A society governed by the people’s wisdom…

Last weekend I joined a small group exploring the idea that society could have the capacity to generate “public wisdom” and that we could empower that wisdom to support wiser public policy and popular behavior.

Because many people don’t know what we mean by “public wisdom”, we clarified that, for the purposes of this inquiry,
the word “public” means that
– the wisdom is generated by ordinary people
– in groups who embody the diversity of their communities
– for the guidance of officials and the citizenry (the whole public)
– regarding public affairs and the concerns of the citizenry
– in forms that are known about and readily accessible to everyone.

and the word “wisdom” means, simply,
– taking into account what needs to be taken into account
– for long term broad benefit.

Evidence suggests that under the right conditions, ordinary people can produce that kind of wisdom on behalf of their community or country. (I explore those “right conditions” in my 2012 book EMPOWERING PUBLIC WISDOM.)

In our gathering last weekend, my colleague Carolyn Shaffer invited me to answer the following question:

“How is life in the public realm better after empowered public wisdom takes hold?”

Her question invited me to assume that a culture of empowered public wisdom had already come about. It was an interesting exercise. I want to share with you my answers. Perhaps they will help you see why some of us are so attracted to this approach to social change.

When I imagine myself in a culture that enables and empowers public wisdom, I imagine a society in which the following are true:

* In general, among all of us, there is a very strong sense of – and identity as – “We the People”. We see ourselves, 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.

* We feel the government is US, not THEM. We feel that WE, ourselves, collectively, are running things, making our communities and countries work well. We are competently creating better prospects for our children – and we are proud of that.

* Most issues are getting resolved in ways that the vast majority of us – usually well over 80% – think are sensible. We treasure and protect the systems we have instituted to achieve those results.

* There is less protest and money in politics than in “the old days” – and far more productive conversation. There is still attempts at political manipulation and polarization, but they are minor footnotes to the overall functioning of our politics and government. We recall with some horror the old days when “politics” meant all-out polarized battle, often with little real discussion or insight about what was really going on and what was really important. (Young people today can’t even grasp how insane it all was!)

* We often watch a randomly selected group of our fellow citizens working through a difficult issue or creating a budget using our citizen deliberative council approach. 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. After all, hot debates often surface and dramatic stories get told. 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!)

* 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 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-simplicity doesn’t come close to reflecting our tremendous diversity and creativity, to say nothing of our potential common ground on 90% of the issues we face.

* Seeking that common ground, people listen well to each other in political conversations and know how to use their differences creatively. Many methods for doing that are well known and widely used. For many years we always depended on professional facilitators, moderators and mediators to help us do this, but we are rapidly developing a broad cultural competence at doing it ourselves.

* When there is political battle – which still happens occasionally – it is usually (not always) respectful and provides us observers with useful information about the issues. We tend to recognize and dismiss partisans who use attack ads and undue emotional manipulation in their propaganda. Most of us know we have far better ways to learn about and decide about the big issues in our society.

* Engaged citizens frequently turn to the crowd-sourced Deliberapedia – first described in the book Empowering Public Wisdom by Tom Atlee – to get a clear sense of the arguments that support various approaches to each issue. Many of us – especially us activist types – add our two cents or rewrite sections to make it more complete or useful. Deliberapedia increasingly covers fringe approaches 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.

* Although so much of our political and government activity is handled by citizen deliberations in policy juries and by citizen-reviewed ballot initiatives, we still have a representative system of government. However, unlike in “the old days”, we feel like our reps work for us, rather than over us or behind our backs. The reps mission is to help 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’ve woven representative democracy, direct democracy, and citizen deliberative democracy into a potent and satisfying whole.

* We push our diplomats to use wisdom-generating conversations rather than violence, threat, and manipulation in international relations. This shift mimics what most of us are doing more and more in our homes and communities. The biggest result of all this is that families, communities, countries and the world are much more peaceful.

* In general, per survey data, we feel far less fear and far 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 it but it’s often more dangerous). We’ve come to understand that such crises can help us focus on the need for fundamentally new approaches.

* A sustainable economy is evolving based on enhancing and sustaining our quality of life together right where we are, more than on consuming and having our own stuff made in big factories and plantations far away. Resource constraints and new technologies are combining to channel more economic activities into local interactions, enhanced by lots of sharing and gifting and mutual aid. Much has been written about how our systems for eliciting public wisdom have contributed to our turning away en masse from mass consumerism to this far more satisfying way of life that happens 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 government as we return to doing more things for ourselves and each other 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. 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 quite popular in recent decades). We see taxes as a way to support our society’s health and to practice responsible citizenship, not as an oppressive burden.

* We keep close watch over our public-wisdom generating processes to protect them from being corrupted. Luckily, we have the means to do that: periodic review by both randomly selected citizen panels AND ongoing oversight by American 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 the citizens who are selected to participate in it.

Finally we can and do sometimes hold referendums (at every level including the national) to head off sneaky efforts to degrade our wisdom-generating systems and their safeguards. By using random selection for our temporary citizen councils, we greatly reduce the problem of corruption. 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.”

Random selection, as our ancient Athenian democracy-ancestors knew, is a potent antidote to the corruptions of power and the manipulations of elites. Unlike the ancient Athenians, we include every adult in our random selections and we use it to maintain the integrity of our representative system – our republic – as well, so that we can have the best of both worlds. Our 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.

Our biggest innovation is that we use not just vigilance but wisdom – our collective wisdom. In 1958 theologian Henry Nelson Wieman warned, “The predicament of Western man …is a failure to develop wisdom proportionate to power …Wisdom must be in proportion to power if power is to be used wisely. All the evidence seems to indicate that the wisdom of the majority of people in Western culture has not been increasing as rapidly as the gigantic increase in power which they have acquired …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.”

This we have done by catalyzing a leap in the wisdom that we – we ordinary people together – can co-create and apply to the conditions of our lives, the life of our communities, and the world that our children’s great grandchildren will thrive in. Knowing the risks of “gigantic power”, we have given our collective wisdom the power to monitor the other forms of power we have collectively created – social, political, economic, and technological powers – powers whose tremendous gifts come with great shadows that can only be effectively illuminated and dissipated with the revealing light of the collective wisdom we generate together.

So we do that.

I invite you to add your own thoughts and visions regarding “public wisdom” by submitting a comment on this blog post.

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