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Can Political Will Become Collectively Wise?


More and more people are taking seriously the emerging crises we face. In the news release for his new book Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization, Lester Brown uses what is to me a revealing phrase: "Business-as-usual is no longer a viable option." Whenever I hear someone saying something like that, I believe they have glimpsed the scope of the challenges we face.

Of course, the rub (as Hamlet says) lies in what they propose as an alternative to "business-as-usual". How deep or fundamental a shift do they think is possible or necessary, and where they feel we should put our attention? Embedded in what they say will be assumptions -- usually unspoken -- about how change happens and about who we are as human beings and societies.


Other key assumptions lie buried in another phrase I see in such calls for change, including Brown's: "Can we mobilize the political will?" Al Gore has also been calling for more "political will" around climate change.

What IS political will? I've explored the web for discussions of this. From what little I found, it seems that "political will" has to do with the energy of political elites to push through legislation or other mandates. As one site defines it, political will is "an express, and hopefully public, commitment from a country's leader(s)" to push a particular program. Much to my surprise, "political will" does not seem to refer directly to an upswelling of political pressure from the population. It is not "the Will of the People". Of course, public demand is one factor (among many) in generating the political will of elites.

Among the assumptions underlying the phrase "political will" are that political elites are the key factor in how society makes its final decisions. THEIR will is what decides what does and doesn't happen.

This is true, given the way things are set up. However, these framings do not invite us to think about how they might be set up differently -- and better.

In my searches, I also found the idea that when political will exists, it is often exercised in ways that are worse than the original solution, such as poisoning all life in a river to kill an unpopular parasite. This can happen even when there is popular support for political action, as there was in the US for the war on Iraq in 2003.

This leads me to wonder: Should "political will" really be the bottom line when we face crises of epic proportions?

Consider two alternative bottom lines:


"Public judgment emerges only in hearing other points of view, thinking through the clash of values and perceiving the ground from which differences come. Public judgment differs from simple public opinion, which is the undigested mass of private thoughts about issues and controversies. ... When citizens themselves have weighed the alternatives and made the decisions, the trade-offs are their own, and they can better accept the consequences. Public judgment involves learning to be discriminating. A barrage of information hits us daily. What is useful? What sources can we trust? To answer these questions, we must explore the values behind our opinions and those of others." (from "Living Democracy")

"Public judgment is what diverse people come to, together, when they explore the values involved in various alternatives and the consequences of the choices they face. Right now our politics -- even in theory -- is not based on real dialogue among diverse points of view. Instead, it is usually a battle between interest groups to influence public opinion and the decisions of our majoritarian leaders. This approach generates partisanship, not public judgment -- heat, not light -- opinions, not wisdom -- debate, not dialogue. This is not healthy -- especially when we face crises like our current one[s], where unwise decisions could generate horrendous consequences for us all. (from "A call to move beyond public opinion to public judgment")

Much is known about how to generate public judgment, and many organizations already do excellent work in this area.


Unfortunately, the term "collective wisdom" now refers to many things that seem to me less than truly wise, equating it with group problem-solving, mass prediction markets, and other remarkable phenomena that, nevertheless, do not rise -- or raise us -- to wisdom. Here is my attempt to reclaim the term for the common good:

Collective wisdom refers to insights and possibilities that emerge when diverse people's shared sensing, thinking, feeling and experience, take them beyond their individual and parochial perspectives into the long-term well-being of lives and communites beyond themselves -- the common good, future generations, the living planet, and more.

Because collective wisdom is generated by such diverse people or by those with whom they identify and whom they trust, it has the power to shape their subsequent attitudes and actions. Because the perspective of any individual or group is inherently limited, interactive diversity is key to generating collective wisdom. And because there are important sources of collective wisdom beyond us and within us, conditions must be right to access it.

Since some collective and interactive dynamics generate collective wisdom differently or more effectively than others, there is much to know and discover about how to call it forth among us.


Consider: Political will without public judgment -- or, better yet, collective wisdom -- may be dangerous, especially in these days of global and high-tech power. Public judgment and collective wisdom without political will is certainly impotent, and thus may also be dangerous because it makes us cynical just when we could be making a difference.

So how do we put them together?

My answer is relatively simple, but certainly not easy:

We have forms of conversation that can dependably generate public judgment and collective wisdom on behalf of whole communities and societies. For good examples, see these articles on citizen deliberative councils, methods for public judgment, and methods for dialogue and deliberation.
So my suggestion is: Give them power. Pick the best and plug them into our collective decision-making institutions and processes. Make them part of the law of the land. Demand that politicians support them. Make these processes part of our culture, the way juries and state-of-the-union addresses are part of our culture. Make them so understood, desired, demanded, and expected that no major decision is made without their involvement.

This is not a project or an issue. It is a vision in search of a movement. It is, potentially, a context within which ALL work on ALL issues and ALL candidates can be done. After all, looking back over our history, when did this majoritarian, issue oriented, candidate-fixated system REALLY act like it could deal with the challenges we face today, to say nothing of the challenges we faced yesterday?

And as we work on designing these processes into our political and governmental cultures, let us be appropriately humble, and research how to make them even more powerful and wise at addressing the crises of our era. Opportumnities for this abound, and we will have centuries of evolution ahead of us.

Finally, whenever and wherever we get them empowered and operating, protect them and their role with the vigilance, ferocity, and passion of a mother lion. For these wise democratic innovations will challenge the reign of parasitic power that is right now draining the vast collective awareness, intelligence, and resources of We the People into the coffers of the few and the dead-end streets of tomorrow.

We can do better.


As radical progressive Dennis Kucinich withdraws from the Democratic presidential race under pressure at home from established powers endangering his Congressional seat, much excitement is arising around Barack Obama, especially after his South Carolina win, and he is even now being compared to John and Bobby Kennedy (see here and here).

I find this a tragic comparison, given what happened to both Kennedys, and to the hope that they inspired. I wonder how many people are taking a good luck -- ahead of time -- at the lessons we seem to have such a hard time learning about placing our hopes so thoroughly in the heroism of one vulnerable, imperfect person rather than in organizing for lasting changes in the way our society is structured and the empowerment of the wisdom of We the People.

It has been noted that not only are none of the US Presidential candidates talking about empowered citizen deliberation (except the visionary but ignored Mike Gravel with his deliberation-based National Initiative), but none are even talking adequately about the truly major crises we face, like the energy crisis.

This is not a system that knows how to collectively see what is happening to it and respond with collective intelligence and wisdom. It is so hard watching Lester Brown and other brilliant, public-spirited individuals acting as if we can actually make the changes we need without changing that system.


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