Democracy on the rise is a blog post series about deliberative democracy: what it is, why it’s powerful, why it’s time for it, how it works, and how to get it going in your community. The series originated in the United States but will discuss principles and draw on examples from around the world. The views and opinions expressed in each article are those of the individual contributor(s) only.
The focus in this series of articles on Democracy Rising has been primarily on the methods and use of deliberative democracy in local contexts. However, there have also been many experiences of using these methods to target and reflect public sentiment and shape policy on a larger scale. In this article, I want to explore a way to “increase” the visibility and impact of deliberative conversations – specifically a way to institutionalize versions of these conversations in regular democratic practice – through a real-life example described in detail. This example is dramatic and significant, but has gone unnoticed by most process practitioners and democracy scholars. I am referring to an experiment conducted 30 years ago by the Canadian glossy weekly Maclean’s and Canadian television. It revealed the profound potential of using quality journalism and storytelling to make powerful citizen conversations widely visible.
Maclean’s the innovation unwittingly expands journalism’s traditional role of informing and strengthening democratic citizenship. Since the processes that generate public wisdom are extremely empowering to citizens and entire communities, their stories constitute great items of human interest. Moreover, deliberative events themselves are dramatic: as we all know, heat is generated when various people discuss controversial issues.
We also know that the media loves conflict. However, deliberative conflict is different from the usual political battles. Hot conflicts that generate creative solutions are quite different from hot conflicts that are ugly, chronic, staged, suppressed, or violent. Maclean’s journalists have shown Canadians what a profound difference citizens working together can make in politics. The publishers were not supporters of deliberative democracy; they were just trying an experiment. Their reporters simply reported on ordinary people struggling and working well together on important national and community issues.
A weekend in June 1991 Maclean’s summoned a dozen Canadians to a resort north of Toronto. These people had been scientifically chosen by a polling firm so that together they would represent all the major sectors of public opinion and demographics in Canada. In other words, they were selected for their differences—deep differences that reflected deep divisions in their fragmented country, from Quebecers who passionately wanted independence to a First Nations woman who emphasized that Indigenous citizens were not a special interest group, but the original residents of the Canada and the lawful stewards. Maclean’s three days for these dozens of people to develop a consensus vision for Canada.
Despite their deep-rooted and often conflicting beliefs, each participant was interested in dialogue with others. This dialogue was facilitated by Harvard law professor Roger Fisher, sometimes called “the guru of dispute resolution” and co-author of the classic book Go to Yeswith two colleagues from Harvard.
The ensuing stream of events makes for compelling reading. Despite their differences, intense time pressure, and being continuously filmed by a Canadian television crew (for an hour-long public affairs program), these ordinary citizens by the end of their third day had all signed a detailed, co-created and visionary document. agreement that paves the way for greater mutual understanding among all Canadians.
In their July 1, 1991 special issue entitled “The People’s Verdict”, Maclean’s devoted an astonishing 40 pages to describe in detail their remarkable initiative. (I provide full PDFs and analysis on my co-intelligence website.) These 40 brilliantly crafted pages would ideally have been a turning point in journalism: they featured a half-page on each of the twelve citizen panelists, including portraits , so readers could feel who they identified with and who they disliked, preparing them for the drama that was coming. This was followed by 12 pages reporting the actual conversation – hour-by-hour, blow-by-blow accounts from intense conflict to ultimate healing and collaboration. Photos every step of the way revealed polarized opponents with their arms crossed antagonistically or leaning decisively against each other…. intermediate participants leaning forward in frustration with their heads in their hands…. cathartic moments of deep listening…and, finally, former antagonists hugging each other goodbye, warm appreciation in their eyes.
Other articles in the issue described the process of selecting participants, the moderation method used, and the background to the issues the panelists faced. The group’s final agreement was printed on pages stained like old parchment, with the signatures of the deliberators scribbled on the last page, like John Hancock and his fellow revolutionaries signing the famous United States Declaration of Independence.
Maclean’s Deputy Editor Robert Marshall noted that past efforts – a parliamentary committee, a government advisory initiative and a $27 million citizens’ forum on Canada’s future – had all failed to create a genuine dialogue between citizens on constructive solutions, even though these efforts involved 400,000 Canadians. in focus groups, phone calls and mail reports. He wrote with foresight,
“The experience of Maclean’s indicates that if a national dialogue ever took place, it would be an extremely productive process.
What followed Maclean’s ‘People’s Verdict’ and the hour-long CTV documentary ‘The People’s Accord’ were six months of national dialogue across Canada hosted by schools, churches, talk shows and many other groups. Citizens suddenly had the energy to heal their country and tackle its thorny problems together. Politicians were drawn into this conversation fray but soon realized it was getting a bit too hot for them. They poured oil on the waters of public engagement – and public energy finally subsided.
I would like to highlight several levels of “public participation” involved in the Maclean’s initiative:
- The archetypal wisdom-generating participation of diverse voices in a deliberative “minipublic” – a small group of citizens embodying the diversity of the general public
- Participation by proxy of this large audience witnessing the dramatic deliberations between people they identify with (or against), which take place in the mass media
- Massive direct participation in subsequent spontaneous and organized dialogues across the country, stimulated by this media coverage
Today we could add another form of participation not available in 1991:
- Participatory participation, in which thousands of citizens offer their input and responses online
Yet, as fabulous as this commitment is, I want to point out a vital overlooked potential: Maclean’s never did it again. Imagine what would have happened in Canada if Maclean’s did the same exercise the following year. And the next year, and the next. imagine that Maclean’s and CTV had also reported on all the conversations, disputes, civic engagement and activism that were stimulated each year. Imagine what a catalyst that would have been for Canada’s political culture – and even for the world, because it would certainly have been noticed elsewhere!
Nothing in such an iterative exercise violates journalistic objectivity or principled news reporting, or the prerogatives of government. Instead, it offers a profound expansion of journalism’s primary function of promoting informed citizenship and responsible, accountable leadership in an engaged democracy. It could also transform the political environment in which everything else happens: we would see more good and bad coming through clearly and being worked on through this dynamic and visible national engagement year after year.
Versions of this could be done in any community, as well as at state and national levels. It would be enough for journalists to enter this new history of a more powerful role for democratic journalism. I think today, with the spread of citizen journalists, bloggers and videographers on smartphones, a powerful version of Maclean’s participatory proxy deliberation of the whole of society could also be initiated from below.
Other innovations await our co-creativity….