"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, May 5, 2008


This article from Red Pepper in the U.K. discusses several ways in which the radical left in the U.K could better direct and coordinate their efforts by promoting participatory democratic practices such as participatory budgeting, and by broadening their coalition to include people that have traditionally felt excluded or alienated by their movements. The arguments are equally relevant to the movement here in the U.S. and provide food for thought in the struggle to create an effective progressive coalition here that will achieve permanent and significant change. - Editor

Parties, movements and radical change

Davy Jones, a leading advocate of participatory budgeting, says the left needs to recognise and seize opportunities when and where they arise

Source: http://www.redpepper.org.uk/article1082.html

I am constantly struck by the failure of the radical left to explicitly seize the moral high ground. The right (especially the evangelical right) are not averse to doing so when it suits them, yet socialism, internationalism, ecological sustainability, feminism, anti-imperialism all have very strong ethical foundations. Appealing broadly on key issues to a very basic humanity and compassion potentially connects us to audiences that for some years have been removed from radical left politics- the many people in various religious and moral camps.

This may cause some on the left to question long-held beliefs, such as on the use of violence, but that’s no bad thing. The enormous success of the London Citizens movement in bringing together trade unions and religious groups should be a lesson to us all. We tend to focus too much on detail and not enough on the big ethical issues underlying our politics. For example, half the world’s GDP is routed through tax havens which means half the potential tax revenues are lost. This is so grotesquely unfair to people who pay their taxes that it allows us to explain to them that there is enough money in the world- it’s just who’s got it and the tax systems set up to protect them that’s the problem.

Identify the issues

We need to identify the issues where there is real possibility of a broad anti-capitalist, anti-establishment consensus emerging in the UK (and internationally) and focus on these.

It is possible to change mass consciousness on certain issues in a relatively short space of time. They key then is to turn this into a permanent (or near to permanent as possible) step forward, ideally framed in law as well as in the popular consciousness. It’s been noted in other contexts how social attitudes to drinking and driving changed dramatically in a generation to one of outright hostility to such selfish and dangerous behaviour. The same is now happening on global warming and living within environmentally sustainable limits. Radical left activists must build the broadest possible unity around such issues and be at the heart of arguing for such transformations, using them to explain the links to other social, economic and political issues.

Respond rapidly and create permanent resources

Insufficient time and effort goes into translating successes into permanent acquisitions, not just ideologically but also physically and virtually. To be able to respond rapidly and effectively, the radical left needs embedded resources and infrastructure. This will take many forms such as resource centres, websites, socio-political networks and funding sources. Rather than forming another party or newspaper a shrewder investment may be to create and sustain permanent resources for the range of needs the radical left needs for its activities.

Remove the barriers

There are some structural issues that are critical barriers to progress for radical left politics. The most obvious is the electoral system. Proportional representation is no panacea but crucial if radical left politics is to enter the mainstream electoral and political arena. Another barrier is the party system and elections. The party system, especially in local elections, is a major barrier to making radical breakthroughs at a local level. The radical left needs to develop proposals and campaign to make it much easier for independent candidates and small parties to stand in local, national and European elections.

Recognise opportunities

As Hilary Wainwright hints in her article it is also crucial to seize any opportunities to create and sustain forms of local democratic debate and accountability as ongoing spaces. For example, for its own reasons this government has decided to promote participatory budgeting but is it just a panacea? No, current developments in Porto Alegre show this.

To incorporate local processes of structured debate and discussion about what needs to be done and how money should be spent locally would represent a huge step forward for the UK. Potentially it could raise debate about the need for structured discussion of the national budget and priorities, weaken the power of the traditional local parties to have exclusive access to this discussion and help reawaken interest in politics.

The crucial thing is for the radical left to recognise such opportunities when they arise and to seize them rather than sneer from the sidelines at the government’s motives.

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