"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, April 26, 2008


The book review below gives the synopsis of The Rebirth of Urban Democracy, a title that seems imperative for all activists to read. Follow up with the link below to get direct quotes from the book. It may entice you to pick it up and figure out how to get involved in your own neighborhood. Reports like this book are an excellent way to spread the word about participatory democracy in our neighborhoods and replicate the successes around the country. As well as explaining some of the obstacles faced by neighborhoods where local government refused to share power with the people, hopefully some solutions to these obstacles will be provided within this book. Although this editor has yet to get a copy to read it in full, after reading this review it is high on the must read list. -Editor


'BookWatchBy Jeffrey M. Berry, Kent E. Portney, and Ken Thomson, 1993.Washington D.C., The Brookings InstitutionMore than any other body of research, “Rebirth” provided a guide for the design of our citywide neighborhood council system. It is a study of face-to-face democracy in five cities – Birmingham, Dayton, Portland (Oregon), St. Paul, and San Antonio by researchers from Tufts University. The book teaches us that in order to avoid the failures of the past to blend participatory democracy into the governmental system, there needs to be a fundamental reform of the political system.The keys to success in the “model” cities were: strong political motivation for success; small neighborhoods (2,000 to 16,000 people) with natural boundaries; a citywide system in which everyone has a stake; political innovations with respect to outreach and communication; avoiding partisan politics; the ability of the public to affect city budget priorities; the power to allocate some local resources; the ability to define the city’s decision-making process; having paid staff; and a flexible system that embraces the belief that one size does not fit all.

Perhaps the most important key to long-term success, the researchers believe, was the willingness of city officials to share power. The research found that there were more community activities in the subject cities than in cities without such systems. However, it found that the least participation was in areas with the lowest-income residents.In noting that participatory democracy “remains an unattractive way to spend an evening for the vast majority of the people,” the authors found that in the most successful examples only about 10% of population participated regularly in some kind of a neighborhood organization (i.e., civic club, homeowners’ association, business group, etc.) To learn more, click here to view three pages of excerpts from this remarkable book. It should be required reading for anyone who is trying to understand what this grand experiment is all about.

Reviewed for CityWatch by Greg Nelson___CityWatchVol 6 Issue 28Published: April 4, 2008

Follow-up link with direct quotes from The Rebirth of Urban Democracy:

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