Deep Democracy and Community Wisdom

by Tom Atlee

A wise person has perspective. They can see the big picture
without losing sight of the small. They can see the part
without losing sight of the whole. They understand the
partnerships of day and night, good and bad, the known and
the unknown. They have observed how it all fits together,
including their own limitations and immense ignorance - and
that realization makes them humble, insightful and flexible.
They are free to creatively see and respond to what's
actually around them.

"God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot
change, courage to change the things I can and wisdom to
know the difference." This famous "Serenity Prayer" arises
out of, and nurtures, wisdom.

Can communities be wise? Interestingly, a community of
people (whether a group, a company, a town or a nation) is
better equipped to be wise than an individual. This is true
despite the fact most of the communities we live in or with
are clearly foolish, small-minded, unconscious and/or
destructive. Truly wise communities (some of which operate
on millennia-old traditions) are seldom seen or publicized
by our civilization, preoccupied as it is with bustling off
to its own demise.

As individuals, we are inherently more limited than a
community. Although we can consult books and friends and
critics, in the end we are limited to our own single
perspective. We are, alas, only one person, looking at the
world from one place, one history, one pattern of knowing.

A community, on the other hand, can see things through many
eyes, many histories, many ways of knowing. The question is
whether it dismisses or creatively utilizes and integrates
that diversity.

Communities are wise to the extent they use diversity well.
The wisest know that every viewpoint represents a part of
the truth, and that it is through the cooperative, creative
interplay of viewpoints that the wisest, most comprehensive
and powerful truths emerge. So they engage in that
interplay, that dialogue - a creative controversy or
consensus process that winds its way to wise public

The best government is that government which enables
communities to do this - to nurture and utilize their wisdom
and resources - especially their diversity - in such a way
that they require less and less government.

A community that can manage itself in a wise and sustainable
manner is one that has mastered democracy. They know they
can't depend on leaders (from dictators to saviours, from
representatives to experts) to do things for them. They know
that democratic citizens and leaders work best in
partnership with each other, co-creating each other's power.
They know that leaders must be seen as living extensions of
their own will and wisdom, which must be kept active. They
know that passive "followership" abandons leaders, deprives
them of the wisdom and creativity of the community, and
opens them up to the corruptions of alienated power.

A democratic community grows beyond dependence and
paternalism. In a sense, the more democratic a society is,
the more it has "come of age." Movements for democracy might
even be seen as the maturation process of a culture. A
mature society knows how to handle itself in dynamic context
with others, drawing on its inner resources (its diverse
members) and relating responsively and creatively with its

The more it knows how to nurture and use the rich diversity
of individual views and capabilities within it, the more
wise (and democratic) a society will be. It will resist
small-minded leadership and even the dictatorship of the
majority. It will cherish dissent as a wise individual
cherishes doubt - as a door to deeper understanding.

However, as we all know, it is not easy to do something
creative with diverse opinions and experiences. It's much
easier to settle for lowest-common-denominator agreements,
press for (or give in to) one-sided decisions, or enforce
thoughtless compliance. But a wise, democratic society knows
that such approaches inevitably overlook important factors
and result in poor decisions. A public rush to judgement is
comparable to an individual jumping to conclusions. In the
long run, it only makes things worse.

So a major activity of a democratic community is developing
the skills, procedures, and attitudes needed for people to
jointly create with their diversity. As more people become
artists with these democratic tools, the community's
thinking becomes more wise, their collective behavior more
intelligent and successful.

In this process, communities leave domination and
fragmentation (alienated individualism) behind. Those
dysfunctional approaches arise from a false dichotomy
between the individual and the group. In fact, individuality
and community are two facets of the same thing - our alive
humanity. Individuals and communities can only be whole and
healthy when they nurture each other. This is the lesson of
deep democracy.

Through building creative partnerships among empowered,
deeply unique individuals and groups, deep democracy enables
real community wisdom to emerge. Peace, justice and
fruitful, sustainable lives are natural concomitants of this

Just as a healthy body contains a deep wisdom that enables
it to heal itself and to go about its daily business with
energy and intelligence, so does a deeply democratic society
resonate with the creative, healing wisdom of the body

A note on leadership and governance:

Good leadership is not a matter of getting everyone to
follow you. Good leadership is helping the group or
community make the best out of each individual's
contribution. A good leader organizes or catalyzes a
partnership of thought and action that cultivates and
harvests each member's unique contribution for collective
understanding and success. The best leaders are like the
best teachers and parents: They enable their groups to
independently nurture and utilize their wisdom and

Thus we find, as Rajesh Tandon, co-ordinator of India's
Society for Participatory Research in Asia (PRIA), says:
"The appropriate role of the state is to create enabling
conditions for civil society to manage the public affairs of
the community." (Tranet #77, 7/92)

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Tom Atlee  *  The Co-Intelligence Institute  *  Eugene, OR

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