A critical shift in our view of democracy

Most people realize that democracy is in crisis. They understand that we need to make it more just, principled, participatory, fair and inclusive. In this essay I suggest that democracy also needs to be more capable of generating the collective wisdom we need to address our rapidly emerging and converging national and global crises. To succeed at this we need to make a critical shift in our worldview, outlined below. 

Note that the deadline for applying to join our pilot course on wise democracy has been extended to August 30. We invite you to apply.


Democracy is in crisis. Most of us realize this. Here’s how I see it… and, what I see as the way forward.

Not only is democracy not living up to its original ideals, but even those ideals seem designed for an earlier time. We have nowhere near the collective capacity needed to wisely meet the incredible emerging and converging challenges facing communities, societies, and global civilization in the 21st century.

A wide-ranging struggle is underway between the centralized power of massive institutions and hyper-rich families on the one hand, and the distributed power of millions of citizens, bloggers, grassroots groups, small businesses, public service organizations, and whistleblowers. As extreme imbalances grow between elites and vast populations, humanity’s impacts on nature exceed nature’s capacity to absorb those impacts. Local human and natural communities are coming apart as the lives and attention of billions of people become absorbed in virtual realities and global economic networks. As more voices are virtually heard, less listening and reflection are actually happening. Our technologically enhanced collective power is rapidly moving beyond the capacity of our limited collective wisdom. And as these predicaments grow, the pace and complexity of everyday life make it harder to take time out to think clearly together.

This situational crescendo is not likely to be addressed wisely by hundreds of millions of voters – questionably informed by interest groups and mass media – choosing partisan politicians for positions in slow-moving government institutions distracted by corrupting forces and the complexities of global empire.

That’s what the crisis of democracy looks like to me. And I’m definitely not alone in thinking it is time for major change. Here is what I see as the way forward…

We need something aligned with the idealistic trajectory of democracy, yet involving a quantum leap into powerfully wise whole-society co-creativity. We need a wiser democracy that has already been approximated by small groups, some local communities, and isolated experiments but seldom manifested in whole societies and civilizations. We need to integrate and scale up those experiments.

The first step on this journey is becoming clearer about where we want to go. Toward that end, I offer below some notes on likely characteristics of a wiser democracy, compared to our current democratic understandings.

We’ll be discussing some of this in the Co-Intelligence Institute’s new pilot course introducing the wise democracy vision and worldview. We’ve extended the application deadline to August 30th. So there is still time to apply, if you’d like to join us.




The following outline lists factors associated with the familiar democratic paradigm, followed by lists of factors associated with the wise democracy paradigm that includes and reaches beyond the familiar principles.  In each of the three categories covered – participation, power, and outcomes/wisdom – I also offer a transformational question followed by a possible answer to that question.


Familiar paradigm: Democracy is about active, inclusive citizenship.
* Citizenship: Voting, activism
* Inclusion: Input, everyone has a voice
* At the leading edge we find:
– getting beyond manipulation – or the mere appearance – of participation
– public dialogue and deliberation
– stakeholder and “whole system” dialogues

Expanded paradigm: Democracy is about creative interactions among diverse people.
* Using diversity creatively and productively
* Evoking an authentic, coherent voice of the whole (“We the People”)
* Engaging complementary roles of
– ordinary citizens
– stakeholders (parties with special interest in the issue)
– experts and
– public officials

Paradigm shift question: What kind of participation would generate wise effectiveness?
* Including full-spectrum diversity in
* … authentic, generative conversations feeding
* … ongoing whole-system engagement.


Familiar paradigm: Democracy is about “majority rule”.
* Struggle between interest groups, partisans, classes, etc. (with all players seeking to shape public opinion and the democratic process)
* Majoritarianism decides the winner
* A system of elected representatives
* Balance of power between branches of government
* At the leading edge we find:
– fighting oligarchic influence and control
– empowering marginalized groups

Expanded paradigm: Democracy is about the co-creative power of the whole.
* Co-creativity: Recognizing we’re always co-creating our circumstances, and learning to do it more consciously and effectively.
* Power-with: Using and enhancing our capacity to work well together towards common goals.
* Power-from-among: The potency that arises from healthy relationships and interactivity.
* Power-from-within: Guidance and energy that come from our wholeness (health, integrity, presence) and connection to deeper and broader wellsprings of life.
* Minimizing the need for and use of power-over – the power of control, domination, and manipulation.

Paradigm shift question: What kind of power would be arise from and further participatory wisdom?
* Holistic power – power with, power from among, power from within (minimizing power-over and power-against) – aimed at
* … co-creating a healthy shared world (the commons) by the ongoing exercise of
* … whole-system power – the long-term integrated gifts and potency of all entities, elements and energies in any given system.


Familiar paradigm: Democracy is about fair process.
* Outcomes that are fair to the extent they respect individual and group rights and due process.
* Outcomes are usually achieved by compromise and deal-making.
* Legitimacy is defined by public and/or stakeholder satisfaction with governance.

Expanded paradigm: Democracy is about collective wisdom. Legitimacy is defined by:
* Outcomes that support ongoing healthy relationships with each other, the world, and the future.
* Outcomes that use and exemplify collective intelligence and wisdom.
* Outcomes which generate life-affirming, long-term broad benefits.

Paradigm shift question: What kind of outcomes would arise from and serve the alive co-creativity of all involved?
Outcomes emerging from authentic participation enabling
* … shared attention to what would benefit “the whole”
* … over the long-term – and in a “deep time” long view perspective – through
* … whole-system learning and understanding…

Some of you may be particularly interested
in supporting our Wise Democracy Pattern Language Project.
If so, here’s the link to our current crowdfunder with lots of cool perks.

Summer 2016 Co-Intelligence Institute Fundraising Campaign note: So far 66 people and foundations have supported us with $21,005. Join them in supporting our work. Our target is $25,000. We greatly appreciate your support. Please donate now. It will make a big difference and your donation is fully tax-deductible in the U.S.

Tom Atlee, The Co-Intelligence Institute, POB 493, Eugene, OR 97440
Calling forth the wisdom of the whole for the wellbeing of the whole

Please support our work. Your donations are fully tax-deductible.

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