A Rebirth of We the People
By Jim Rough Written for “The Good Society … A PEGS Journal"
A good system of governance needs to work for both individuals and society as a whole. In the eighteenth century, the old forms of governance headed by a king and hereditary aristocracy were not working to the benefit of most people, and a new system was needed. Through processes like the U.S. Constitutional Convention, state ratifying conventions, and the enactment of the Bill of Rights, “We the People” of the former colonies transformed their system. This transformation renewed politics, economics, and the social paradigm, creating a new version of the “Good Society.”
The limitations of this eighteenth century system are now becoming apparent in this very different world of the twenty-first century. This article suggests how we might simply and safely revamp that old system to help us solve many of today’s most pressing problems by creating a modern version of We the People. .
The Underlying Problem
Our constitutional, rule of law, adversarial, majority-voting, competitive free market system faces grave challenges. It is based on the premise that when each of us pursues our own selfish interests, the "invisible hand" will make things better for everyone, that if we each seek our own private goals, the “general interest” will take care of itself. Growing economic inequality, inattention to macro problems, and eroding citizen involvement make it clear that the general interest is languishing.
For our competitive game-like system to work properly, the players must be largely independent, like small farmers or shopkeepers, on a level playing field. All must be small enough that none can manipulate the market, or have enough political power to unduly influence the rules. As we confront the limits of planetary resources and as corporations seize control of our global systems, our fates become linked together, dependent on decisions made in corporate boardrooms. By design, these ultimate decision-makers are not concerned with what’s best for human beings but with the score of the game.
In order to make our system work, we buy bigger cars, take more pills, fly more miles, eat more food, and sell more weapons than we want, or is healthy for us—or than we can afford. In this context we tell ourselves that we "can't afford" to educate our children, or to sustain our environment, or maintain community infrastructures. We have allowed ownership of our media to be concentrated in so few hands that collectively we don’t even know what’s going on.
We have made these decisions because of the way our system is designed, not because of the failings of individuals. Our system forces each of us to direct our attention, energy and talents to serving competing special interests, letting it take care of the big picture.
Our political system doesn’t even recognize the possibility of a “general-interest” viewpoint. It presumes that each voice is a “special interest,” pursuing personal gain. So, if you are an environmentalist or a social activist, you must adopt a competitive stance and do battle against well-organized, well-funded competitors who really are special interests. If you persist in trying to serve the whole, you must live in poverty or make a small fraction of what you could earn.
Because we live within a competitive structure, our ability to think and converse is compromised. We have learned to think in sound bites, and to accept simple answers instead of seeking the underlying causes and finding real solutions. We are more comfortable blaming individuals like “greedy” CEO’s, “lazy” welfare recipients, “bureaucratic” civil servants, “corrupt” politicians, or “apathetic” citizens than looking for the systemic conditions that encourage them to act the way they do. For real change to happen We the People, all of us together, must reawaken, determine what kind of world we want, and take charge of our system.
We the People
"We the People" is a phrase that describes much more than "lots of people eager for positive change" or even "all of us.” There are six characteristics of a legitimate We the People:
1) Inclusiveness … Everyone participates.
2) Unanimity … We express one viewpoint.
3) Autonomy … We choose the issues to address, determine solutions, and act.
4) Authority … We are ultimately in charge. We provide direction to government, not the other way around.
5) Intelligence … We have all the expertise there is and we can use it to make good decisions.
6) Creativity … We can solve impossible problems.
Does this sound impossible? It’s not. Many think poorly of “the people.” They see what appears to be citizen apathy, narrow mindedness, and self-interest, and assume that these are characteristic of the ordinary person. But these are largely effects of our system’s design. An adversarial, majority-rule voting structure, for example, practically guarantees right/wrong arguing rather than a genuine search for answers. It also guarantees a minority of people will seem apathetic because they know their voices don't matter.
Many people do not believe that a meaningful consensus among all of us is possible, yet we have already reached meaningful consensus in many areas. It’s just that we are not structured to take advantage of it. For example, I’ve asked many people, “Which set of values should have priority? Corporate values or human values?” It’s unanimous—human values should predominate. But our system keeps us busy arguing, so that collectively we do the opposite of what we really want.
The Solution: A Wisdom Council
How might a real “We the People” with all six characteristics come into being? How might all of us call “time out” from the competitive, adversarial aspects of society to face the big issues, dialogue creatively, develop new options, and reach consensus on a shared vision? If we can do this, many of today’s problems would just go away. Our competitive political and economic systems would morph into the cooperative ventures they need to be. This voluntary “pulling together to create what is best for all” would seem like a transformation of human nature.
There is a new social invention, called the “Wisdom Council,” that promises to help us gather into this kind of We the People. A growing body of tests in organizations and communities indicates that it works.
Here’s how it would work for the nation: Every three months or so, there is an officially sanctioned, nation-wide public lottery, in which twelve participants are randomly selected to meet for a few days, assisted by a specially trained facilitator. This person dynamically facilitates the group to determine key issues of their choice, to work on them creatively, and to develop consensus statements. These “Statements of the People” have no coercive authority, but are offered to the larger community in a ceremony similar to the "State of the Union" message. Everyone in the nation is invited and encouraged to gather with others to hear this report in local face-to-face settings. Those attending these sessions visit in small groups for a short time to consider the Statements, and to report their conclusions back through the media or the Internet. In our experiments, we’ve generally found that each small group is supportive of both the statements and the process.
Assume for a moment that the Wisdom Council process is well known among all citizens. After the Wisdom Council presents its results, many people will participate in the official dialogues and practically all will discuss the issues and recommendations with someone at some time, extending their individual perspectives. They can respond through the Internet, or through letters to the editors of papers. If some disagree with the Wisdom Council's statements, people will be interested to hear why, and the media will seek them out. In this way the Wisdom Council sparks a whole-system conversation that listens to and celebrates diverse viewpoints, seeking consensus. This conversation continues until the next randomly selected group meets and picks up these (or other) issues, and makes new Statements. Eventually, Statements of the People are developed which almost everyone supports. When there is wide consensus, action may happen voluntarily through individuals or groups, or through policy decisions by elected officials. Elected officials are part of the conversation. Voters assess them on their ability to implement the building consensus.
To achieve the promised benefits, a Wisdom Council must have all of the following twelve features:
1. The Wisdom Council must be chartered by We the People— This is a paradoxical requirement since without the Wisdom Council there is no possibility for a “We the People” to exist. However, experience indicates that just a few dedicated people can initially convene a Wisdom Council. This Wisdom Council expresses a “We the People” viewpoint which is not widely known, but which gathers support for the next Wisdom Council. Each successive cycle is a more accurate approximation of We the People, which can "charter" the next Wisdom Council. Ultimately as interest and involvement build, there is enough support for an “official” marking of this charter, which might take the form of a U.S. Constitutional amendment.
2. It is a microcosm, composed of randomly selected people—The people on a Wisdom Council are not self-selected, or elected, or appointed by any authority. They are randomly chosen, and each member speaks only for him or her self and not for any constituency like women, Democrats, poor people—or for a geographical region.
3. It is empowered to select and frame the issues it addresses—Because the Wisdom Council symbolizes We the People, there is no higher authority. As boss of the system, symbolically speaking, the Wisdom Council chooses the issues it will consider, frames them as it wishes, and works towards solving them.
4. The members are chosen in a ceremony: a lottery—In the annual, semi-annual, or quarterly lottery, each registered voter has an equal chance to be selected.
5. It is non-coercive—No one is forced to serve on a Wisdom Council and its results have no coercive power. The Wisdom Council just presents its conclusions, and then it disbands.
6. It operates in a fishbowl—Once Wisdom Council members have been publicly selected, they are isolated from the influence of others, but everyone knows they are meeting.
7. It is facilitated dynamically—(See below.)
8. It generates unanimous statements—Unlike the world of agree/disagree meetings, the Wisdom Council strives to reach conclusions that everyone—not just those on the Wisdom Council—can fully support.
9. The results are presented in a ceremony—When the Wisdom Council concludes its work, there is an immediate presentation of the final results, as well as stories of the Council's experience. Everyone in the system is part of the extended audience to whom the Wisdom Council speaks.
10. Small group dialogues are convened—Everyone in the system (nation, state, community, organization) is invited to participate in small group dialogues in town halls, cafes, churches, community centers, individual homes, and the internet, and to voice their responses.
11. The process is ongoing—Each Wisdom Council articulates interim conclusions in an ongoing dialogue that involves everyone. The Councils' Statements provide a way to track progress on the issues.
12. The process operates in parallel with normal governance structures—The Wisdom Council does not change existing structures—it merely adds a periodic short-term, small-group meeting and presentation. Action happens through existing structures or through direct citizen action.
The Magic of Choice-creating
The Wisdom Council’s benefits come largely from the magical quality of talking and thinking it establishes—both among its members and throughout the larger population. This quality of thinking, known as choice-creating, is different from normal political decision-making, where people agree and disagree on topics, trying to gain influence. It is similar to dialogue because it is a deep open-minded exploration of issues and similar to deliberation because groups reach conclusions. But with choice-creating the emphasis is not on people carefully weighing different options and negotiating an agreement. It is oriented toward reaching unanimity via breakthroughs of both head and heart.
Experience tells us that a breakthrough is the best way for any group to reach unanimity on a difficult issue. Then consensus happens naturally and quickly, and all feel motivated to help implement the result. This is not a rational phenomenon. In fact, the use of rational, deliberative modes of talking and thinking make breakthroughs unlikely. Even consensus-building, where people are expected to suppress their own individuality for the benefit of the group, stifles the possibility for consensus via breakthroughs.
Choice-creating is what happens when a community or organization faces and overcomes a survival challenge. People put aside their normal prejudices and come together like a family, rising to the occasion to do what is necessary. Each person’s contribution is valued and the process builds an exhilarating sense of “We.”
The Wisdom Council is structured to elicit choice-creating in all of us, and to build this sense of “We.” It is a “time out” from the usual back and forth political conversation, for a different kind of conversation where people address the big issues and seek consensus on what’s best for everyone. This new conversation is open-minded, creative and thoughtful, where people speak from the heart.
Through experience, we’ve discovered that the best way to assure choice-creating is through Dynamic Facilitation. Unlike traditional facilitators who orient to extrinsic factors like goals, agendas and guidelines, the dynamic facilitator orients to intrinsic factors like the energy of passion or fear. She or he uses charts of Solutions, Data, Concerns, and Problem-statements to capture comments as they come up. This approach honors and acknowledges each comment, letting each participant know they are heard, and encouraging new ideas. Different kinds of breakthrough happen in this process, like when the “real” problem is identified, or new solutions emerge, or when people realize they no longer feel about an issue as they once did.
As an example, one dynamically facilitated group achieved consensus on the issue of abortion. At first, the usual pro-life and pro-choice positions were expressed and people talked about those. Then someone asked, “How frequent are abortions anyway?” and the group wondered if there wasn’t some way to eliminate abortions altogether. After about thirty minutes, the group’s consensus was: “How can we achieve a society where all children are conceived and born into families that want and love them?”
When people hear this story they sometimes express concern that this consensus avoids the issue. But in fact, it’s the opposite. This answer ends the longstanding avoidance by identifying the real issue, which neither the pro-life nor the pro-choice position addresses. It was a breakthrough because it freed people from the argument, so they can start thinking and solving the real problem.
Tom Atlee, the author of The Tao of Democracy: Using Co-Intelligence to Create a World That Works for All says, “Part of why I love Dynamic Facilitation (DF) so much is that it works with people AS THEY ARE. It doesn't require that they buy into a set of rules about how they're going to talk together. They can be [jerks] and the facilitator makes sure (a) that they don't get shut down because of that, (b) that the people they target—and the group as a whole—continue to feel safe and (c) that whatever gift they bring gets heard and made available to the group mind. This alone makes DF incredibly useful in a pluralistic democracy. Add to that its power to metabolize conflict into useful insights and to engender co-creativity among diverse people, and it's a real treasure.”
A Wisdom Council Example
The Wisdom Council is a new concept, which can be difficult to understand from a description. It can best be appreciated when it is experienced. The concept has been tested with citizens in cities, with students in schools, with homeless people, and with employees in government agencies and corporations. The most comprehensive experiment so far was initiated by three citizens in the Rogue Valley of Oregon, who separately heard an interview describing it on National Public Radio. They met each other and convened a Wisdom Council experiment in their area (www.rvwc.org). That successful experience taught us how a Wisdom Council can charter itself, that Dynamic Facilitation is crucial to establishing the spirit of choice-creating, and that onlookers ‘get it’ from seeing the presentation.
The best example to illustrate how a nationally chartered Wisdom Council might transform society is from American history—the U.S. Constitutional period of 1787-1791. This was very much a Wisdom Council-like process.
The delegates to the U.S. Constitutional Convention acted outside of their assigned level of responsibility in the name of “We the People.” They didn’t want to use that phrase because to them it was really the states that were ordaining and establishing the Constitution. But since they had decided that the Constitution would go into effect as soon as it was ratified by nine of the thirteen states, and no one knew which states would adopt it first, the document couldn’t start with a list of states. Instead, the delegates came up with “We the People” as a grammatically convenient phrase.
The Constitutional delegates were not democratic in their intentions. They wanted a republic rather than a democracy. Most believed that only property-owning males had sufficient gravitas and investment in society to make sound decisions, so they excluded slaves, women, Native Americans, and those who had no property from participating in government. But the fortuitous use of the phrase "We the People," and the way they conducted their meetings, set the stage for a real We the People to emerge.
This process foreshadowed the Wisdom Council. Just a small group of people took “time out” from the normal course of politics—and life—for a “fishbowl” meeting. They addressed the big issues of the day using a higher than normal quality of conversation, seeking consensus rather than a majority. In the end, they spoke as We the People, issuing a near-unanimous proposal signed by 39 of 42 present. Then they disbanded.
You might have asked of the Constitutional Convention, just as people often ask of the Wisdom Council today, “How could there be real change without any power of coercion or follow-up process?” The Constitutional Convention just presented its conclusions and disbanded. Action happened because its conclusions sparked a widespread conversation throughout the land and set off a self-organizing dynamic of change. Ratifying conventions were organized, the Constitution was implemented, and thanks to a disagreement among many in the general public, the Bill of Rights was added.
The whole process took only one Wisdom Council-like meeting, plus four and a half years of talking and thinking. In the end, there was a consensus voice of all, a We the People that really did “ordain and establish” a new system, which transformed human expectations and actions. No longer did people blindly grant authority to those in charge. They were empowered to self-govern and became more entrepreneurial, independent and self-reliant.
Our current system is designed like a machine based on eighteenth-century assumptions about who we are and what is needed in the world. There is no one in charge of it. It is in charge of us. Without a We the People, it is on automatic pilot taking us mindlessly toward a future no one would choose. We all keep our heads down, focused on improving special interests and ignoring our collective situation.
Thomas Jefferson described the problem in a letter he wrote to his friend, James Madison. Consulting actuarial tables of his time, he calculated that the majority of any given generation would be dead after about nineteen years. With this statistic in mind, he wrote: "It may be proved that no society can make a perpetual constitution, or even a perpetual law. The earth belongs always to the living generation…. Every constitution, then, and every law naturally expires at the end of 19 years. If it be enforced longer, it is an act of force and not of right."
The Wisdom Council offers a simple, practical, risk-free way to add the missing element—a wise and responsible We the People—to our system. Recent experiments give reason to be optimistic: The Wisdom Council seems to engender a genuine We the People; it can be initiated by just a few people while it honors and includes everyone; when people experience the process (and perhaps only then) they 'get’ its potential to help us solve today’s most pressing issues; and momentum is gathering.
There is a new non-profit organization helping to bring Wisdom Councils to communities and the nation, the Center for Wise Democracy (see www.WiseDemocracy.org). One current strategy is to convene a gathering of many public service organizations from both left and right to charter the first national Wisdom Council, followed by a national day of dialogue . You are invited to become involved with these efforts or to explore the Wisdom Council further by conducting your own experiments.
These ideas are more fully developed in the book Society's Breakthrough! Releasing Essential Wisdom and Virtue in All the People by Jim Rough.