Act: Inspiration

Democracy Rising 23: Scaling Deliberation—the Maclean’s Magazine Experiment

August 2, 2022

Democracy Rising is a series of blog posts on deliberative democracy: what it is, why it’s powerful, why the time is right for it, how it works, and how to get it going in your community. The series originates in the United States but will discuss principles and draw upon examples from around the world. Views and opinions expressed in each post are those of the individual contributor(s) only.

The emphasis in this Democracy Rising series of posts has been primarily on the methods and use of deliberative democracy in local settings. However, there have also been many experiments in using those methods to focus and reflect public sentiments and shape policy at larger scales. In this post I want to explore a way to “scale up” the visibility and impact of deliberative conversations—in particular one way to institutionalize versions of such conversations into regular democratic practice—by means of one actual example described in some detail. This example is dramatic and significant but has gone mostly unnoticed by process practitioners and democratic scholars. I’m referring to an experiment done 30 years ago by Canada’s glossy newsweekly Maclean’s and Canadian TV. It revealed the profound potential of using quality journalism and storytelling to make powerful citizen conversations widely visible.

Maclean’s innovation unwittingly expanded journalism’s traditional role of informing and empowering democratic citizenship. Since public wisdom-generating processes are extremely empowering to citizens and whole communities, their stories make great human interest features. Furthermore, the deliberative events themselves are dramatic: as we all know, heat gets generated when diverse people discuss controversial issues.

We also know that news outlets love conflict. However, deliberative conflict is different from familiar 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 showed Canada’s population what a profound difference citizens working together can make in politics. The editors weren’t biased in favor of deliberative democracy; they were just trying an experiment. Their reporters just reported ordinary people struggling and then working well together on important national and community issues.

One weekend in June 1991 Maclean’s convened a dozen Canadians in a resort north of Toronto. These folks had been scientifically chosen by a polling firm so that, together, they represented all the major sectors of public opinion and demographics in Canada. In other words, they were selected for their differences—profound differences that reflected deep divisions in their fragmented country, from Quebecers who passionately wanted independence to a First Nations woman who stressed that Indigenous citizens were not a special interest group but Canada’s original residents and rightful stewards. Maclean’s gave these dozen people three days to develop a consensus vision for Canada.

Despite their firmly held and often opposing beliefs, each participant was interested in dialogue with the others. That dialogue was facilitated by Harvard law professor Roger Fisher, sometimes called “the guru of conflict resolution” and co-author of the classic book Getting to Yes, with two Harvard colleagues.

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The subsequent flow of events makes compelling reading. Despite their differences, the intense time pressure, and being continuously filmed by a crew from Canadian TV (for an hour-long public affairs program) these ordinary citizens by the end of their third day had all signed a detailed, co-created, visionary agreement charting a course to greater mutual understanding by all Canadians.

In their special July 1, 1991 issue headlined “The People’s Verdict”, Maclean’s devoted an astonishing 40 pages to describing their remarkable initiative in detail. (I provide full PDFs and analysis on my co-intelligence website.) Those brilliantly designed 40 pages would ideally have constituted a watershed in journalism: They featured half a page about each of the dozen citizen panelists, including portraits, so that readers could feel out who they identified with and who they didn’t like, setting them up for the approaching drama. That 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 arms folded antagonistically or leaning decisively away from each other…. middle-of-the-road participants bending forward in frustration, 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 participant selection, the facilitation method used, and background about issues the panelists wrestled with. The group’s final agreement was printed on pages colored like old parchment, with the deliberators’ signatures scrawled on the final page, like John Hancock and his revolutionary fellows famously signing the U.S. Declaration of Independence.

Maclean’s Assistant Managing Editor Robert Marshall noted that past efforts—a parliamentary committee, a governmental consultative initiative, and a $27 million Citizens’ Forum on Canada’s Future—had all failed to create real dialogue among citizens about constructive solutions, even though those efforts involved 400,000 Canadians in focus groups, phone calls, and mail-in reporting. He presciently wrote,

“The experience of the Maclean’s forum indicates that if a national dialogue ever does take place, it would be an extremely productive process.”

What followed Maclean’s “People’s Verdict” issue and CTV’s hour-long documentary “The People’s Accord” was six months of national dialogue across Canada organized by schools, churches, talk shows, and many other groups. Citizens suddenly had energy to heal their country and confront its gnarly issues together. Politicians were drawn into this conversational fray but soon realized it was getting a bit too hot for them. They poured some oil on the waters of public engagement—and public energy finally subsided.

I want to point out several layers of “public participation” involved in the Maclean’s initiative:

  1. The wisdom-generating archetypal participation of diverse voices in a deliberative “minipublic”—a small group of citizens embodying the diversity of the broad public
  2. Vicarious participation of that broad public witnessing the dramatic deliberations among people they identify with (or against), unfolding in mass media
  3. Direct mass participation in subsequent spontaneous and organized dialogues around the country, stimulated by that media coverage

Today we could add another form of participation not available in 1991:

  1. Crowd-sourced participation, in which thousands of citizens offer their input and responses online

Yet as fabulous as this engagement was, I want to note a vital neglected potential: Maclean’s never did it again. Imagine what would have happened in Canada had Maclean’s done this 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, conflicts, citizen engagements, 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, nor the prerogatives of government. Instead, it offers a profound expansion of journalism’s primary function of promoting an informed citizenry and responsible, answerable leadership in an engaged democracy. It could also transform the political environment within which all else happens: We’d see more of both the good and the bad showing up clearly and being worked on through this vibrantly visible national engagement year after year.

Versions of this could be done in any community, as well as at state and national levels. All it would take would be journalists stepping into this new story of a more potent role for democratic journalism. I think nowadays, with widespread citizen journalists, bloggers, and smart phone videographers, a potent version of Maclean’s whole-society vicarious participatory deliberation could also be initiated from the grassroots.

More innovations await our co-creativity….


Teaser photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Tom Atlee

Tom Atlee is co-founder of the Co-Intelligence Institute, author of The Tao of Democracy, Participatory Sustainability, Empowering Public Wisdom and Reflections on Evolutionary Activism. He considers the encyclopedic Wise Democracy Pattern Language website and card deck his most significant co-creations. He enjoys being thinking partners with numerous transformational change agents and writing for his blog. He lives in an urban housing co-op... Read more.

Tags: building resilient societies, deliberative democracy, participative democracy