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Changing Worldviews, Changing Politics


by Tom Atlee


Our democratic ideals, politics and governance are part of our Enlightenment heritage. In earlier centuries the metaphor for society had been a body with the king (or other autocrat) as the head. The voice of the king was the voice of the whole, "the Royal We." The Enlightenment changed all that, glorifying individuality and the free association of individuals. Society encouraged people to develop themselves and accumulate power, individually and together. It created the idea of millions of independent citizens and groups interacting (like Newton's atoms) and competing for resources (like Darwin's animals), with the final arbiter being an objective mathematical principle: the majority rules. American democracy was created to embody these ideals.

But, as revolutionary as they were 200 years ago, the atomistic, adversarial assumptions of our political culture are part of a fragmented worldview that fails to take account of our interconnectedness, our context and the needs of the whole. The "new sciences" -- ecology, quantum mechanics, and systems and chaos theories -- demonstrate that we (and everything) are deeply inteconnected. Ignoring that interconnectedness generates serious consequences, such as pollution, illness, and social decay.

As a developmental step in our cultural evolution, the politics of the Enlightenment has given us strong individuals and groups, a pluralistic respect for (or at least tolerance of) diversity, and a detailed understanding of the complexities of social power. But as a system for self-management, it is no longer up to the challenges we face. It is too manipulatable, and its fragmentary assumptions are part of a fragmentary culture that is undermining communities and ecosystems and thus the viability of civilization. Even our revered rule of the majority involves the domination of one part of society by another -- and sometimes even by a minority, as when only half the voters vote. This generates bitterness and battles which are now endemic in our politics.

All this contrasts with processes that acknowledge connectedness, context and wholeness. There are forms of consensus, for example, where participants unanimously consent to a decision, not because of pressure or compromise, but because they have together reached a deeper understanding of what is best for the group as a whole. They have fully heard each other; they've learned and evolved together. Now they see clearly not just their own viewpoint, but the larger picture that they've painted together. Oren Lyons, Faithkeeper of the Turtle Clan of the Onandaga Iroquois, describes this phemonenon well: "We meet and just keep talking until there's nothing left but the obvious truth." (Jerry Mander, In the Absence of the Sacred, p. 243)

Such decisions and understandings only happen after real dialogue in which everyone's perspective has been honored and explored for insights. Quakers have practiced this for centuries and there are modern procedures which can focus participants' attention so as to speed up the process. We need more approaches like that, that use the energy of diversity to generate wisdom, not winners and losers -- ways that heal our relationships with each other, with our communities and with nature.


see also Thinking Holistically beyond Politics and Governance