Direct Democracy: Political Imperative, Practical Opportunity


New and deliberative forms of direct democracy could,
within the next ten years, restore public control over (and
support for) governments throughout the United States. They
could greatly reduce the significance of the old parties
and traditional politicians, as well as the role of big
money in campaign finance. Our basic design for such a
system involves regular, binding referendums on all major
issues, and would be tested via constitutional change in
self-selected states before implementation at the national
level. These principles are set forth in Part I below, with
a brief background provided in Part II. I. Components of a
Basic System Direct democracy defined. Direct democracy
means direct control by citizens over the body of laws by
which they are governed, including both constitutions and
statutes. The vehicle for such control is the referendum,
meaning the opportunity for all citizens to vote yes or no
on the text of a proposed constitutional change, or on a
simplified but accurate summary of a proposed statute. This
text might be produced by a legislature, by a nonpartisan
commission established in the enabling constitutional
amendment, or by citizens themselves. The referendum may be
binding or advisory only. Issues that must be faced, and
our preferred set of answers.
(1) Who votes on what matters? All citizens who so desire,
on all major issues. Basic concepts or directions might be
chosen from a menu of alternatives in one referendum,
followed later by yes/no on the proposed text of the chosen
(2) By what means? By the most efficient, least-cost Means
that provide universal and secure access. This could be at
regular polling places, by mail, or by electronic means, or
through some combination of these.
(3) Who decides what is-a "major issue"? Either house of
the legislature, the nonpartisan commission, or 10% of
voters by initiative -- or by petition for a referendum
within 60 days after passage of any legislation..
(4) How is the choice of concepts/directions framed, and/or
the text of the issue drafted? By the legislature in the
form of a joint resolution, by the nonpartisan commission,
or by 10% of voters if the initiative method is used.
(5) How frequently are referendums held'? Three to four
times a year, preferably at the same times as primaries,
general elections, municipal or school board elections,
other special elections (levies, bond financing), etc. No
more than two or three issue referendums should be
presented at any one time.
(6) Are referendums binding or advisory? The purposes of
civic education and involvement, and of reducing the
significance of parties, politicians, and big money, will
be best served by referendums that are binding.
(7) In order to protect minority rights, should a minimum
required turnout of voters be required to validate a
referendum, or a supermajorily of voters (say 55% or 60%)
be required to enact legislation or constitutional changes?
Neither of these is desirable, given the goals of civic
education and involvement. Neither is required now, under
our obsolescent and indirect system, to enact even the most
drastic changes -- and there is nothing to be gained by
crippling a participating majority from the outset.
(8) Can referendums really be "deliberative" instead of
based on first reactions or prejudice? Yes, if objective
information and adequate time are provided to voters. Once
the issue text has been finally established by the
originating source and approved by the nonpartisan
commission, the commission shall promptly issue a "Voters'
Guide" giving the text of the proposal, describing the
impacts it would have, and providing arguments pro and con.
This can be distributed by mail and/or electronically. No
referendum shall be voted on until 60 days after
publication of the Voters' Guide.
(9) How can all this be accomplished? The direct democracy
system can be enacted by a single well-crafted
constitutional amendment. To get such an amendment passed
by an existing legislature and then ratified by the voters,
however, a massive campaign of education and persuasion
will have to be mounted by independents and civic groups
against the probable opposition of the two political
parties, traditional politicians, established big money,
most "experts," other cultural "authorities," and the media.
(10) How can some of these major obstacles be overcome? (a)
The two old political parties cannot be abolished (US
Const., 1st Amend.), nor should they be. Their monopoly
grip on our politics can be broken, however, by overhauling
the election laws to allow multiple parties into the arena
on an equal basis, instituting proportional representation
in all legislatures, providing for "None of the Above"
options in all elections, and curbing their financial role.
This could be accomplished statutory, but as a practical
matter may have to be done by another well-crafted
constitutional amendment.
(b) Traditional politicians will simply have to accept
change in the role of a legislator to that of an
implementing technician with respect to major issues, and
discretionary policymaker only with respect to minor
issues. Tern limits might help in this transition. Many
"experts" and most media will go along.
(c) Established big money also enjoys protection for its
contributions from the 1st Amendment. Multiple limits must
be enacted until the Supreme Court finds some it will
accept, and public funding must be provided to all sides.
II. Definitions and Trends An enduring tension between a
minority of "haves" and the majority of "havenots" has run
through American politics from pre-Revolutionary days to
the present, occasionally flaring into visible conflict.
The haves always defend property rights and a republican
form of government, or at least a representative democracy
in which they play the dominant role -- often celebrating
such a system simply as "democracy." The havenots seek
greater equality and expanded democracy, but have usually
settled for the same kind of representative democracy --
and been taught to celebrate it as "democracy."
Definitions. A republic is a government in which the people
are acknowledged as sovereign, but in which some
less-than-majority number of the people actually govern,
usually by limiting the right to vote and insisting on
freedom for elected representatives to "do the right
thing." The assumption is that this minority has
distinctive talent, or stake in the society, that entitles
it to govern in the interest of the whole society. The
American constitution of 1787 was widely recognized as
establishing a republic, but one that was carefully guarded
against popular control through a variety of
anti-majoritarian devices. Some of these devices have been
changed or eliminated, but the essential limits are still
operable and new ones have been added.
A democracy originally meant a government in which all the
people govern, and directly make all major decisions. In
practice, this has always been very difficult to implement,
because of the number of citizens and the number and
complexity of issues.. In 1787, the prospect was derided by
most of the better people as "mob rule." The Town Meetings
of New England communities were urged as a model by some
have-nots, but their limited geographic scope enabled the
haves to deny their relevance to larger units. "Democracy,"
a concept that became popular together with "equality"
after 1787, has therefore been understood chiefly in two
ways in the United States -- both of which premise
inviolable property rights as limits on the powers of
Representative democracy is a system where voters choose
representatives to act for them, more or less free of
direct accountability. The right to vote may be expanded,
but the size of constituencies and the insulation of the
party system make it very difficult for voters to get their
preferences acted upon.
Direct democracy, as we described earlier, means direct
voter control over laws governing them, usually exercised
through initiatives and referendums.
Early trends. In the post-1787 American context,
"democracy" was a convenient expression for aspirations to
vote, first on the part of men with lesser amounts of
property but soon for black men, women, and all excluded
groups. In effect, "democracy" became the rallying cry of
all the have-nots for greater equality in various forms.
But the American system and its primary beneficiaries do
not welcome clear lines of conflict, particularly if they
seem to be class-based. As industrialization sharpened
class-based conflict in the late 19th and early 20th
century and radical ideas for change were proposed, some
accommodations had to be sought. At this point, the
American republic was renamed and celebrated as
(representative) "democracy." Another stabilizing result
was the development and implementation in several states of
new forms of direct democracy -- such as the initiative,
referendum, and recall of the Progressive Era, some
versions of which are now in effect in 24 states.
Current trends. The initiative, in which citizens can by
petition place a proposed statute (in some cases,
constitutional change as well) either before the
legislature or directly on the ballot, was at first the
vehicle of substantial reform. But in recent years, it too
has been caught up in the apparently intractable problems
of the American political system. Although initiatives are
now used much more frequently than at any time in the past,
sometimes to salutary effect, they have two major flaws.
One is that they are often poorly drafted, and end up being
redefined by the courts, probably the least democratic of
our institutions. The other is more serious: they are
increasingly the vehicle of big money and minority special
interests who pay to have signatures collected and force
their versions of public "issues" onto the ballot. In both
cases, the initiative process loses its role as the
expression of unheard majority preferences and instead
creates a single-issue politics -- usually of the wrong
issues -- with campaigns that draw huge sums of money and
media attention.
The failure of the initiative today is a small mirror of
the failures of our obsolescent political system. The two
major parties, both of which are owned entirely by big
money, promote outdated ideologies and irrelevant slogans
and effectively mask policy making in the interest of major
corporations and the wealthy. Most politicians are
self-interested opportunists who represent their
contributors rather than their constituents. Campaigns are
dominated and controlled by big money, without which no
candidate can hope to get the media time and attention
necessary for election. In our economically troubled and
culturally fragmenting society, the extreme claims of small
special interests prevent the long-term public interest
from even being discussed, let alone acted upon. No wonder
the people have less confidence in their government than
ever before, are withdrawing from voting and civic
participation, and view their entire political system with
distaste and active resentment!
At the heart of our problem is the capture of our
(republican) representative democracy by big money. The
solution today, as it was in the Progressive Era, is once
again a turn to direct democracy -- but this time in a
deliberative form that allows citizens to control all major
actions, without the onerous burden of constant
petitioning. Simple and narrowly targeted constitutional
change is all that is required, and it should be seen as a
conservative act that is necessary to preserve the essence
of our popular sovereignty and self-government principles.
The U.S. Constitution's guarantee of a "republican form-n
of government" to the states (Article IV, Section 4) is no
barrier: it is addressed to conditions of insurrection and
forceful change, not a peaceful majority expansion of
democracy to fit the needs and technological opportunities
of our times.
Indeed, direct democracy in various forms is already coming
onto the political agenda in the U.S. and around the world.
An enabling constitutional amendment has been proposed in
California, and the government of Ontario has offered its
citizens a menu of alternative forms as a means of
initiating discussion leading to implementation of some
preferred option. Switzerland has extensive experience with
referendums, and a new proposal for a second House of
Parliament to act along direct democracy lines has been
offered in book form in Denmark. Several organizations and
proposals advocating form of direct democracy can be found
all over the Internet. These are collected in updated
versions by the Teledemocracy Action News + Network.
In the U.S. today, the basic tension continues between
wealth and privilege and freedom to use property on the one
hand, and the goal of equal opportunity and participation
on the other. Both sides claim to be the real advocates of
democracy and defenders of the real aspirations of the
American system. Fundamental public policy choices lie
immediately ahead, but we have no clear and direct, let
alone democratic, way to make them. In the obsolescent,
corrupted politics of our times, it is impossible for the
popular will to be either expressed or implemented. In this
context, only deliberative direct democracy can restore
popular control over, and confidence in, our system. When
all else falls, as it is so clearly doing today, we may as
well trust the people. Mr. Jefferson would have been glad
to do so long ago. 


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