Tom Atlee: Expanding our capacity for “unitary democracy”

Civil Society, Cultural Intelligence, Ethics, Government
Tom Atlee

Expanding our capacity for “unitary democracy”

Below are highlights from Jane Mansbridge’s IN CONTEXT article “Unitary & Adversary: The Two Forms of Democracy”, which was itself an excerpt from her book BEYOND ADVERSARY DEMOCRACY (1983) which has had a significant impact on my thinking.

I often use Mansbridge’s distinction between (1) “unitary democracy” based on consensus arising from conversations about common interests shared by people who know each other and (2) “adversary democracy” based on majority votes among competing interest groups who may think they have little reason to take each other seriously.

Mansbridge clearly believes that adversary democracy must necessarily predominate in large complex societies where people don’t know each other. However, she also believes its toxic effects should be ameliorated by the practice of unitary democracy at local levels and in official governing bodies, as well as through more cooperative forms of economics.

I think the landscape of democratic possibilities she was observing in the 1960s and 70s has been transformed by modern social technologies – conflict resolution, group process, organizational development, networked communications, journalism, multi-media storytelling and, especially, social microcosm design. These technologies are making it possible to bring unitary democracy to more issues and greater scales than ever before.

When I say “social microcosm design”, I’m referring to our ability to select groups of 10-1000 people whose diversity accurately reflects the diversity of a whole population or community. We are increasingly able to convene such “fair cross-section minipublics” in face-to-face conversation. Once we do that, we can apply powerful group processes – advanced forms of dialogue, deliberation, choice creating, etc. – to this smaller group in ways that evoke, reflect and activate the highest collective intelligence and wisdom of the population from which they were drawn.

Such practices as Citizens Juries, Wisdom Councils and Future Search Conferences – to name just a few – have the potential to bring the healthy dynamics and group wisdom of unitary democracy into the airwaves of public debate, into the halls of power, and into diverse stakeholder networks so that the common interests we all share in the welfare of our communities and our children’s children can counter and sway the adversarial power of special interests.

The sooner we can embed such practices in our public life, the sooner we shall be able to move beyond the dysfunctional dynamics that dominate our current political and electoral processes and governments.



Unitary & Adversary: The Two Forms of Democracy by Jane Mansbridge

Aristotle tells us that the Greeks saw a kind of solidarity, which they called “friendship,” as the necessary basis of the state. Further, they identified equality, consensus, face-to-face contact, and common interest as distinguishing features of that friendship…. [This was much like] the model of democracy unconsciously adopted by the participatory democrats of the late 1960s and early 1970s [which] was in essence and in form directly opposed to the model of democracy that I, like most Americans, had grown up with….

Every American schoolchild knows that when you set up a democracy you elect representatives – in school, the student council; later, senators, representatives, councilmen, assemblymen, and aldermen. When you do not agree, you take a vote, and the majority rules. This combination of electoral representation, majority rule, and one-citizen/one-vote IS democracy. Because this conception of democracy assumes that citizens’ interests are in constant conflict, I have called it “adversary” democracy.

Every step in this adversary process violates another, older understanding of democracy. In that older understanding, people who disagree do not vote; they reason together until they agree on the best answer. Nor do they elect representatives to reason for them. They come together with their friends to find agreement. This democracy is consensual, based on common interest and equal respect. It is the democracy of face-to-face relations. Because it assumes that citizens have a single common interest, I have called it “unitary” democracy.

These two conceptions of democracy persist, side by side, in every modern democracy. The adversary ideal and the procedures derived from it have dominated Western democratic thinking since the seventeenth century. But unitary ideals and procedures continue to influence the way legislative committees, elected representatives, major institutions like the Supreme Court, and local democracies actually act. In crises of legitimacy, citizens often revert to the unitary ideal, as young people did in the small participatory democracies that flourished in America in the 1960s and early 1970s [and are doing today in the Occupy Movement – Tom Atlee].

These two conceptions of democracy are not only different, but contradictory. Yet those who talk and write about our democratic ideals never distinguish them. They assume either that adversary democracy is the only legitimate form of democracy or that unitary democracy is the ideal form and adversary democracy a compromise between the unitary ideal and the exigencies of practical politics. The main argument of my work is that both the unitary and the adversary forms of democracy embody worthy democratic ideals, although each is appropriate in a different context…..

The unitary approach… assumes that the [community] as a whole has a common interest. But only very small societies can make this assumption and can maintain this kind of decision-making. With increasing membership, the probability of a groups’ achieving a common interest, and therefore genuine consensus, diminishes rapidly. The participants in a large polity may never meet, and if they do, they will usually know each other in only one role, often one that dramatizes conflicts of interest. Large-scale organization also requires a hierarchy of some sort, if only for communications. Finally, sheer numbers make impossible a face-to-face meeting of all members at once. For these and other reasons, unitary democracy has had no large-scale form….

Over the generations, [the idea that a large-scale] democracy should weigh and come to terms with conflicting selfish interests rather than trying to reconcile them or to make them subordinate to a larger common good, gradually gained acceptance. Modern political theorists have taken this line of development to its logical conclusion. In current adversary theory, there is no common good or public interest at all. Voters pursue their individual interests by making demands on the political system in proportion to the intensity of their feelings. Politicians, also pursuing their own interests, adopt policies that buy them votes, thus ensuring accountability. In order to stay in office, politicians act like entrepreneurs and brokers, looking for formulas that satisfy as many, and alienate as few, interests as possible. From the interchange between self-interested voters and self-interested brokers emerge decisions that come as close as possible to a balanced aggregation of individual interests…. [While these dynamics do play a role, this analysis overlooks the power of big money and scientific PR to bias the system towards those with undue amounts of social power. – Tom Atlee]

The depressing conclusion is that democratic institutions on a national scale can seldom be based on the assumption of a common good. Yet a democracy based solely on the cold facts of national conflict will encourage selfishness based on perceiving others as opponents and discourage reasoned discussion among people of good will….

[This depressing conclusion can be ameliorated.] By fostering decentralized and highly participative units, by maintaining a few crucial remnants of consensus, by instituting primarily cooperative economic relations, and by treating adversary methods not as an all-encompassing ideal but as an unavoidable and equitable recourse, a nation can maintain some of the conditions for community, comradeship, selflessness, and idealism without insisting that on most matters all its citizens have a common interest.




Please send a donation of any amount — $10, $25, $50, $100, $500 or more — to

The Co-Intelligence Institute
PO Box 493
Eugene, OR 97440

or use your Visa or MasterCard – or Paypal – to make an online donation at

or tell some friends you know about our work, and invite them to support it.

Do let me know when you’ve mailed a donation, so I can add it to our tally right
away.  Including your email address on your check will help me keep track of
your gift.

You can also use the link above to arrange a monthly donation.

Your donations to the Co-Intelligence Institute are fully tax-deductible


Tom Atlee, The Co-Intelligence Institute, POB 493, Eugene, OR 97440  /
To be published August 7, 2013:  EMPOWERING PUBLIC WISDOM