"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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Tuesday, July 15, 2008


An editorial piece from a Burlington, VT paper provides insight to greater issues of participation in local politics by focusing on specific issues that the community faces. Increasing participation in the democractic process requires different approaches for different communities with differing demographics. But above all, as this author points out, we all need to participate more in local governance issues if we wish to have some control over our daily lives and our communities.

Editorial: Local voting changes can help participation

June 20, 2008

The more people take part, the better democracy works. One Chittenden County community is returning to a town meeting tradition in hopes of increasing participation, while another is moving in the opposite direction with the same aim.

South Burlington is moving in the right direction as it looks at bringing its election date in line with the day that most Vermont communities take care of business having to do with local governance. So is Westford by voting to replace its traditional town meeting with daylong secret balloting.

Westford's decision to end town meetings is a concession to the fact that typically only a small portion of voters turn out for a daylong gathering, with fewer and fewer people unable to take the time away from work to attend. The tradeoff is the loss of the face-to-face meeting, an opportunity to connect with neighbors in a shared enterprise and the chance to hear various sides of an issue right up until it's time to come to a decision. But how much value is there in the give and take if too few people can take part?

South Burlington City Council is considering changing the date of municipal and school elections to the first Tuesday in March. Town Meeting Day is a focus of heavy news coverage around the state, and even garners national attention. That kind of publicity and civic enthusiasm is difficult to replicate for a single community's election in May, when South Burlington holds its annual vote.

Moving South Burlington's vote to Town Meeting Day is sure to raise voter awareness and help voter turnout. Increasing turnout is especially important because, since voters approved a charter change in 2006, the city and school district must submit their budgets to voter approval each year.

The annual town meeting, a New England exercise in direct democracy that goes back more than 200 years, is still an important event that helps define Vermont. That's why Town Meeting Day is such an important reference point for so many communities.

If moving the vote to Town Meeting Day means more people turn out to vote, it is a move worth making. If switching from a town meeting to daylong balloting means more people can take part in making decisions about town business, that, too, is a sensible change.

Any town that seeks to change the way the people's business is conducted must make certain that those changes serve the democratic process. The changes in South Burlington and Westford will do that by increasing the likelihood that more people's voices will be heard through the ballot box.

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