Who Is 'We The People'?

by Tom Atlee
Founder And Co-Director of the Co-Intelligence Institute

Future generations are counting on us to learn our way together into our collective power and wisdom.

Do we trust "We the People"? After all, the People have done some horrendously stupid and even evil things.

But who is "We the People"? Does the energy of citizenship exist outside of thousands of separate citizens and interest groups?

We have been divided and conquered. The U.S. Constitution talks about the "general welfare." Where is it? Our system makes sure that every perspective is framed as a special interest.

Where there is nothing but competition among special interests, there can be no truly inclusive "We the People."

I believe that "We the People" is a powerful POTENTIAL political reality, but it has been - WE have been - fragmented by our partisan majoritarian system. Each part of We the People has been set against the other parts. And this adversarial game has captured our precious attention, so that we want our side to win, above all else. We want that more than we want our community or our country to be whole, healthy and creative.

The Other Side - those bad guys - are a threat to our success. They are definitely not a resource or a partner for achieving greater goods together. Of this we are all convinced, on all sides. And through this fearful conviction we are manipulated, easily, even eagerly, over and over, to fight the good fight where together we lose the common ground and the greater good. Together we are spellbound by adversarial majoritarianism, and together we lose.

To begin breaking the spell, we might sort out three ways of viewing our collective citizenship:

First, we can see ourselves as "the public" (or "the electorate"), a collection of individual citizens whose opinions are counted up in elections and opinion polls. In this role, the majority rules.

Second, we can see ourselves as "The People" - as masses or movements of ordinary people who are the collective good guys. Elites often claim they rule on behalf of The People, as in "The People's Republic of China." Others claim The People speak when millions of citizens demonstrate in the streets against a war or injustice, even though most people do not come to such demonstrations. When we say "The People," we usually refer to the masses of people who are like us or are on our side.

Thirdly, we can see ourselves as "We the People" - as that deep, powerful, INCLUSIVE democratic voice that arises from our diversity when we listen to each other well and when we handle our differences creatively with dialogue, deliberation and shared reflection, generating greater understanding about ourselves, each other, and critical public issues.

Our voice as We the People becomes more legitimate and powerful the more we creatively include and integrate more diverse perspectives in pursuit of the common good.

This We the People is no passive "public" or a faceless mass. It is the thoughtful, potent source of collective wisdom described by Alexander Hamilton when he suggested that "the deliberative sense of the community should govern." This is the We the People envisioned by John Dewey:
"The foundation of democracy is faith in...human intelligence and in the power of pooled and cooperative experience... to generate progressively the knowledge and wisdom needed to guide collective action... [E]ach individual has something to contribute, whose value can be assessed only as [it] enters into the final pooled intelligence constituted by the contributions of all."

This We the People has lived amongst us for years in its original form - the Enlightenment's liberal ideal of deliberative democracy. This ideal glorifies rational debate - in town meetings, in legislatures, in the media, in academia - as the highest form of truth-finding. Partisans bring their best arguments to the forum and seek to convince each other (and non-partisan observers) to their view of the matter at hand. If a majority agrees with one side, that decides the matter. If a majority doesn't agree, then negotiations begin and compromises are made in search of a majoritarian outcome that fairly treats the views and interests of all parties involved. At least that's the ideal.

That ideal was and is a gigantic leap beyond "might makes right," "the divine right of kings" and the manipulative emotional power of public relations. If pursued in a civil manner, public debate often DOES use differences creatively, at least by helping clarify the strengths and weaknesses of various positions. It is for good reason that the public often demands that candidates stop slinging mud and "debate the issues."

Ironically, though, debate often teaches the impartial observer not that one position is right, but that EVERY position holds some piece of the truth. And that's the failure of debate. It does not take all those "parts of the truth" and help us make them into something new. It does not help us find broader, bigger, deeper perspectives and solutions that didn't exist before and that make sense to the vast majority of us who aren't mired in the trenches of partisanship.

Thankfully, we now know how to move beyond debate without bogging down in conformity and groupthink, suppression and compromise. We the People - we the DIVERSE people - can pursue greater truth TOGETHER without suppressing our differences and the gifts those differences have to offer to our collective understanding. We can USE our differences of perspective, of fact, of passion, of value, of experience and of personality.

I believe the next awakening of We the People will be the dawning realization that our diversity - our differences - are natural resources to be treasured, protected and used with care and intelligence. We don't honor diversity because we want to be nice, but because it is SO valuable in leading us into ever-wiser forms of unity.

The next awakening of We the People will involve discovering that Diversity and Unity are not opposites, but partners. In any collection of people, we can stand united in our intention to find greater understanding and the best possible solutions that will serve us all, with all our voices heard and our integrity intact. We can seek answers that excite all of us. We can join together in solidarity to use forms of dialogue that help us do these things. And we will do this because we know we simply cannot get to anything like enlightened unity without bringing forth the full authentic truth we each see and feel, no matter how diverse those truths seems to be. E Pluribus Unum - "Out of Many, One" - over and over and over. There is energy there, there is aliveness and insight. We know it, we want it and we need it - and so we go for it.

What We the People discover in such conversations will almost certainly vibrate with more democratic wisdom than what we find in voting booths and public opinion polls. What We the People find in such conversations will be wiser even when those conversations include only a few dozen truly diverse people, because it is THE CREATIVE USE OF DIVERSITY, itself, not numbers of people, that generates the magic and the wisdom.

This is no call to give up debates, elections, public opinion polls and all the other paraphernalia of an energetic democracy. It is, however, a call to not stop with those familiar practices, but to awaken together into a fully realized We the People, into a civilization capable of the kind of democratic wisdom envisioned by the our idealistic, deeply practical democratic founders. It is a call to bring forth AND EMPOWER more of those conversations that use our diversity well so that we can create together deeper, wiser forms of unity.

For if we do that, and then elites and partisans pull their divide and conquer stunts, we simply won't respond. Because the fact that someone is different from us will delight us. We'll know that diversity offers endless opportunities for discovery, wisdom and co-creativity. We'll see the enemy as animosity, itself, not as any other person or group.

How different that would be for all of us. There would be no public issue we could not make solid progress on. Breakthroughs would be routine. We might not start off perfectly, but we would learn together from our collective experience and grow smarter and more capable as time went on. We wouldn't be undermining each other every step of the way, as we must do to succeed as partisans fighting to win.

A metaphor comes to mind: A dam with many cracks in it can hold back tons of water as long as that water is kept isolated in millions of cans. But if we remove the cans and let the whole water flow and exert its immense energy - as powerful conversations flow among a free, passionate and inquisitive We the People - then every crack will be found and breakthroughs will burst over and over into new life until the the great river of democracy runs strong, full and free.

It is only our fragmentation that keeps the power of We the People at bay. It is only the fact that we are fighting that prevents us from building the world we want.

We may still be novices at using our diversity well. But our diversity awaits, with all its wisdom, for us to learn how to work with it to create a future that works for all.

_ _ _ _

For information on conversations that use diversity creatively - and on ways to institutionalize and empower those conversations, see

A Call to Move Beyond Public Opinion to Public Judgment http://co-intelligence.org/CIPol_publicjudgment.html

Using Citizen Deliberative Councils to Make Democracy More Potent and Awake http://co-intelligence.org/CDCUsesAndPotency.html

Empowered Dialogue Can Bring Wisdom to Democracy http://co-intelligence.org/CIPol_EmpoweredDialogue.html

and the other articles on

Co-Intelligent Political and Democratic Theory http://co-intelligence.org/CIdemocracypolitics_theory.html

and especially the book


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