria cranked out so much oxygen into the ocean it was toxifying the planet.  It was rusting all the nutrient iron out of the water, eating away at the bacteria themselves — remember anti-oxidants? — and depleting methane from the atmosphere, dangerously cooling the planet.  Bad news!!  Luckily, oxygen breathing bacteria evolved right at that time to change oxygen to carbon dioxide, putting things back in balance.

2.  Hundreds of millions of years later an unfortunate concentration of meteor strikes and volcanoes apparently triggered climate change so serious that it wiped out the dinosaurs and most other species on earth.  That cleared the way for the emergence of big mammals like us.  Our rodent ancestors’ underground lifestyle apparently helped them survive that global calamity 65 million years ago, releasing a whole new era of evolutionary creativity, out of which we showed up very much later. 

It is certainly something to think about:  If it weren’t for these three horrendous catastrophes (among many others), we wouldn’t be here.  For better and worse, the crises keep coming…

Which brings us to today, 65 million years after the dinosaurs left the stage.  And what do we find?  The US Supreme Court has just decided that giant special interest groups like unions and corporations deserve the same speech rights as ordinary citizens and that money is speech.  Tossing aside major laws and legal precedents, a 5-4 majority stripped away all limits to corporate partisan activity in federal elections (opening the way for similar legalistic unleashings in state and local elections).  Talk about a catastrophe!…

If all of us could buy hours of TV advertising and legions of lawyers to beat opponents in court and lobbyists to beat opponents in politics and buy off government official with campaign contributions, that might be one thing.  But we don’t have the same economic and social power as insurance conglomerates, oil companies, and Wall Street.  And the idea that corporations are persons — nailed down explicitly in this decision — is patently absurd.  The Bill of Rights gets stretched to the breaking point when a multinational corporation is given the same rights as you and I.  Somehow I can’t imagine the USA’s Founding Fathers had this in mind when they said “We the People”…

Maybe it would be OK all bloggers and media were created equal and everything was presented in rational arguments.  But that’s not the way it is.  And it is getting worse:  Add to that the rapidly growing ability of political advertising to literally get inside your brain, totally bypassing your rational mind so you think you know why you’re making a decision to buy or vote, but you don’t have a clue — a practice known as neuromarketing —
or — and we have the makings of a political system light years more manipulated and out of control than it is now.  The prospects for an appropriate balance of power vanish in an explosion of polarizing language, compelling imagery and potent networking.  For a clear, grounded sense of the dynamics of social power, see

Some folks are calling this sea-change in our political landscape the end of American democracy as we know it.  At the very least, it is a rapidly growing obstacle to our already struggling collective intelligence and community wisdom.

OK, so we have a catastrophe in the making.  Where’s the opportunity?  

I see an unprecedented surge of democratic consciousness-raising and creativity in the last few months and going off the charts in the last week.  The Supreme Court decision directly inspired a few of these efforts, but by its extreme irrationality it also releases powerful energies that could support any number of significant initiatives and radically shift democracy in participatory, answerable, collectively intelligent directions.  Anything could happen.  Right now is what evolutionary political theorists call “an evolutionary moment.”

Here are some of the more promising wise-democratic initiatives I see emerging to give a voice to “the people” as a whole, awaiting your support and participation.  I’m confident there are hundreds of others that I don’t know about or have overlooked.  This tip of the iceberg suggests there’s a significant shift developing under the surface…

1.  Inspired by a David Sirota article “Seeing Red and Feeling Blue in Purple America”, a new “Purple Alliance” is coming together to “convene concerned individuals and organizations from anywhere on the political spectrum; consider every issue that anyone cares enough about to defend or advocate; and connect everything and include Congress.”  I’m not sure how exactly they plan to do this, but the intention is clear.  As purple movement leading light Bruce Schuman says, “the way I see it — there’s a new wind blowing. I think there’s new ideas in the air. I think there are emerging new political forces — that aren’t about “republicans” and “democrats”. We need a political system that is about “the people” and about “democracy”, not the two-party system — and about the right way to run this country, and how we can come together as a nation, to be stronger, to be better…”

2.  The Transpartisan Alliance has already had remarkable success bringing together leading progressives and conservatives for creative conversation (see for some fascinating short videos).  It is now exploring the possibility of convening Citizen Leadership Councils and Citizens Assemblies of people from all parties — Democrats, Republicans, Greens, Libertarians, Independents, etc. — to discuss issues of public importance and advise government and the public with common ground solutions.  See for a cogent, intense video of Transpartisan Alliance co-founder Joseph McCormick. For my own experience of the transformative impact of Joseph’s work back in 2004 see

3.  Steven Kull, a leading international pollster at World Public Opinion, wrote to me that “I have found very strong support [among citizens] for the public having a much greater role in governance and strong support for informed representative samples [of randomly selected citizens] playing an advisory role to government.  In the US 68% support the idea and three quarters say they would have more confidence in the views of such a group than the views of Congress.”  So Steven is developing a major pilot program to create a Citizen Advisory Panel of thousands of citizens at a state level (randomly chosen, 1/3 turnover each year) to serve as a pool from whom people would be picked for occasional phone surveys, online surveys and deliberations, and face-to-face citizen deliberative councils.  (His proposal is not yet online.)

4.  The Co-Intelligence Institute’s research project called the Whole System Initiative envisions multiple simultaneous but independent citizen deliberative councils and stakeholder dialogues tackling a single subject.  The outcomes of all of them could be compared for instructive similarities and differences.  Then the participants would be mixed and matched into a final round of conversations using Dynamic Facilitation — all in an effort to see if any particular series of “convenings of the whole” would result in similar outcomes.  If some form of citizen dialogue and deliberation could produce replicable results like public opinion surveys do, it would be a major breakthrough for democracy.  The specific process described in the project is offered more as a starting place for wise-democratic research than as a final proposal for wise-democratic process.

5.  Promise USA proposes a networked series of national conversations, hosted by Michelle Obama, inviting citizens to explore questions of importance to all.  The questions would be posed by Michelle and explored in World Cafe-style conversations in which people talk in small groups for half an hour and then switch into new small groups, going through several cycles of this before all together harvesting what they learned or created in their groups.  Conversations could be as small as a few people in someone’s home to thousands in large auditoriums or convention centers.  With several national conversations each year, each conversation would begin with a report from the First Lady about what actions individuals, groups, and the government had done that arose out of the last conversation.  Initiated by facilitators who have used World Cafe with the Girl Scouts of America, Promise USA’s initial conversations would be facilitated by girl scouts themselves, to help the adult citizens stay focused on long-term common-welfare solutions that will serve the next generations well.

6.  Ballot Initiative Process Reform.  The main project I’m familiar with here is the Oregon effort, Healthy Democracy Oregon (HDO) to institute a Citizens Initiative Review (CIR) in which citizens juries review every ballot measure that qualifies for the ballot — interviewing advocates and opponents of the measure, deliberating together and then publishing their findings in the official voter information pamphlet.  The Oregon State government last year authorized an official pilot of the proposal which will review three ballot initiatives during this year’s election. The folks working on this have also been invited to a International Forum on Direct Democracy whose main focus is on ballot measures, and their use to change constitutions. Two major sub topics are the use of technology in changing the initiative process, and efforts to reform it (ala HDO).…

7.  Repair California, a movement to create a Citizens Assembly to rewrite California’s dysfunctional constitution that is at the heart of the state’s current mess (bordering on collapse).…
or . The Assembly would be “randomly chosen with five delegates from each of California’s 80 assembly district, a 400 person sample large enough to be representative. The initiative that calls the convention can define an open process that adds webcasting, blogs, social networking, and hearings to build a consensus. Citizen delegates will earn a stipend so they can take a leave of absence from work, have a budget to hire the experts, and travel around the state in hearings and meetings.”

8.  Wisdom Councils use dynamic facilitation to help a periodic group of randomly selected citizens to articulate citizen concerns, dreams, and creative solutions.  Held regularly (ideally, quarterly for a community, annually for a state or nation), Wisdom Councils serve to develop the collective voice, self-awareness and agency of We the People, both through the councils themselves and through the impact they have on the community’s ongoing conversations and activities.  While this American idea has been around for over a decade, it is beginning to gain traction particularly in Canada and Europe.

Although each of these (and a number of other existing “voice of the people” programs from Public Agenda to AmericaSpeaks to National Issues Forums) arises from a different sense of what, exactly, is needed and how to achieve it, they all seem to be grounded in a shared desire to access the common voice and wisdom of the whole society — We the People.  That such a collectively wise voice is even possible to achieve is an idea new in our adversarial political culture, stuck as it is in “may the best man win” or, at best, “the art of politics is compromise”. 

The fact that so many visions of real public judgment and community wisdom are showing up makes me wonder if it is time to connect them all together, to create a larger conversation among those who believe it is both possible and desirable to call forth a legitimate, wise, empowered voice of We the People.  What would such dialogue and networking come up with that would be more practical, powerful, fundable and broadly attractive than any of the proposals so far put on the table?

I can imagine (just for example) a system for broad spectrum citizen input grounded in an expanded form of Steven Kull’s already broad vision, including not only a variety of survey channels and types of citizen deliberative councils, but also crowdsourcing software to collect and evaluate bright ideas and proposals from the public, integrated with direct democracy systems for online voting, as well as leading edge research (like CII’s WSSI) into how we can best generate a legitimate, wise “voice of the whole” that appropriately includes experts, stakeholders, and policy-makers as well as average citizens.  This whole system could be woven into the political and governmental process in many ways, from advising the public or policy makers, to actually passing laws or budgets.  It could address policy issues, proposals, candidates, evaluation of government or corporate operations, constitutional amendments, you name it. 

Steven Kull notes that public
sdom on many issues can be discovered inexpensively using online surveys, while other topics — like budgets, highly technical subjects, and very polarized issues — may best be addressed using face-to-face, in-depth, deliberative approaches, which would be less frequent due to their expense.  In some places approaches would become institutionalized, while in other places such a process may be stewarded by the grassroots, and backed by a network of We the People lobbyists and organizers.  In any case, a very committed and enlightened grassroots movement is needed to push such a People’s Voice system into existence over the resistance of entrenched special interests.  It would require activists who realize that creating new, wiser, more answerable democratic structures is far more important than any other issue because it will determine how all other issues are dealt with.

Other responses to the Supreme Court’s decision that don’t involve creating a “wise voice of We the People” include:

a.  Strengthen Conflict of Interest Laws:  Doris “Granny D” Haddock, who ten years ago — at 90 years old — walked across the US for campaign finance reform, now suggests “a flanking move that will help [campaign finance] reforms move faster: We need to dramatically expand the definition of what constitutes an illegal conflict of interest in politics” to include ANYTHING that significantly benefits a corporation.  “Should you ethically vote on health issues if health companies fund a large chunk of your campaign? The success of your campaign, after all, determines your future career and financial condition. You have a conflict.”  Interestingly, this conflict-of-interest approach serves to facilitate the evolutionary activist agenda of “aligning the self-interest of individuals and corporations to the well-being of the whole society.”…

b.  Ban Corporate Personhood:  Ralph Nader writes “This corporatist, anti-voter decision is so extreme that it should galvanize a grassroots effort to enact a Constitutional Amendment to once and for all end corporate personhood and curtail the corrosive impact of big money on politics. It is indeed time for a Constitutional amendment to prevent corporate campaign contributions from commercializing our elections and drowning out the civic and political voices and values of citizens and voters.”
I agree and think this is one of the most basic reforms needed.  Wikipedia provides a detailed discussion of corporate personhood and a list of organizations already working on it
For a short video on the subject see

c.  A Constitutional Amendment to allow Congress to limit corporate involvement in elections. and People for the American Way are pushing this, which complements the Nader approach, above.…

d.  National politicians respond.  Sen. Chuck Schumer and Rep. Chris Van Hollen have attacked the Supreme Court ruling and pledged to push through legislation to combat it.
President Obama said he can’t “think of anything more devastating to the public interest” than the Supreme Court’s decision, and he will make it a priority to address it.

Other organizations responding rapidly to this include
Alliance for Democracy
Public Citizen
The Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund
New Coalition
Liberty Tree

So a crisis is upon us.  If not addressed soon and well, it will almost surely morph into a catastrophe.  If it is addressed in the right way, we could end up with a stronger, more wise democracy than we’ve ever had before.  It is an evolutionary moment.

  Democracy is in crisis. 
  Crisis presents opportunity. 
  Opportunity opens the door to co-creativity. 
  It is time for breakthroughs.

It is time to move.


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