Crazy politics? How much longer will we wait?

The US 2016 electoral season has featured some of the most dysfunctional and dangerous political dynamics we have seen yet – and there is good reason to believe we haven’t seen the end of them yet. We can sense in our guts how crazy it is. There are many reasonable and visionary alternatives – more than two dozen of them offered here – and it is time to seriously think about putting more attention on them. The way things are going now, if we fail to focus on changing our political system, our activist efforts could soon lose all meaning and power.

As we approach a dramatic and decisive moment in American politics, perhaps it would be wise to take a moment to notice how you feel – and to realize that a likely majority of your peers – even those with whom you disagree intensely – feel much the same way. We have reached a truly ironic and paradoxical moment of simultaneous common ground and division…

* Are you sick of money, advertising and lobbying dominating politics – which seems to overlap with increasing corruption and abuse of centralized power in both public and private sectors?

* Are you sick of being forced to support candidates you don’t like in order to not “waste your vote”? This common challenge is made worse this year by the fact that most voters dislike BOTH major candidates while many qualified and attractive prospects never become viable candidates in the first place. How did we come to this surreal place?

* Are you sick of sound-bite “debates” that don’t deal with real substantive issues and exclude important voices? It is chilling how some of our biggest issues, threats, and opportunities are weirdly invisible in mainstream political discourse. What the public really needs and wants gets ignored, and elites use politics and government to serve each other while covering their tracks with widely publicized PR and spin. At least it is entertaining… sometimes… when it isn’t terrifying…

* Are you sick of partisan politics obstructing urgently needed government action? It sometimes seems like elite factions are most seriously focused on fighting amongst themselves and it’s really only We the People who actually NEED government action – although we’re too busy fighting and watching the spectacle to generate the coherent power to change that….

Our frustration runs deep and wide on all sides. Our systems of politics and governance are not working for the vast majority of us. But efforts to correct that are channeled into the very systems that are not working. The dynamics of oligarchy increasingly colonize both the realities and the myths of democracy. And as both inequality and environmental destruction generate scarcity, insecurity, and competition, our winner-take-all majoritarianism divides us into highly charged unstable camps that are coming apart at the seams, tearing apart our society as they go and creating growing spaces for demagoguery and chaos.

How far down this path must we go before serious consideration of alternatives becomes a – let’s say THE – central passion of commentators, activists, theoreticians, funders, and ordinary citizens? Whatever alternatives we may choose to promote would require some runway to get off the ground, and the runway is clearly disappearing. So it would behoove us to get moving…

You may ask – rightly so! – what do I mean by “alternatives”? There are dozens that could really make a difference. Here are a few to get the juices flowing…:

Already broadly known are electoral reforms like ranked-choice (a.k.a. instant-runoff) voting and proportional representation, as well as campaign finance reforms like publicly funded elections and broader anti-corruption efforts in addition to efforts to establish local community rights.

More transformational and potent (in my view) are moves that promote and empower citizen deliberation and random selection which can help free direct democracy from fears of cooptation and mob rule.

1. One angle of approach to this features connecting citizen discourse with the actions of politicians, for example:

* pledges by politicians to take seriously properly convened citizen deliberations, promising to follow the deliberators’ advice or publicly explain why they can’t or won’t (see the Co-Intelligence Institute’s Politician’s Pledge for an example)

* politicians who base their campaigns and political identity on citizen engagement (see politician Kai Degner, Argentina’s Net Party and my Pat and Pat story as examples)

* randomly selected citizen deliberative councils that interview and/or evaluate candidates and publish their findings (see the Jefferson Center’s gubernatorial Citizens Jury and John Gastil’s BY POPULAR DEMAND for examples)

* networks of randomly selected citizens acting as “citizen cabinets” to advise representatives (see Voice Of the People for a current example)

2. Another angle is to connect citizen deliberation to direct democracy (citizens voting directly on policies):

* Mobile apps for this purpose include DemocracyOS and Brigade (which could be integrated with liquid democracy)

* Citizen deliberative review of ballot initiatives such as the Citizen Initiative Review and the National Citizens Initiative for Democracy [search for “Deliberative Committee”]

* Deliberative creation of initiatives like the Citizens Assembly on Electoral Reform and my deliberative game app proposal

3. A third angle is to give real power to citizen deliberations:

* In Participatory Budgeting – which is already happening in hundreds of cities around the world – citizens deliberate on how to use a significant chunk of an official budget, with the government required to apply that money in the way the citizens decide. This could be expanded to more cities, more of the budget, and to state and national budgets.

* Imagine this political ad labeling requirement: Once a dependable system of citizen deliberations is set up (which could happen in many different ways), then any political ad promoting a candidate or policy would be required to include a prominent notice (like the warnings on cigarette ads and packages) that says “For fuller and less biased information on this, go to _____” with a link to the citizen deliberative report on that candidate or policy. This would not violate any free speech standards but would automatically publicize the collective wisdom of citizens and reduce the negative partisan influence of the political ads.

* Citizen Legislature: Imagine, for a quick example, a group of 500 citizens chosen at random from a national pool of more than a million qualified volunteers each serving for 3 years (with overlapping terms) as a fourth branch of government who use advanced deliberative techniques to deliberate on national policies. With an 80% supermajority (400 members) they can veto or change legislation passed by the other two legislative branches, or generate their own legislation that can only be overridden by 80% of both of the other two legislative branches. For other ideas, see Ernest Callenbach’s and Michael Phillip’s A CITIZEN LEGISLATURE, Ethan J. Leib’s DELIBERATIVE DEMOCRACY IN AMERICA, and chapter 13 of my EMPOWERING PUBLIC WISDOM.

Every single one of these can be critiqued to death. We need and want critiques, but we need them to be offered as ways to improve these initiatives, not to kill them. When we are immersed in the problems associated with them, we should keep our perspective and look at the mess we have now in our politics and governance and ask ourselves honestly, “Would this be better or worse than what we have now?”

My own perspective is that any and all such initiatives would change our actual systems of politics and governance in ways that made them more responsive to the kinds of sensible solutions we so desperately need. But it will take a revolution in our thinking to shift from fighting among ourselves about candidates and issues to transforming the systems that decide the fate of all candidates and issues. Because we are not in charge right now. And we could be – and we could do it far more wisely than what’s going on this year.

The trends exemplified by the 2016 election campaign show how urgently we need this revolution in our thinking.



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

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