Today’s Solutions: February 08, 2023

Tom Atlee, “wise democracy” pioneer and co-director of the Co-Intelligence Institute in Eugene, Oregon, on how public conversations can inform public policy.

Marco Visscher | September/October 2012 Issue
Your books explain how citizens can be involved in formulating policy on complex issues. Does this work for divisive issues as well?
“Lifestyle issues, such as abortion and gay rights, tend to be harder to get people to agree on. Yet in the last 20 years we’ve been developing both an increasing capacity to generate consensus and understanding on a wider range of issues and an ability to generate more civil forms of conflict on the difficult, divisive issues.”
Can you give an example?
“After watching abortion activists screaming at each other on television, family system therapists at the Public Conversations Project in Cambridge, [Massachusetts,] got together a half-dozen activists on the pro-life side and a half-dozen on the pro-choice side. After first chatting over coffee and doughnuts—not knowing who each other were—they gathered in a circle to share what happened in each of their lives to make them so passionate about the issue. That’s when they discovered who was pro-life and who was pro-choice, in the context of their personal stories. So even if you disagree, you can come to understand why others think the way they do.”
But understanding doesn’t necessarily translate into consensus.
“Indeed, but there’s another way to look at this. People start respecting others with different views. They sometimes even become friends. Hot issues become depolarized and debate becomes respectful. If people respect each other and trust the democratic process, ongoing public conversation can help policy continually evolve. All this is part of true citizenship: getting well-informed about an issue, thinking and talking with others, and working things out together about what the community should do.”
So citizen councils should not replace parliaments but supplement them?
“Indeed. There’s no way to say this would be a better system for sure, because it’s tried only rarely. We need to test this idea, over and over.”
How do you get citizens who haven’t been part of the council to unify behind a decision?
“I believe the media have a gigantic role to play. Journalists can write about who each participant is and report on the process. Then the public watches these diverse people expressing their diverse views, coming to respect each other, and shifting their thinking to recommend solutions together.”
That’s not exactly the kind of journalism we see lots of…
“Yet this is exactly what Maclean’s, Canada’s weekly newsmagazine, has done at one of the most divisive times in Canada, with the Quebec independence debate being most vivid. On a Friday, they brought together a dozen people who collectively represented the diversity of the country for a shared vision for Canada. By Saturday night, it was a complete mess. Then, over dinner, one of the participants started to really listen to an indigenous woman and concluded the natives were feeling unheard—and the most important factor to get some kind of understanding is people feeling heard. So the next morning, this woman asked the indigenous woman to tell her story. That changed everything. In the end, everyone was hugging each other.”
Sounds like a reality show!
“In fact, some have suggested a reality show like that. A reality show could feature dramatic conflicts among diverse citizens, their increasing understanding, and then a breakthrough that ends up being cathartic and enlightening for a whole nation. Bringing people together in a council will generate collective wisdom for and by the people, coming together around something. These things aren’t exactly characteristics of our current political life.”
For more about putting integrity, authenticity and openness back into politics, join us for an interactive online course with political pioneer Tom Atlee this Thursday, Oct 18.

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