Beyond polarization to we the people

Nov. 13, 2013 @ 08:20 AM

Despite the polarization in our government and populace, there is reason to take heart.  While we may be miles apart on some controversial issues, Americans are in broad agreement on one crucial thing -- the system is not working.  

After the recent Congressional failure to agree on a budget, with the ensuing government shutdown, the approval rating of Congress sank to 9 percent according to Fox News; 11 percent according to Gallup.    When is the last time that 90 percent of us agreed on anything? 

This is an important starting place for creative change.

We know that our current system of candidates and political parties does not accurately represent our population.  For example, 39 percent of members of Congress are lawyers, whereas 0.36 percent of the population as a whole are lawyers. 

Six percent of Senators and 19 percent of Representatives are from minority populations compared to the 36 percent minority population in the U.S.  Women currently hold 18.3 percent of the 535 seats, while the population of women is 50.8 percent.  Perhaps most troubling is that nearly half of our representatives and 67 percent of our senators are millionaires.

As these numbers indicate, our electoral system produces decision-making bodies that fail to reflect vast portions of the population.  Our politics have become polarized and public discourse in general has suffered.  Many people actively avoid conversation about even slightly controversial topics, dismissing them with “I don’t want to talk politics.”  This withdrawal comes from a lack of confidence in the quality of the conversation.

Here is where concerned citizens can themselves begin the work of finding ways to raise the level of conversation and ultimately begin to solve problems for the common good.

We the People can form diverse councils at the local level to help our representatives at the local, state, and federal levels understand and trust the consensus of all the people they need to represent.  This can be done through what has become known as Wisdom Councils. 

Wisdom Councils are chartered by the people who make up the particular system in question, say a student body, city, state or country.  Like juries, a Wisdom Council is formed by drawing names at random so it is a true microcosm of the people. 

The council is empowered to select and frame the issues it addresses or it may be asked to address a particular issue.  For example, such a council in Oregon took up health care.  In Canada one took up the secession of Quebec.   Serving on a Wisdom Council is voluntary.  It meets, presents its conclusions and then disbands. 

Wisdom Councils operate in a fishbowl.  Once its members have been publicly and ceremoniously selected, they are isolated from outside pressures, though everyone in the system knows they are meeting.  To build trust in the process and encourage vicarious involvement, some of the deliberations may be broadcast.

The best Wisdom Councils use Dynamic Facilitation, a leading-edge innovation developed by Jim Rough.  According to Tom Atlee,  author of  “The Tao of Democracy,” Dynamic Facilitation helps groups “have meaningful conversations, access their creativity, and discover practical breakthroughs to challenging situations, even in the midst of divergent opinions, strong emotions, and conflicting beliefs.“ 

Through this method, participants are not beholden to anyone, although they come from diverse perspectives that reflect the population.  They feel safe and respected and begin to access their creativity and move into a dialogue that produces options not formerly considered.  This “Choice-Creating” process leads to a level of consensus that can resonate with the broader population.

The Wisdom Council strives to reach conclusions that everyone, not just those on the Wisdom Council, can fully endorse.  Unlike our current system, it is not a way for the majority to impose something on the minority.  Rather, it is a process that incorporates minority perspectives into something that will work for everyone. 

The Wisdom Council’s conclusions are written into clear, simple sentences that are presented in a widely announced public forum.  These statements may be visions, values, points that engage and inspire people, or they may be proposals that address specific problems.

While Wisdom Councils have no official power, the process of choosing participants at random in a very public process builds trust in their results.  Successive Wisdom Councils can build on previous insights.   This can lead to a higher level of conversation and a better understanding of the best of our collective thinking.  Could this be the next stage in Democracy?

As the public discourse becomes increasingly simplistic and superficial and our elected officials sink deeper into the jaws of gridlock, we the people must not abandon our democracy in frustration. 

Let’s work together now when we are at least near a consensus that the system is not serving us.  Let’s give the ideas of Wisdom Councils and Dynamic Facilitation a hearing.   More information is available at

Betsy Crites is active with Transition Durham and former director of N.C. Peace Action.