Making Democracies Worthy of the Name… and More

Democracy is rule of, by and for the people. There are many ways to try doing that. This message looks at a number of those. It was motivated partly by the rapid degradation of democratic cultures and systems in many parts of the world – and partly by the rapidly emerging interest in and experimentation with really interesting democratic innovations. As evidence of the latter trend, I offer the following two documents as notable examples.

A. The OECD’s report on Innovative Citizen Participation and New Democratic Institutions
The OECD is The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, a global intergovernmental economic organization made up of 37 countries including the vast majority of “developed” countries, still including the US. I love that among the top dozen examples in their report is the advanced Vorarlberg, Austria approach to Citizens Councils using Dynamic Facilitation.

B. The American Academy of Arts and Sciences commission on “Our Common Purpose” (OCP)
Their Six Strategies and Thirty-One Recommendations (many highlighted in this message) address:
1. Achieve Equality of Voice and Representation
2. Empower Voters
3. Ensure the Responsiveness of Political Institutions
4. Dramatically Expand Civic Bridging Capacity
5. Build Civic Information Architecture that Supports Common Purpose
6. Inspire a Culture of Commitment to American Constitutional Democracy and One Another

I’d also like to highlight the leading database of democratic innovations, Participedia.


It is one thing to declare independence and decide we’re a democracy. It is quite another to work out how we’re going to govern ourselves and – especially – to keep improving our democracy over time. That is a big ongoing project, a long journey involving endless choices and – at this point – some truly remarkable possibilities.

I’ve seen many ways to think about upgrading democracy. In this post, I’ll explore some – and only some – of today’s promising approaches as seen from inside US America’s oligarchized democracy as it teeters on an unprecedented historic cliff edge. If you live elsewhere, you will undoubtedly find some useful ideas here, while other options just won’t fit. I’ve sorted them into three categories – repair, improvement, and transformation. See what makes sense to you.

Note: One other thing before I dig into the details: I want to appeal to activists and change agents of all kinds, from protesters and organizers to academics and philanthropists: The fate of the issues we care about depends overwhelmingly on the nature of the political and governance systems we have to work through. To merely protest horrors being committed or advocate for particular policies, changes, candidates or possibilities is – to an unfortunately large degree – a waste of time – unless we also attend to the System’s capacity to actually produce positive outcomes from all the energy, care, money and time we invest in changing things. Currently and usually, this is sadly not the case, so the waste is real and tragic. I urge my fellow change agents to seriously consider how much better our prospects would be if we – along with all our fellow advocates – invested at least 10-20% of our resources in changing our societies’ capacity to respond appropriately to the profound challenges of our time. I offer the rest of this message as a resource to encourage more focused dialogue about the need for major change in our crumbling democratic infrastructure – and thus in our activism itself. If all our potholed political roads are filled with rubble and our governance bridges are collapsing, it is going to be very difficult to travel very far in the directions we so urgently need to go.


The most obvious (and usual) way to address democracy’s shortcomings is to move it closer to its traditional ideal. That traditional ideal involves fair elections in which candidates have integrity and virtually all voters vote after getting reasonably informed by responsible media. The candidates who win majorities in their races take office. As representatives, these politicians work together in ways that serve both the common good and their constituents back home, more or less effectively handling the affairs of their community, state, province or country. They have respectful relations with their colleagues, and compromise reasonably and creatively with those who hold different views. The bureaucratic machinery of government works efficiently and effectively to understand, inform and implement the collective will of the People and their representatives. Everyone is treated fairly in the justice system and can enjoy the inalienable rights to life, liberty, property and the pursuit of happiness. The inevitable occasional encroachments of corruption are addressed early and effectively so that politics and governance continue to operate with considerable integrity.

Just reading such a statement of democracy’s traditional ideal makes it painfully obvious how far we have drifted from it into inefficiency at best and oligarchy and authoritarianism at worst. In light of this ideal, we can see dozens of areas where improvements are urgent. Luckily, a lot of creative thought and advocacy has gone into how to fix our broken-down democracy machinery. Here are some of the many dozens of good approaches awaiting determined action:

The focus at this level is largely about establishing greater fairness, functionality and answerability. If we make good progress on those, the machine will start functioning more like we thought it should.


With this category of democracy-enhancement, we promote more sophisticated, sensible forms of participation. We can think beyond traditional “democratic” habits and start embracing healthy, wholesome assumptions about what it means to live in a society together. The changes below also offer advances in our ability to generate collective intelligence and, to a certain extent, collective wisdom. These are giant steps in the right direction.

With most of these improvements we’re expanding into deliberative democracy, participatory democracy and/or sustainability


In this category of democracy-enhancement we make a true leap into another worldview – from separateness to interconnectedness. This leap is motivated by both a growing awareness of unprecedented positive possibilities AND of unprecedented destructive potentials, neither of which can be adequately addressed from the old ways of thinking.

The reality: We are rapidly shifting into a civilization wrestling with highly complex and changing “wicked” problems where discerning, tracking, and responding flexibly to patterns over time will be far more important than attempting to find permanent solutions, especially at large scales where linear dynamics are pretty much irrelevant. As these crises unfold, we’ll become increasingly aware that our salvation lies in our creative embeddedness in natural systems, not in our imagined separateness from them. Mindful reciprocal relations with each other and all life will become paramount, if we wish to survive. And our own immediate needs and aspirations will necessarily become subsidiary to the longterm wellbeing of those larger living systems. The chances are also high that our species survival will require that there be fewer of us and that our lifestyles leave far smaller footprints on the functioning and resourcefulness of natural systems. So when it comes to politics and governance, we’re talking about major changes not just in how we function but in how we view, think, feel about, and respond to the aliveness in and around us.

So this section starts to explore how we might do democracy if we were starting from scratch, taking the above realities seriously. It shakes up the majoritarian, representative, human-centric, partisan, hierarchical, linear problem-solving patterns that characterize current democratic forms.

In this level of democratic change we are focused more on collective resilience and regenerative perspectives (see Wikipedia, Regenesis) and Designing Regenerative Cultures, as well as the integration of what is local and what is global, and treating diversity and disturbance as resources rather than problems.

ELECTRONIC DEMOCRACY (and its approach to direct democracy)

Not well covered in this overview of all three levels of democratic change are the many digital and online democratic approaches and resources. I am only well-informed on several of them, especially where they enable or augment the specific approaches outlined above.

However, there is one realm of digital democracy about which I feel called to offer a cautionary note, and that is mass-participation majoritarian direct democracy in which millions of people directly vote on legislation using their phones, tablets or laptops. This approach has as much – and probably more – chance of generating collective stupidity and folly than even our existing policy-making systems. Its freewheeling dynamics would be even more subject to the kinds of informational distortions, technical and PR manipulations, and Individual thoughtlessness and knee-jerk reactivity that degrade so much of existing electoral activity. Furthermore, it would likely generate total chaos in any institutions set up to manage democratic governance, since their entire operations could be changed on a moment’s notice by public whim, possibly engineered by special interests.

I believe the main antidote to these dangers would be the integration of well-designed deliberative activities into the process, so that any votes cast would be informed by thoughtful reflections on the issues, trade-offs, possibilities, etc. Some ways of attempting this involve feeding mass popular input into a citizen or stakeholder council-of-the-whole who digest it along with all other relevant information. It is then THEIR findings and recommendations that either (a) have some decision-making power (as in vTaiwan’s use of Polis) or (b) get fed back into the voting population as an information service (see Citizen Initiative Review). Another approach – less satisfactory to me, but better than pure direct e-democracy – is liquid democracy, in which voters can delegate their votes on specific topics or issues to associates or organizations who they feel are more knowledgeable about those topics and who share their basic values – and from whom they can reclaim their franchise at any time.

One final note on technology: We are becoming increasingly dependent on it. That dependence makes us vulnerable in times of disruption and collapse. So part of democracy resilience thinking (as part of transformative approaches to democracy) includes the simultaneous development and practice of democratic approaches that are not dependent on advanced technologies (for example, the use of circle processes that are tens of thousands of years old).


Although transformational approaches are not merely attractive and utopian, but vital for survival of our species and most of earth’s living systems, conditions are not always ripe for their challenges. Reforms – improvements with occasional forays into new developments – can move whole political cultures into new states which then enable transformational shifts to occur more easily and effectively. An example would be the institutionalization of Citizen Assemblies and other mini-publics recommended by the AAAS and the OECD at the developmental level can familiarize a population enough with random selection that they become more open to the idea of citizen legislatures at the transformational level.

We just need to be aware that reforms can create a sense of comfortable accomplishment that reduces demand for change. This could be fatal, given the nature of the global challenges we face. So I believe all levels of change need to be undertaken at the same time, hopefully integrated into a vision that makes sense of them all. That’s part of the reason I find it so encouraging to see the reports listed at the start of this message. Their emergence from mainstream institutions – and the fact that their recommendations straddle different levels of change – suggests that the time is ripening for more focused and ambitious change efforts in these fields of politics and governance.

To further that possibility, I encourage you to add into the Comments below any democratic initiatives or innovations that you believe could make a significant difference in how this emerging movement unfolds.


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

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