"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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Sunday, July 6, 2008


This article demonstrates some of the reasons why all states should have more opportunities for direct democracy, but it focuses on some specific issues faced in Connecticut. In a harsh tone, Cohen criticizes the initiative and referendum process as being too chaotic. Of course moving toward direct democracy will be sticky because there has to be some rupture with the current state apparatus. Politicians will be reluctant to hand over power to the people, but it is a process that must take place in order to make the most just and democratic system possible. Until we do provoke change within every state, the same people will continue to make decisions regarding our well-being. For more about the constitutional convention, also see: http://www.newamerica.net/blog/blockbuster-democracy/2008/connecticut-next-blockbuster-democracy-frontier-4869 - Editor

Power Mustn't Fall Into The Wrong Hands

Laurence Cohen
July 4, 2008

July 4th is an appropriate time to ponder the mysteries of democracy in action.

In a sissy Northeastern state such as Connecticut, there are dozens of issues considered too icky to be discussed by the General Assembly.

The legislators say a little prayer each night, begging that abortion stuff and same-sex marriage stuff and English-as-the-official-language stuff and anti-affirmative action stuff and lots of other, well, icky stuff never comes up — or at the least, never prompts a public hearing at which the Great Unwashed can go on and on about stuff that is simply too icky to imagine.

On the other end of the legislative agenda are things so obscure that one questions whether the Founding Fathers should have bothered risking their lives to free us from British cuisine. The state flower, the state lizard, the state cantata — the legislators live in fear that some third-grade class will champion such stuff and they will be forced to vote up or down, perhaps being pressured to support the wrong lizard or, in the alternative, crushing the spirit of youngsters participating in the legislative process.

One strategy to relieve all this angst would be to establish an initiative and referendum process at the state level, empowering the citizenry to express themselves directly on all manner of icky and obscure stuff — and thus freeing legislators from the horror of divining the public good.

This November, as we march to the polls to decide once and for all whether Barack Obama is the Messiah or merely a kid with a good speechwriter, we will also vote on whether to hold a constitutional convention in Connecticut, to consider, among other things, an initiative and referendum process that would empower us all to throw off the tyranny of third-graders and pick our own darn state lizard.

Depending on who is doing the counting and defining the terms, about half the states have some kind of direct-democracy process by which voters can express themselves. South Dakota was the first state to adopt such stuff, in 1893 — and the idea caught on in "progressive" circles as a populist tool to tame the railroad magnates and bankers and newspaper publishers and other stuffy rich people who presumably controlled the state legislatures.

Today, the initiative and referendum process is considered more the tool of conservatives than "progressives" — a process by which the voters can rise up and smack the tax-and-spenders or the trendy social liberals. Although the referendum process is already in place in some Connecticut towns, efforts to establish a system for state government have never gotten very far in the legislature. The boys and girls in Hartford, most of them safe in carefully drawn voting districts that ensure their re-election forever, are happy with the current system, except for the lizard stuff.

The current political and governance environment suggests that Connecticut would be the last state in the union to ever approve a referendum process. With the Democrats in control of the legislature forever, and with voters canny enough to never elect a Democratic governor, the shaky equilibrium offers up slow-and-steady, mildly destructive public policy that fits the bland political personality of the state.

Initiative and referendum suggests uncertainty, instability, encroachment on the powers of the well-connected. If direct democracy ever came to a real vote in Connecticut, even the chamber of commerce types and the business associations that pretend to be grouchy about high taxes would come out against it.

The taxpayer advocacy groups and other fiscal hawks in Connecticut would march in the streets for direct democracy, thus prompting the teachers unions and social-service crybabies to recruit armies of naysayers to protect their tax-and-spend hold on the General Assembly.

If, through some miracle, a referendum system ever did make it onto a ballot for voter consideration, the Connecticut compromise machine would be working overtime. There would be an "emergency" escape clause that would make the referendum decisions toothless — and the petitioning process would be made unnecessarily onerous, so as to discourage all but the most avid fans from launching a tax-cutting orgy of ballot questions.

By the way, Cohen should be named "State Columnist." Think about it. Prepare the petitions. The time is near.

Laurence D. Cohen is a public policy consultant who served as special assistant to former Gov. John G. Rowland. His column appears every other Friday. He can be reached at cohencolumn@aol.com.

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