Direct Democracy

by Mike Adams

The following articles were written with the American and British systems in mind, respectively, but could easily be adapted to any European one including Sweden one without very much difficulty.

Why the American People must disband Congress

Given that the massive health care reform bill just passed by the House was one of the largest pieces of legislation in U.S. history, you might wonder why you didn't get to vote on it. When it comes to federal legislation, your vote doesn't count in America, didn't you know? You are dictated to by a small band of the political elite who may or may not represent your interests (or even the interests of your fellow citizens).

Those people are called members of Congress. And as you'll read here, they are essentially obsolete. Society no longer has any need for them. Here's why...

Why Congress was created

Consider why the U.S. Congress was created in the first place: Back in the 1700s, there was no internet. There weren't even telephones. Heck, this was pre-telegraph! Long-distance communication was simply impossible, so the people had a very practical need to send a representative to Washington to represent their wishes on the legislative front.

And so the idea of the U.S. Congress was born. Senators and Congresspeople would be representatives of the People from their home states and districts, and they would vote according to the wishes, desires and best interests of the people back home. They would essentially be proxy voters. Sounds good in theory, right?

Fast forward 230 years or so...

Now, instant communication is available to almost everyone. A new law being proposed in Washington could be instantly read -- and voted on -- by the People all across America. The internet has made the whole purpose behind the U.S. Congress obsolete... irrelevant. Why do Americans need someone else to represent them when we can all just read and vote on the bills ourselves? In an age of instant communications, Congress is no longer needed.

But of course, the current members of Congress would heartily disagree with that assessment. If there's one rule about power, it's that those in power always seek more power. And because only members of Congress can vote federal laws into existence -- not the actual citizens of the country -- they hold a tremendous amount of concentrated power... and they're not about to let it go.

Corporations love the current system, too, because they can simply bypass the People and lobby Congress to pass the laws that favor their own interests. This is how the U.S. Congress has become a legislative auction house where new laws are passed to appease whoever raises more money for re-election campaigns. Meanwhile, the People have been abandoned in this equation, and the interests of the People that were supposed to be "represented" in Washington have been long forgotten.

Did you realize that 237 members of Congress are millionaires? And seven of them have a net worth greater than $100 million. When lawmakers are rolling in that kind of cash, how can they possibly represent the interests of the People, of which 99% earn far less?

Further demonstrating detachment from the people they claim to represent, one new Congressman -- just sworn in yesterday -- managed to break four campaign promises in his first hour of office.

It's time for Direct Democracy

In a Direct Democracy, the People directly participate in the debate and passage of new laws. All laws are publicly published for debate and discussion -- unlike the current situation where 1,000-page laws like the Patriot Act or the new health care reform bill are covertly written, then often deposited in the federal register just minutes before a scheduled vote.

Today, we have a system of "ambush lawmaking" going on in Congress where even the members of Congress voting on the laws have little time to read the bills (much less understand them). In a Direct Democracy, however, all proposed laws are posted publicly so that the People can read them, debate them and vote on them.

After all, if the whole point of the U.S. Congress was to represent the votes of the People, in an age where people can now vote directly thanks to internet technology, shouldn't the U.S. Congress step aside and just let the People vote for themseles?

How to disband Congress and give power back to the People

Disbanding the U.S. Congress would, of course, require a Constitutional amendment. That is extremely unlikely to happen, given that such an amendment requires an approval of the majority of U.S. states (and existing members of Congress happen to be quite influential in their home states). So to disband Congress, you'd have to convince hundreds of power-hungry people to vote themselves out of power. The odds against that happening are astronomical.

The other option is to just wait for the current U.S. system to collapse, and then replace it with a form of Direct Democracy that makes more sense. This is the more likely scenario, and it may be closer than you think: The financial blowout of America is well under way, and it's only a matter of time before unbridled debt spending leads to runaway inflation and the disastrous demise of the dollar. The passage of the $1 trillion health care bill, in fact, will accelerate America towards financial collapse.

Within a few short years, there may be an opportunity to "reboot America" and create a smarter society to replace the corrupt, outmoded system of government that's failing the American people right now. I support the idea of a Direct Democracy that eliminates the entire U.S. Congress. Of course, there would need to be some sort of process for deciding which proposed laws get put on the public website for discussion and voting, but even that process can be crowdsourced to some degree.

It's time to decentralize power in Washington and distribute it back to the People. In one sense, it's the most politically progressive idea yet proposed, but at the same time, it's also about preserving personal freedom, liberty and responsibility. So it appeals both to progressives and conservatives (Libertarians, too).

The point is, it's time to give back to the American people the power they once granted to their representatives out of practical necessity. Besides, the People can do a far better job debating and voting on proposed laws than the U.S. Congress ever did. Many of the comments I've read about the health care bill on discussions boards are far more intelligent than the debate that took place in the House. The People deserve the right to directly vote on laws that deeply impact their lives and finances.

After all, if the United States is supposed to be a government of the People, by the People and for the People, then why not let the laws be directly voted on by the People?

We the People don't need Senators and Congresspeople to make our decisions for us. What we need is the freedom to vote for ourselves. If we continue to allow Congress to make our decisions for us, they will drive America into the dirt, leaving us all penniless, diseased and neck-deep in debt. (Actually, we're sort of there already...)

Congress promises freedom but delivers financial slavery. It promises to take care of us but then it sells us out to the corporations. Congress puts the corporations first and the people last, and it's time to advance to a better form of Democracy where individual participation in our democratic lawmaking process is the norm.

Now, I know what the main critics of this idea will say: "The People aren't qualified to vote on legislation!" It's a fair question. But I answer, "Are the members of Congress any better qualified?" I'm willing to bet that not 1 out of 5 members of Congress can even cite the Bill of Rights. They are nutritionally illiterate. They almost universally have little or no knowledge of the banking system or how the Federal Reserve really works. How are they any more qualified to vote on health care than you or I?

Truth is, they aren't. The hard-working, tax-paying people of the United States of America could do a much better job voting on legislative bills than members of Congress.

Congress has become a big part of what's wrong with America today. Disbanding Congress and invoking a Direct Democracy might be the only remaining way to save America from destruction at the hands of greedy corporations, powerful lobbyists and contemptible Congresspeople.

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Back to the Polls

In ancient Greece, city meetings provided the principal forum for democratic debate. Representative bodies, led by Parliament, took on that role in Britain in the last century. In recent decades television has become a crucial political medium. New interactive cable technology, tied to television, offers a chance to inject some ancient-Greek directness into Britain's tired and uninspiring democratic institutions.

Every Saturday evening, throughout Parliament's summer recess, Channel 4 has broadcast a People's Parliament, in which randomly selected citizens, sitting in a mock-up House of Commons, debate and vote on controversial issues. On 2 November the Institute for public Policy Research will publish a pamphlet on "citizens' juries", of which the People's Parliament is an example [1]. On 5 November Charter 88, a group of constitutional reformers, will hold a conference on referendums, to coincide with the publication of a book on the same subject [2].

What all these initiatives have in common is a desire to promote "direct democracy". In Britain as in other western countries, opinion polls indicate that voters hold political leaders, parties and institutions in increasingly low esteem. Advocates of direct democracy argue that existing proposals for constitutional reform, such as proportional representation - although desirable in themselves - are insufficiently radical to regain the enthusiasm of most voters. Direct democrats favour three innovations.

Voter vetoes would give citizens the right to call a consultative referendum against a law or decision. In Back to Greece, one of a collection of essays published by Demos [3], an independent think-tank, Geoff Mulgan and Andrew Adonis propose that any petition of l million signatures should be able to trigger a national referendum. Local referendums would require 2.5% of the electorate to sign a petition. Such procedures might have spared Britain the thoroughly unpopular poll tax.

Voter lethargy would limit the use of such referendums. The Local Government Commission, which has come up with plans to reorganise local councils, has given affected households a postal vote on a range of options. On 12 September, when the commission announced the results of its first referendum, held in Leicestershire, it admitted that only 2.3% of ballot papers had been returned.

Yet Britons have voted eagerly on single issues they care about. Last March Strathclyde council organised a referendum on the government's plans to transfer responsibility for water and sewerage from local councils to quangos. More than a million inhabitants of the Glascow region - 97% of the 72% who responded to a postal ballot - voted against the changes. The government took no notice.

Voter juries, modeled on judicial juries, would play a consultative role rather than replace existing decision-making bodies. In America the Jefferson Center, a Minneapolis-based foundation, regularly invites a randomly chosen jury of 24 to spend a week considering a topic. Experts put the case for and against and the highlights are televised. In October 1993 one of these juries debated President Clinton's health care proposals and concluded that, although the objective of universal provision was desirable, it would not be possible, as Mr Clinton had claimed, to provide it without tax increases.

The People's Parliament on Channel 4, similarly, has examined witnesses and engaged in long debates. It decided in favour of fertility treatment on the National Health Service, including for elderly women; against legalising hard drugs but for decriminalising soft drugs; and for banning arms sales to oppressive regimes.

Voter feedback would exploit the new electronic media by allowing voters to express their views to politicians. Earlier this year, in Calgary, Canada, the Reform Party organised an "electronic town meeting" on whether doctors should be allowed to assist suicide. A random group of electors received information from both camps. They then watched a television debate and, using a personal identification number, voted by the keys of their telephones. The result - 70% in favour of doctor-assisted suicide - persuaded the party to change its policy.

The Demos essays assert that direct democracy would give the governed more control over the governors, promote civic education and force politicians to see voters as partners rather than as an audience. Critics, however, point to the difficulties of setting a referendum question, and of choosing "representative" juries in multicultural communities. They fear the new techniques could foster a nasty sort of intolerant populism: a referendum could restore the death penalty, while a jury might favour discrimination against immigrants.

The direct democrats respond that, so far, citizens' juries have seldom arrived at extreme or populist conclusions. Many viewers of the People's Parliament have judged its debates to be of higher quality than those in the House of Commons. Members of the former, unlike the latter, appear to listen to what their fellows say.

Public-opinion polls suggest that many Britons would welcome a greater use of referendums. But a big obstacle to direct democracy is that professional politicians have a vested interest in blocking changes that would erode their power. The new thinking may meet the least resistance, and have the most practical application, at local level. Electors find local government even more opaque and incomprehensible than national politics.

The IPPR pamphlet shows that several German local authorities have used citizens' juries successfully. Cologne city council scrapped its architects' scheme for building a new town hall when a jury opposed it. In Britain, when local councillors consider planning proposals or traffic schemes or waste dumps, they often find it hard to test local sentiment; juries could make that job easier. Local referendums could settle the most controversial issues.

Direct democracy is all about means, not ends. Many of its proponents once hoped to transform society through a distinctively socialist economic programme. Now that British socialists have accepted much of the right's market-based economics, some of them hope to redefine "the left" around non-economic objectives such as reforming the political system.


[1] Citizens' Juries by Anna Coote, Elizabeth Kendall and John Stewart. Institute for Public Policy Research
[2] Referendums around the World: The Growing Use of Direct Democracy, edited by David Butler and Austin Ranney; Macmillan
[3] Lean Democracy, Demos Quarterly, July 1994

Source: The Economist, 17 September 1994

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Last updated on 14 December 2010