Welcome to the online version of Empowering Public Wisdom: A Practical Vision of Citizen-Led Politics by Tom Atlee. This book proposes innovative ways to distill the wisdom of ordinary people in order to better guide public policy. With the agreement of the publisher, EVOLVER EDITIONS/North Atlantic Books, the full text will be serialized here on Reality Sandwich, with each chapter updated to this homepage.

“A wise and important development for the democracy movement.” —Hawaii state senator Les Ihara Jr., Senate majority policy leader

“At last someone has described the conditions under which ordinary people can generate real public wisdom. The implications for democracy—especially for democratic handling of our most troubling, complex, and urgent issues—are profound. I urge activists, academics, public officials, and every concerned citizen to heed the call in this book.”—Richard Sclove, author of Democracy and Technology

“Empowering Public Wisdom serves up a juicy antidote to today’s increasingly intractable issues, political gridlock, and public disengagement. Having used many of the practices Atlee outlines, I can attest to the viability and vitality of the vision he paints and the approaches he proposes on behalf of us all.”—Peggy Holman, consultant, author of Engaging Emergence: Turning Upheaval into Opportunity and coauthor of The Change Handbook



Chapter 1 : A Practical Vision of Citizen-Led Politics

The public is not just a bunch of isolated disengaged individuals. It is the people in the sense of Lincoln’s memorable phrase “a government of the people, by the people, for the people.” When I talk about public wisdom I mean that the public has latent wisdom that can be brought out and then spoken by its public voice — the voice of the people. People can and must empower their public wisdom to have real impact in the world.

Chapter 2: Direct Democracy, Representative Democracy and Their Shadows

For those seeking a healthier, wiser democracy, the question is no longer: Which is better: direct democracy or representative democracy? The more useful questions are: What are the gifts and limitations of both direct and representative democracy? What is the best role they could play together?   

Chapter 3: Why We Need Public Wisdom

Is it asking too much to ask for wisdom — especially from the public? No, it isn’t. I define wisdom as “the capacity to take into account what needs to be taken into account in order to produce long-term, inclusive benefits.” 

Chapter 4: Public Wisdom: Its Role, Its Sources, and Its Limitations

In a democracy we, the people, are stewards of the values in our communities and country. We need to be in charge of seeing that those values govern our collective lives. That’s why we need to talk together about it. 

Chapter 5: Citizenship and the Random Selection of Ad Hoc Mini-Publics

Two of the main obstacles to the effectiveness and wisdom of our democracy are (a) the time demands of responsible citizenship and (b) the side effects of power, especially corruption. These factors block our capacity to address our public issues well, and they frustrate efforts to elect better lawmakers. 

Chapter 6: Citizen Deliberative Councils: Their Character, Variety, and History

Without deliberation we don’t get public wisdom. Even in an individual, wisdom does not come from experience or teachings alone. Individuals must reflect on their experiences and what others have told them; notice connections, consequences, and contradictions; and must test what they believe against challenges in their minds, in conversations, and, above all, in life in order to derive sound, beneficial knowledge over time.

Chapter 7: How Citizen Deliberative Councils Could and Should Be Used

It is now well demonstrated that with this method ordinary citizens have a remarkable capacity to grapple with complex problems and come up with useful recommendations that serve the common good, thus realizing the elusive dream of democracy more fully than ever before.