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
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
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
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
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
Using Citizen Deliberative Councils to Make Democracy More Potent and Awake
Empowered Dialogue Can Bring Wisdom to Democracy
and the other articles on
Co-Intelligent Political and Democratic Theory
and especially the book
THE TAO OF DEMOCRACY: USING CO-INTELLIGENCE TO CREATE A WORLD THAT
WORKS FOR ALL by Tom Atlee
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