"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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Saturday, March 22, 2008


The following article comes from Democracy By The People contributor Jesse-Justin Cuevas, an american currently studying in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Here in this very interesting and insightful paper, written after her first hand experiences travelling and studying the process underway in Venezuela, she offers her reflections on participatory democracy in Venezuela and it's relation to the political philosophies of John Dewey, the American who is often considered the forefather of participatory politics in the United States, and the author's own re-examination of her relationship with her own government. The article is preceded by a summary by Cuevas. Click on the link at the end to read the article in full. - Editor

Introduction by the author:

Originating in the United States in the late 1800s, pragmatism sought to include in its philosophy many different modes of thinking and reasoning in the search for truth (with a lower case "t"). Pragmatist philosophy depends on science, experimentation, and tolerance in its rejection of realism, absolutism, and Cartesianism. Pragmatist thinkers--not to be confused with pragmatic thinkers--believe that all education comes from experience and all forms of truth result from differing experiences (because different, and even opposing, truths can, do, and ought to coexist). The philosophy's father figures, Charles Pierce, William James, and John Dewey, fervently believed in their philosophy and devoted their lives to it, founding schools (Dewey's New School in Manhattan and the University of Chicago Laboratory School) and writing massive texts exploring pragmatism's relationship with other worldly themes, such as religion and ethics. As we are all familiar with the Dewey Decimal library cataloguing system, John Dewey is a well-known name among our generation. His most famous works, however, focus on progressive and experimental education, and he is also well-known in the political and philosophical realms of academia as one of the forefathers of participatory politics.

This essay, "The Politics of Dewey and Chávez: Venezuela as Example or Evasion," attempts to reflect on an array Dewey's political and philosophical works about participatory democracy within the context of Chávez's envisioned 'participatory, democratic 21st century socialist' government. As I mention from the get-go of the essay, my three-week long trip to Venezuela was mind-blowing and awe-inspiring, and this piece is only an attempt to answer and sort through one of the many questions Venezuela and its people elicited in me. Stretching Dewey's blueprints for participatory democracy over the current Venezuelan presidential administration, I beg the fairly non-conclusive question, "Can participatory democracy be installed from the top-down?" I hope you enjoy the reading it as much as I enjoyed researching and writing it. - Jesse-Justin Cuevas

The Politics of Dewey and Chávez: Venezuela as Example or Evasion

By Jesse Justin Cuevas

Upon my return to New York from Venezuela, I sat down with my advisor, Lauren Kaminsky, to talk about my summer ventures. Because I am a striving activist for social justice, I think everyone was expecting me to return to the United States a full-blown Chavista1. For the first question Lauren asked me, jokingly of course, was, “So, have you gone over to the dark side?” Though I am certainly still a capitalist, my experience in Venezuela taught me more than I ever knew about the reality of my relationship with my government here in the United States.

In my conversation with Lauren, I told her about the communal councils in place in Venezuela, the rising voter turn-out, the laws surrounding referenda, and the life for the poor people living in the barrios of La Vega, Caracas. When I spoke to her about my amazement in the efficiency of participatory planning—a group in the community writes a request for something involving health, education, safety, etc., and Chávez allocates money accordingly—she said to me, “Well, Jesse, that’s pragmatism.” We both agreed that it is a shame that the alleged arch-nemesis of the United States, Venezuela, is putting into practice a wonderful American political philosophy that is hugely neglected by the American political system.

In the next several pages I hope to offer an account of successful participatory democracy (so far!) in a country where our own media fails to do so. The first portion consists of a brief summary of participatory democracy told through an array of Dewey’s works but mainly pulling from his response to Walter Lippmann’s Public Opinion in The Public and Its Problems. The second portion applies Dewey’s theory of participatory democracy to Chávez’s presidency using mainly Dewey’s philosophy and the published works of Gregory Wilpert, a German-American sociologist, freelance writer, and internationally recognized analyst of Venezuelan politics. The question I ask—and cannot rightly answer—is the question that I struggled with throughout my travels in Venezuela and the question I still struggle with today. Can participatory democracy work in a top-down structured government? .... To read full article click HERE

1 comment:


A precious gift to those who seek some informed inside story of VENEZUELA. Equally readable for ones who vote for growingly participatory democracy.

Pankaj Pushkar,
Lokniti, Centre for the Study of Developing Socities,
New Delhi, INDIA