"I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves, and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power." - Thomas Jefferson


We as Americans all remember being taught when we were young about our nation's founders, the patriots who stood up to the tyranny of the crown of England, the drafters of the declaration of independence, the constitution, and the bill of rights, the documents that became the framework for a system of governance that they believed would maintain a balance of power within a truly representative government, that would preserve the basic rights and liberties of the people, let their voice be heard, and provide to them a government, as Lincoln later put it, "of the people, by the people, and for the people."

What we may not be so quick to recall, however, is that there was much debate between the founding fathers as to what model our system of government should follow. Those such as Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, and Patrick Henry on one side favored a pure and direct democracy with the legislative power vested in the very hands of the people, while others such as James Madison, John Adams and George Washington held that a representative democracy would better serve the people than a true democracy because they believed it would protect the individual liberties of the minority from the will of the majority. Alexander Hamilton even went so far as to support the creation of a monarchy. In the end, those favoring representative democracy won the day and that is the system they put in place in the hopes of creating a "more perfect union."

Now we must ask ourselves, what would the founding fathers think if they were resurrected today to see what has become of their vision? One can only assume that they would begin to search for modern day patriots to meet them once again at the liberty tree in order to plan a new struggle for freedom and self governance. Although we continue to praise and honor those who founded our nation and sought to create a truly just form of government for it, do we really stop to reflect on whether we as a nation have in fact succeeded in preserving what they fought so hard to create?

Today, in contrast to our revolutionary ancestors, we as citizens of the United States generally observe politics from afar and the vast majority of us may participate in the political process only to the extent that we go to the polls once a year to vote. Over the decades and centuries we have allowed the erosion of the ideals of the founding fathers and the corruption of the principles which they enshrined in those so carefully conceived documents. We have been left with essentially no real power to influence our "democratically" elected officials. We may write an occasional letter to our senator or representative that generates a form letter in response and a statistical data entry that may or may not be weighed against the influence of some powerful corporate lobby. We may be permitted to participate in a march or demonstration of thousands or even millions, something our patriots of old would have marvelled at, only to be dismissed as a 'focus group' with no bearing on policy decisions.

How then is the government held accountable to the voice of the people? Are the people meant to speak only at the polls when given a choice between a select few candidates that may be equally corrupt? No, as Jefferson and his allies rightly believed, the people should be heard much more than that.

In spite of their good intentions, the system of representative democracy that the founding fathers opted for has been systematically undermined and has ultimately failed in preserving the well being of the people of this nation. Most of us accept this reality as being beyond our control and continue to observe, comment, and complain without aspiring to achieving any real change. Our local leaders and activists in our communities, and even those local elected officials who may have the best of intentions are for the most part powerless to make real positive change happen in our neighborhoods, towns and villages when there is so much corruption from above.

We have become so accustomed to this failed system of representative democracy that it may not occur to us that there are other alternative forms of democracy. In various places around the world participatory or direct democracy has been instituted both in concert with representative democracy, and as a replacement for it. It is a form of democracy that is designed to take directly into account your views, and the views of your neighbors, and to politically empower you to make real positive change possible in your communities. Initiative, referendum & recall, community councils, and grassroots organizing are but a few ways in which direct/participatory democracy is achieving great success around the world.

This site will attempt to explore in depth the concept of participatory democracy and how this grass-roots based form of governance could help bring us back in line with the principles this country was founded upon if it were allowed to take root here. In the hope that one day we can become a nation working together as a united people practicing true democracy as true equals, we open this forum…



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Monday, February 18, 2008


The following article gives another example of how participatory democracy can function at the community level , in this case a small Virginia community. Such independant transitions to grassroots governance on a larger scale throughout the U.S. would greatly enhance the democratic process. Not only is it an option for small communities like this one, but for larger ones as well utilizing the internet and e-democracy methods to facilitate participation by larger populations. - Editor

Virginia Community Practices Grassroots Participatory Democracy

Twin Oaks uses long consultative process, rotating managers and planners
By Stephen KaufmanUSINFO Staff Writer, 17 September 2007

Photo: Members of the community process carrots that will carry them through the winter. (Twin Oaks)

Washington -- Much of the world is governed by professional politicians entrusted to make decisions on behalf of their constituents. However, one community in Virginia is taking advantage of its small size to engage in “participatory democracy” -- making decisions based on direct input from members rather than delegating the actual governance to others.

The roughly 100-member Twin Oaks community near Louisa, Virginia, was founded on the principles of “nonviolence, equality and ecology.” The 40-year-old community is sustained by manufacturing hammocks and casual furniture, as well as indexing books and making tofu, a staple food of some Asian diets. Members also provide for many of the community’s collective needs such as growing food, educating children and providing non-emergency health care. Its membership constantly fluctuates as new members arrive and others resume their lives in contemporary society.

There is no “leader” to decide community policies or practices on behalf of others. The goal is to allow everyone equal access to decisionmaking. But, with a population comparable to a small village that might otherwise be governed by a mayor and town council, how is this accomplished?


“We’re not hierarchical. We want everyone to have a voice,” Valerie Renwick told USINFO. Renwick, a native of Ottawa, has lived at Twin Oaks for 15 years. She explained the “planner-manager” system that guides community decisionmaking.

Both managers and planners serve rotating one-and-a-half year terms. Managers are in charge of specific work areas, such as the production of hammocks or community meals, while planners decide issues that affect the community as a whole through a lengthy consultation process. “[Planners] are synthesizing information, trying to determine the collective will of the community on a given issue at a given moment in time,” Renwick said.
Issues of concern range from membership decisions to business relations with outside retailers who sell Twin Oaks products.

Community members can propose new ideas or policy changes by posting a message on Twin Oaks’ “Opinions and Ideas Board” and soliciting expressions of support or opposition. Planners use that information to decide whether to pursue the proposal. Planners also may distribute surveys on the issue “where they ask very particularly pointed questions,” Renwick said.

Photo: Members and visitors gather for dinner on the deck in the main kitchen dining center. (Twin Oaks)

In such a small community, the planners also can talk directly with people to determine the collective will or hold meetings to discuss the issue and allow for further input.
Following this process, “the decisions are always left to the planners and they will take all these various forms of information,” Renwick said. Rather than having planners serve in a “hierarchical position where they are making decisions for the community … the voice of the people is being brought to the decisionmakers,” she said.

Even after a decision has been made, there is an appeals process, allowing the planners to reopen an issue if a community member feels all factors were not considered. But, she added, “That hardly ever gets used because we do generally do such a good job of going through [the process].”


Renwick acknowledged the length of the participatory democracy process. “It can range from weeks to months to years, depending on the scale of the decision.” Quick decisions “cause more problems than they solve and it’s important for us to do a very thorough job so we try to make sure all the bases are covered.”

In emergencies or on time-sensitive issues, the three planners “will just talk among each other and do what they feel is best, but there are very few situations that actually require an immediate decision within a day or two or a matter of hours,” Renwick said.

Much of Twin Oaks culture is based on complete trust between members, making interpersonal conflicts rare. However, when they occur, conflict resolution starts small at the individual level and progresses to wider concentric levels such as groups of friends or co-workers. Some community members also specialize in mediation techniques. “If it gets really big, the last step is [the planners] will ask the person to leave the community,” she said, “but that’s happened maybe two or three times in the 15 years of me living here because we have all of these other systems in place to address the problem before it gets so big.”

So while there is no “community leader,” at Twin Oaks, “certainly the planners provide leadership for the community such as setting policy, and responding to problems.”


The three planners’ terms of office are staggered to ensure varied levels of experience at all times. When a term nears its end, interested community members go through an interview process at a public meeting where they are asked about their administrative and interpersonal strengths, and how they would deal with conflicts, stress and sensitive issues. For the next 10 days, community members can express support or opposition to the candidacy through an “input box,” and the planners use those comments to decide whom to appoint. Even after an individual is designated, a “veto box” is available for the following 10 days as a last chance to voice objection.
Twin Oaks’ style of democracy might appear impractical for larger groups of people, but it is nevertheless a working example of grassroots democracy designed to embody the community’s egalitarian philosophy.

(USINFO is produced by the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)

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