A Rebirth of 'We the People'
by Jim Rough
(Written for "The Good Society … A PEGS Journal
For additional information about how to facilitate a voice of "We the People,"
see the book, Society's Breakthrough! Releasing Essential Wisdom and Virtue
in All the People)
A good system of governance needs to work for both individuals and society as
a whole. In the eighteenth century, the old forms of governance headed by a
king and hereditary aristocracy were not working to the benefit of most
people, and a new system was needed. Through processes like the U.S.
Constitutional Convention, state ratifying conventions, and the enactment of
the Bill of Rights, "We the People" of the former colonies transformed their
system. This transformation renewed politics, economics, and the social
paradigm, creating a new version of the "Good Society."
The limitations of this eighteenth century system are now becoming apparent
in this very different world of the twenty-first century. This article
suggests how we might simply and safely revamp that old system to help us
solve many of today's most pressing problems by creating a modern version of
We the People. .
The Underlying Problem
Our constitutional, rule of law, adversarial, majority-voting, competitive
free market system faces grave challenges. It is based on the premise that
when each of us pursues our own selfish interests, the "invisible hand" will
make things better for everyone, that if we each seek our own private goals,
the "general interest" will take care of itself. Growing economic inequality,
inattention to macro problems, and eroding citizen involvement make it clear
that the general interest is languishing.
For our competitive game-like system to work properly, the players must be
largely independent, like small farmers or shopkeepers, on a level playing
field. All must be small enough that none can manipulate the market, or have
enough political power to unduly influence the rules. As we confront the
limits of planetary resources and as corporations seize control of our global
systems, our fates become linked together, dependent on decisions made in
corporate boardrooms. By design, these ultimate decision-makers are not
concerned with what's best for human beings but with the score of the game.
In order to make our system work, we buy bigger cars, take more pills, fly
more miles, eat more food, and sell more weapons than we want, or is healthy
for us-or than we can afford. In this context we tell ourselves that we
"can't afford" to educate our children, or to sustain our environment, or
maintain community infrastructures. We have allowed ownership of our media to
be concentrated in so few hands that collectively we don't even know what's
We have made these decisions because of the way our system is designed, not
because of the failings of individuals. Our system forces each of us to
direct our attention, energy and talents to serving competing special
interests, letting it take care of the big picture.
Our political system doesn't even recognize the possibility of a
"general-interest" viewpoint. It presumes that each voice is a "special
interest," pursuing personal gain. So, if you are an environmentalist or a
social activist, you must adopt a competitive stance and do battle against
well-organized, well-funded competitors who really are special interests. If
you persist in trying to serve the whole, you must live in poverty or make a
small fraction of what you could earn.
Because we live within a competitive structure, our ability to think and
converse is compromised. We have learned to think in sound bites, and to
accept simple answers instead of seeking the underlying causes and finding
real solutions. We are more comfortable blaming individuals like "greedy"
CEO's, "lazy" welfare recipients, "bureaucratic" civil servants, "corrupt"
politicians, or "apathetic" citizens than looking for the systemic conditions
that encourage them to act the way they do. For real change to happen We the
People, all of us together, must reawaken, determine what kind of world we
want, and take charge of our system.
We the People
"We the People" is a phrase that describes much more than "lots of people
eager for positive change" or even "all of us." There are six characteristics
of a legitimate We the People:
1) Inclusiveness … Everyone participates.
2) Unanimity … We express one viewpoint.
3) Autonomy … We choose the issues to address, determine solutions, and act.
4) Authority … We are ultimately in charge. We provide direction to
government, not the other way around.
5) Intelligence … We have all the expertise there is and we can use it to
make good decisions.
6) Creativity … We can solve impossible problems.
Does this sound impossible? It's not. Many think poorly of "the people." They
see what appears to be citizen apathy, narrow mindedness, and self-interest,
and assume that these are characteristic of the ordinary person. But these
are largely effects of our system's design. An adversarial, majority-rule
voting structure, for example, practically guarantees right/wrong arguing
rather than a genuine search for answers. It also guarantees a minority of
people will seem apathetic because they know their voices don't matter.
Many people do not believe that a meaningful consensus among all of us is
possible, yet we have already reached meaningful consensus in many areas.
It's just that we are not structured to take advantage of it. For example,
I've asked many people, "Which set of values should have priority? Corporate
values or human values?" It's unanimous-human values should predominate. But
our system keeps us busy arguing, so that collectively we do the opposite of
what we really want.
The Solution: A Wisdom Council
How might a real "We the People" with all six characteristics come into
being? How might all of us call "time out" from the competitive, adversarial
aspects of society to face the big issues, dialogue creatively, develop new
options, and reach consensus on a shared vision? If we can do this, many of
today's problems would just go away. Our competitive political and economic
systems would morph into the cooperative ventures they need to be. This
voluntary "pulling together to create what is best for all" would seem like a
transformation of human nature.
There is a new social invention, called the "Wisdom Council," that promises
to help us gather into this kind of We the People. A growing body of tests in
organizations and communities indicates that it works.
Here's how it would work for the nation: Every three months or so, there is
an officially sanctioned, nation-wide public lottery, in which twelve
participants are randomly selected to meet for a few days, assisted by a
specially trained facilitator. This person dynamically facilitates the group
to determine key issues of their choice, to work on them creatively, and to
develop consensus statements. These "Statements of the People" have no
coercive authority, but are offered to the larger community in a ceremony
similar to the "State of the Union" message. Everyone in the nation is
invited and encouraged to gather with others to hear this report in local
face-to-face settings. Those attending these sessions visit in small groups
for a short time to consider the Statements, and to report their conclusions
back through the media or the Internet. In our experiments, we've generally
found that each small group is supportive of both the statements and the
Assume for a moment that the Wisdom Council process is well known among all
citizens. After the Wisdom Council presents its results, many people will
participate in the official dialogues and practically all will discuss the
issues and recommendations with someone at some time, extending their
individual perspectives. They can respond through the Internet, or through
letters to the editors of papers. If some disagree with the Wisdom Council's
statements, people will be interested to hear why, and the media will seek
them out. In this way the Wisdom Council sparks a whole-system conversation
that listens to and celebrates diverse viewpoints, seeking consensus. This
conversation continues until the next randomly selected group meets and picks
up these (or other) issues, and makes new Statements. Eventually, Statements
of the People are developed which almost everyone supports. When there is
wide consensus, action may happen voluntarily through individuals or groups,
or through policy decisions by elected officials. Elected officials are part
of the conversation. Voters assess them on their ability to implement the
To achieve the promised benefits, a Wisdom Council must have all of the
following twelve features:
1. The Wisdom Council must be chartered by We the People- This is a
paradoxical requirement since without the Wisdom Council there is no
possibility for a "We the People" to exist. However, experience indicates
that just a few dedicated people can initially convene a Wisdom Council. This
Wisdom Council expresses a "We the People" viewpoint which is not widely
known, but which gathers support for the next Wisdom Council. Each successive
cycle is a more accurate approximation of We the People, which can "charter"
the next Wisdom Council. Ultimately as interest and involvement build, there
is enough support for an "official" marking of this charter, which might take
the form of a U.S. Constitutional amendment.
2. It is a microcosm, composed of randomly selected people-The people on a
Wisdom Council are not self-selected, or elected, or appointed by any
authority. They are randomly chosen, and each member speaks only for him or
her self and not for any constituency like women, Democrats, poor people-or
for a geographical region.
3. It is empowered to select and frame the issues it addresses-Because the
Wisdom Council symbolizes We the People, there is no higher authority. As
boss of the system, symbolically speaking, the Wisdom Council chooses the
issues it will consider, frames them as it wishes, and works towards solving
4. The members are chosen in a ceremony: a lottery-In the annual,
semi-annual, or quarterly lottery, each registered voter has an equal chance
to be selected.
5. It is non-coercive-No one is forced to serve on a Wisdom Council and its
results have no coercive power. The Wisdom Council just presents its
conclusions, and then it disbands.
6. It operates in a fishbowl-Once Wisdom Council members have been publicly
selected, they are isolated from the influence of others, but everyone knows
they are meeting.
7. It is facilitated dynamically-(See below.)
8. It generates unanimous statements-Unlike the world of agree/disagree
meetings, the Wisdom Council strives to reach conclusions that everyone-not
just those on the Wisdom Council-can fully support.
9. The results are presented in a ceremony-When the Wisdom Council concludes
its work, there is an immediate presentation of the final results, as well as
stories of the Council's experience. Everyone in the system is part of the
extended audience to whom the Wisdom Council speaks.
10. Small group dialogues are convened-Everyone in the system (nation, state,
community, organization) is invited to participate in small group dialogues
in town halls, cafes, churches, community centers, individual homes, and the
internet, and to voice their responses.
11. The process is ongoing-Each Wisdom Council articulates interim
conclusions in an ongoing dialogue that involves everyone. The Councils'
Statements provide a way to track progress on the issues.
12. The process operates in parallel with normal governance structures-The
Wisdom Council does not change existing structures-it merely adds a periodic
short-term, small-group meeting and presentation. Action happens through
existing structures or through direct citizen action.
The Magic of Choice-creating
The Wisdom Council's benefits come largely from the magical quality of
talking and thinking it establishes-both among its members and throughout the
larger population. This quality of thinking, known as choice-creating, is
different from normal political decision-making, where people agree and
disagree on topics, trying to gain influence. It is similar to dialogue
because it is a deep open-minded exploration of issues and similar to
deliberation because groups reach conclusions. But with choice-creating the
emphasis is not on people carefully weighing different options and
negotiating an agreement. It is oriented toward reaching unanimity via
breakthroughs of both head and heart.
Experience tells us that a breakthrough is the best way for any group to
reach unanimity on a difficult issue. Then consensus happens naturally and
quickly, and all feel motivated to help implement the result. This is not a
rational phenomenon. In fact, the use of rational, deliberative modes of
talking and thinking make breakthroughs unlikely. Even consensus-building,
where people are expected to suppress their own individuality for the benefit
of the group, stifles the possibility for consensus via breakthroughs.
Choice-creating is what happens when a community or organization faces and
overcomes a survival challenge. People put aside their normal prejudices and
come together like a family, rising to the occasion to do what is necessary.
Each person's contribution is valued and the process builds an exhilarating
sense of "We."
The Wisdom Council is structured to elicit choice-creating in all of us, and
to build this sense of "We." It is a "time out" from the usual back and forth
political conversation, for a different kind of conversation where people
address the big issues and seek consensus on what's best for everyone. This
new conversation is open-minded, creative and thoughtful, where people speak
from the heart.
Through experience, we've discovered that the best way to assure
choice-creating is through Dynamic Facilitation. Unlike traditional
facilitators who orient to extrinsic factors like goals, agendas and
guidelines, the dynamic facilitator orients to intrinsic factors like the
energy of passion or fear. She or he uses charts of Solutions, Data,
Concerns, and Problem-statements to capture comments as they come up. This
approach honors and acknowledges each comment, letting each participant know
they are heard, and encouraging new ideas. Different kinds of breakthrough
happen in this process, like when the "real" problem is identified, or new
solutions emerge, or when people realize they no longer feel about an issue
as they once did.
As an example, one dynamically facilitated group achieved consensus on the
issue of abortion. At first, the usual pro-life and pro-choice positions were
expressed and people talked about those. Then someone asked, "How frequent
are abortions anyway?" and the group wondered if there wasn't some way to
eliminate abortions altogether. After about thirty minutes, the group's
consensus was: "How can we achieve a society where all children are conceived
and born into families that want and love them?"
When people hear this story they sometimes express concern that this
consensus avoids the issue. But in fact, it's the opposite. This answer ends
the longstanding avoidance by identifying the real issue, which neither the
pro-life nor the pro-choice position addresses. It was a breakthrough because
it freed people from the argument, so they can start thinking and solving the
Tom Atlee, the author of The Tao of Democracy: Using Co-Intelligence to
Create a World That Works for All says, "Part of why I love Dynamic
Facilitation (DF) so much is that it works with people AS THEY ARE. It
doesn't require that they buy into a set of rules about how they're going to
talk together. They can be [jerks] and the facilitator makes sure (a) that
they don't get shut down because of that, (b) that the people they target-and
the group as a whole-continue to feel safe and (c) that whatever gift they
bring gets heard and made available to the group mind. This alone makes DF
incredibly useful in a pluralistic democracy. Add to that its power to
metabolize conflict into useful insights and to engender co-creativity among
diverse people, and it's a real treasure."
A Wisdom Council Example
The Wisdom Council is a new concept, which can be difficult to understand
from a description. It can best be appreciated when it is experienced. The
concept has been tested with citizens in cities, with students in schools,
with homeless people, and with employees in government agencies and
corporations. The most comprehensive experiment so far was initiated by three
citizens in the Rogue Valley of Oregon, who separately heard an interview
describing it on National Public Radio. They met each other and convened a
Wisdom Council experiment in their area (www.rvwc.org). That successful
experience taught us how a Wisdom Council can charter itself, that Dynamic
Facilitation is crucial to establishing the spirit of choice-creating, and
that onlookers 'get it' from seeing the presentation.
The best example to illustrate how a nationally chartered Wisdom Council
might transform society is from American history-the U.S. Constitutional
period of 1787-1791. This was very much a Wisdom Council-like process.
The delegates to the U.S. Constitutional Convention acted outside of their
assigned level of responsibility in the name of "We the People." They didn't
want to use that phrase because to them it was really the states that were
ordaining and establishing the Constitution. But since they had decided that
the Constitution would go into effect as soon as it was ratified by nine of
the thirteen states, and no one knew which states would adopt it first, the
document couldn't start with a list of states. Instead, the delegates came up
with "We the People" as a grammatically convenient phrase.
The Constitutional delegates were not democratic in their intentions. They
wanted a republic rather than a democracy. Most believed that only
property-owning males had sufficient gravitas and investment in society to
make sound decisions, so they excluded slaves, women, Native Americans, and
those who had no property from participating in government. But the
fortuitous use of the phrase "We the People," and the way they conducted
their meetings, set the stage for a real We the People to emerge.
This process foreshadowed the Wisdom Council. Just a small group of people
took "time out" from the normal course of politics-and life-for a "fishbowl"
meeting. They addressed the big issues of the day using a higher than normal
quality of conversation, seeking consensus rather than a majority. In the
end, they spoke as We the People, issuing a near-unanimous proposal signed by
39 of 42 present. Then they disbanded.
You might have asked of the Constitutional Convention, just as people often
ask of the Wisdom Council today, "How could there be real change without any
power of coercion or follow-up process?" The Constitutional Convention just
presented its conclusions and disbanded. Action happened because its
conclusions sparked a widespread conversation throughout the land and set off
a self-organizing dynamic of change. Ratifying conventions were organized,
the Constitution was implemented, and thanks to a disagreement among many in
the general public, the Bill of Rights was added.
The whole process took only one Wisdom Council-like meeting, plus four and a
half years of talking and thinking. In the end, there was a consensus voice
of all, a We the People that really did "ordain and establish" a new system,
which transformed human expectations and actions. No longer did people
blindly grant authority to those in charge. They were empowered to
self-govern and became more entrepreneurial, independent and self-reliant.
Our current system is designed like a machine based on eighteenth-century
assumptions about who we are and what is needed in the world. There is no one
in charge of it. It is in charge of us. Without a We the People, it is on
automatic pilot taking us mindlessly toward a future no one would choose. We
all keep our heads down, focused on improving special interests and ignoring
our collective situation.
Thomas Jefferson described the problem in a letter he wrote to his friend,
James Madison. Consulting actuarial tables of his time, he calculated that
the majority of any given generation would be dead after about nineteen
years. With this statistic in mind, he wrote: "It may be proved that no
society can make a perpetual constitution, or even a perpetual law. The earth
belongs always to the living generation…. Every constitution, then, and every
law naturally expires at the end of 19 years. If it be enforced longer, it is
an act of force and not of right."
The Wisdom Council offers a simple, practical, risk-free way to add the
missing element-a wise and responsible We the People-to our system. Recent
experiments give reason to be optimistic: The Wisdom Council seems to
engender a genuine We the People; it can be initiated by just a few people
while it honors and includes everyone; when people experience the process
(and perhaps only then) they 'get' its potential to help us solve today's
most pressing issues; and momentum is gathering.
There is a new non-profit organization helping to bring Wisdom Councils to
communities and the nation, the Center for Wise Democracy (see
www.WiseDemocracy.org). One current strategy is to convene a gathering of
many public service organizations from both left and right to charter the
first national Wisdom Council, followed by a national day of dialogue . You
are invited to become involved with these efforts or to explore the Wisdom
Council further by conducting your own experiments.