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The Politics of Human Potential


In December 1998 I received from California State Senator John Vasconcellos a proposal for a new politics based on human potential and basic human goodness. Around Christmas, I wrote him the following reply:


Dear Senator Vasconcellos,

I was very intrigued to read your call for a new politics.  In it, you offer a quote from Carl Rogers:

'We human beings are innately inclined toward becoming life-affirming, constructive, responsible, trustworthy.'

You then say: 

"Such a vision logically leads to selecting means which are liberating of our human potential, in all its components."

I would like to speak up for the collective, collaborative component of our human potential  -- a realm from which I have much to contribute to your efforts to formulate a new politics.  I'll start with a quote from John Dewey, which I believe complements Rogers' statement, bridging brilliantly (and politically) from individual to collective human potential:

"The foundation of democracy is faith in the capacities of human nature; faith in human intelligence and in the power of pooled and cooperative experience.  It is not belief that these things are complete but that if given a show they will grow and be able to generate progressively the knowledge and wisdom needed to guide collective action....  While what we call intelligence be distributed in unequal amounts, it is the democratic faith that it is sufficiently general so that each individual has something to contribute, whose value can be assessed only as it enters into the final pooled intelligence consitituted by the contributions of all."

--  John Dewey, "Democracy as a Way of Life", a 1937 speech cited in Introductory Readings in Philosophy, Robert R. Ammerman and Marcus G. Singer, eds (Wm. C. Brown, 1960) pp. 276-277.

I would like to suggest a new politics that could unite not only the progressive/green/new age cultural creatives, but most everybody else as well -- because instead of asserting a POSITION (even that "people are basically good"), it actively enables the "collective intelligence" of the people "to generate progressively the knowledge and wisdom needed to guide collective action," as John Dewey so clearly said.  I would like to suggest that such a new politics would merge with a new governance to become simply "the collective co-creation of our shared destiny."

There are powerful tools available -- new forms of conversation, actually -- which make it possible to dependably generate that co-creative collective intelligence.  They allow us to envision a leap in political process as radical as that from monarchy to representative democracy.  Monarchy and dictatorship put society under the control of a single or few individual intelligences, excluding the participation of others by force.  Representative democracy enabled full participation (at least theoretically), but depended on numerical majorities, thus encouraging competition, deal-making and compromise to craft solutions, thereby degrading the collective intelligence of any problem-solving effort or initiative. 

There are alternatives.  For decades (in some cultures, for centuries) it has been known that in certain groups and conditions, full, deep consensus is possible.  Instead of winners and losers bargaining and compromising, participants search together for the deepest, broadest understandings and solutions that will meet the real needs of all stakeholders.  An early form of this in the U.S. was articulated by William Ury and Roger Fisher in their 1981 classic manual of "principled negotiation" Getting to Yes.  But Oren Lyons of the Onandaga Iroquois has said of his people's ancient council process: "We just keep talking until there's nothing left but the obvious truth."  So humans have known about this sort of thing for a while.

What is revolutionary now is that numerous methods now exist whereby this high quality of collaborative collective thinking can now be replicated by cities, states and countries containing millions of people.  We don't have to limit it to small, homogeneous communities.

In your proposal, you say "our [existing] governments are about power & privilege, instead of people & problem-solving."  I couldn't agree more.  I want to alert you to powerful tools to change that.  Although they have rarely been applied to the political realm, they have been tested well enough in corporate environments, workshops, and communities to provide us with a tantalizing vision of how we could thoroughly change our politics (and do it in ways that would be a lot harder to derail than most other reforms!). 

One thing I'm sure you know as well as I do:  Inclusivity and participation do not guarantee an intelligent result. Brilliant people often brilliantly get in each other's way -- sometimes intentionally, sometimes not -- even when they share values and visions.  And not-so-brilliant people can clog up participatory processes, as well.  Inclusivity and participation only produce brilliant results if the right conditions are met and if the right methods are used.  Luckily, an awful lot is known about how to do that.

For further information about this, I invite you to explore my website, specifically the following pages:

For a quick taste of some powerful processes, read

If you want the full vision of a co-intelligent politics which integrates these and many other processes, see

In closing, I would like to once again recall what you said in your proposal:

"Our challenge now is to identify what formula, what key, what vision, WHAT PROCESS could serve to bring us liberated humans together, to assure and encourage each other, to cumulate our talents, to generate this radical new human politics."

I would like to suggest that it is actually a four-part insight you seek:

So in closing I want to point out that it is not one process we seek, but a whole array of processes, made coherent by such unifying insights as those above.

I look forward to further dialogue with you, should you wish it.