Public issue conversations and the legitimacy of “we the people”

I see several diverse but not necessarily mutually exclusive types of political conversation, and find that differentiating among them helps me think more clearly about this topic:

1. STAKEHOLDERS: Stakeholder conversations involve people with interests, information or power involved with a realm or issue, aiming to work out their differences (especially conflicts, which are almost intrinsic to the definition of “stakeholder” and “issue”) and contribute their resources (especially networks) to promote the good management of that realm or issue. Watershed Councils, Stakeholder Dialogues, and Consensus Councils are examples.

2. IDEOLOGICAL PARTISANS: Partisan conversations involve spokespeople for opposing worldviews (usually two, sometimes 3-5 “sides”) talking about their differences and/or their common ground. Many talk show hosts engage “both sides” in debates about issues. Perhaps the biggest contribution of the transpartisan movement in the evolution of democracy has been to progressively challenge and break down the hypnotic power of political archetypes – left/right, liberal/conservative, tea party/occupy – to promote the possibility that human beings – even such “obvious” enemies as these – can actually talk together civilly and work together productively, not just fight.

3. ENGAGED CITIZENS: Conversations in this category provide a forum for whoever shows up to speak their minds. Familiar examples include blogs and their comment sections, most online forums, letters to the editor, call-in shows, and public hearings. More productive conversational approaches in this category include the World Cafe and Conversation Cafe (which can involve many people in small-group dialogue while tracking the emergent wisdom of the whole); Study Circles (which also help people learn about an issue together); and Open Space conferencing (which helps people self-organize into sub-conversations and work groups according to their diverse interests in a topic).

4. THE PUBLIC (aka “WE THE PEOPLE”): These forums engage a representative sample of a larger population – usually done using random and/or scientific demographic selection. Such ad hoc minipublics or microcosm “citizen deliberative councils” explore public concerns, issues or proposals. (Public opinion polls engage people’s opinions in a similar way but do not involve them in interacting with each other.) Citizens Juries, Consensus Conferences, and Citizen Assemblies do a fairly rigorous job of actually engaging citizens in serious deliberation, through which they produce public judgments and policy recommendations. Deliberative Polls and 21st Century Town Meetings are less rigorous but provide more public spectacle. Wisdom Councils provide a more open-ended, creative voice for “We the People”, more like a citizen-generated “state of the union address” and, by being done regularly, build a communal sense that “We the People!” have collective competence and power.

5. EXPERTS: Conversations among – or interviews of, or testimony from – scientists, academics, etc., are designed to inform the public or officials of facts, perspectives, causes and consequences involved in an issue and the various approaches to it. Experts are usually part of stakeholder deliberations and are usually included as resources for citizen deliberative councils (in which the experts are said to be “on tap, not on top”). Sometimes officials convene expert conferences to come to conclusive policy advice for governments or professional organizations, such as the National Institutes of Health Consensus Development Conferences and State-of-the-Science Conferences convening medical experts to guide medical practice and health care policy.


I want to particularly highlight here what I see as a common misuse of the terms “We the People” and “the People”. A conversation between ideological partisans or interested, engaged citizens – to say nothing of statements from a single advocacy group or movement or even an elected politician – does not legitimately constitute a voice of “the People”. This is a major factual error, a specious political fiction, and a strategic mistake of gigantic proportions.

When we assign the label “We the People” or “The People” to any part of the whole public, or even to full-spectrum conversation among diverse partisans on an issue, we are claiming a legitimacy that may not, on examination, be actually justified. I suggest this criteria applies even to our majoritarian elections. Although it is convenient and basically functional to let any majority decide on a candidate or referendum, there is a factual legitimacy problem when, for example, only half of the electorate vote: In this case 51% of those voting constitutes only 25% of the whole electorate – to say nothing of “the People”. So we should be very skeptical about claims that “the People” have spoken and seriously consider how we might correct that potentially enormous flaw.

I suggest that a Citizens Jury of a couple of dozen citizens chosen by stratified (demographic) random selection may actually constitute a more legitimate voice of the whole “people” than thousands of partisan voters who happen to be motivated to show up for a particular low-turnout election. (This claim is further legitimized by the campaign strategies of “get out the vote” and negative ads and electoral restrictions to “suppress the vote”. When such manipulations of participation are going on, how can we say that election results truly represent the will of “the People”, the whole people?)

I strongly believe – and I invite you to consider – that the only practical way to generate a legitimate voice of We the People is to convene conversations among randomly selected ordinary citizens who embody the diversity of the populace. There are many ways to do this and many legitimate arguments about methodology and what role such citizen councils should play in our democratic process. But we must be very careful that any part (group, conversation, council) that we choose or claim to represent “the whole” (citizenry, community, country) actually and demonstrably does embody – as fully as possible – the diversity of that whole. I suggest that the principle of a “microcosm of the whole” based on random and/or scientific selection is AT LEAST as vital as elections for establishing factual legitimacy when we wish to claim the mantle of “The People”.

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