I just read a book by Tom Atlee entitled “Empowering Public Wisdom: A Practical Vision of Citizen-Led Politics” and found it intriguing in the ways that the author is attempting to open up the democratic process. In many countries, we vote approximately every four years for political parties to make decisions for us for the following term. After that voting, many of us largely permit our elected leaders to run governments through their own discretion. Representative democracy has good points in that it provides stability but can be influenced by lobbyists who may have very narrow intentions and do not necessarily serve the public good. How do governments remain true to the principles of democracy and strive to listen to their constituents? At times, it appears that political parties and politicians may be more beholden to these particular lobbyists then they are to their own constituencies. Also, sometimes lobbyists have sufficient resources to influence public discussion on topics through saturating the media with advertising campaigns to change the views of uncommitted constituents. As a public are we best served by narrow interests and partisan policies that place the rights of some citizens over the rights of others? Are there any alternative or complementary approaches to democracy?
The book is good in that it suggests different methods of restoring power to constituents and therefore “empowering public wisdom.” Tom Atlee, who is a lifetime activist, starts his framework from the United States Constitution in trying to return power to “We the People.” One of his suggestions is to strike citizen deliberative councils that reflect characteristics of the population as a whole. As he states:
“The primary quality that makes [citizen deliberative councils] different from other democratic forms that claim to represent We the People – that is, elected representatives, populist partisan groups, public forums open to whoever shows up, and public opinion polls – is the fact that citizen deliberative councils are a true microcosm of the whole society, and they are undertaking a near-ideal act of interactive citizenship on behalf of that society. They call forth, embody, and ultimately promote the latent public wisdom of the whole population.”
So the first question that may arise is does this not already duplicate what politicians and political parties already do? If citizens want to be involved in democracy, why do they not simply join political parties and support those parties? The important aspect of citizen deliberative councils is that they are trans-partisan by nature. Furthermore, most people are not partisan individuals that accept everything that political leaders may advocate. Many times there are issues that are best dealt with by citizens who have no direct political stake in the outcome of the issue. Citizens participating in citizen deliberative councils are chosen randomly and meet for a set term and then are disbanded. Partisan advocacy groups and experts are used as resources but do not decide on the fate of particular issues. Citizen councils, if done properly, can help to guide elected officials in decision making especially on controversial issues.
Tom lists many different configurations of citizen councils. The book is worth reading for anyone who wants to see greater trans-partisan problem solving to strengthen our democracies.