Public issue conversations and the legitimacy of "we the people"

Greetings friends -- and happy new year!

The note below from Tom Atlee on the legitimacy of "we the people" offers
meaty issues to consider.  Democracy hinges on the legitimacy of "the
people" -- and we don't really have a good handle on what that means!
Especially when every group with a cause claims to represent the views of
the "people." 

I agree with Tom's view 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." 

I appreciate everyone involved with Wise Democracy Victoria for having taken the time to participate in our experiments with random selection in these "Kitty Hawk" days (as Tom puts it).  There's no doubt in my mind that random selection will prove itself to be a key component in representing the legitimate voice of the people.  False "majority rule" by a bunch of top-down control freaks and corporate yes men is proving to be an excellent motivator as we search for
new and better solutions!

Warm regards to all, and best wishes for a wiser democracy in 2012 and the
years ahead.
Cheers, George
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Public issue conversations and the legitimacy of "we the people"
by Tom Atlee


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".


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

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

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.


Tom Atlee, The Co-Intelligence Institute, POB 493, Eugene, OR 97440
site: /  blog: Read THE TAO OF DEMOCRACY - and REFLECTIONS ON EVOLUTIONARY ACTIVISM - Please support our work.  Your donations are
fully tax-deductible.

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