"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, September 27, 2008


As the following article points out, the empowerment of the people through direct democracy, as is currently manifested in the use of initiative & referendum in 24 states of the U.S., increases the level of political activism and sense of civic duty, as well as increasing voter turnout. This also has the effect of holding elected officials more accountable to the will of the people. - Editor

Legislators’ nod to citizen initiatives may be tied to re-election hopes

Source: http://news.ufl.edu/2008/09/24/citizen-initiatives/

Filed under Research, Politics on Wednesday, September 24, 2008.GAINESVILLE, Fla. —

Citizen-initiated measures, such as gay rights and physician-assisted suicide, are not a uniquely Western U.S. phenomenon as traditionally thought, but have their roots across a wide geographical area that includes the Deep South, a new University of Florida study finds.

“Our study challenges the dominant historical narrative of why citizen initiatives were adopted in some American states a century ago,” said Daniel Smith, a UF political science professor whose study appears in the current issue of American Political Science Review. “The phenomenon may bring to mind places like Oregon, California, Colorado and Washington — states with populist and progressive traditions — but we found that lawmakers in the West were no more likely than those from other states to accede broad powers to voters in this way.”

Smith, who collaborated on the study with Dustin Fridkin, a UF doctoral student in political science, said political considerations — the degree of competition between political parties in a state legislature, party organizational strength and the presence of a third party — are the strongest predictors of whether a legislature gave voters the power to make their own decisions through the initiative process.

In 1898 South Dakota voters became the first to approve a constitutional amendment granting residents the power to decide initiatives and by 1918 voters in 20 states had followed suit, he said.

Southern states were thought to be more apprehensive about the initiative process because of its potential to mobilize African Americans, but the facts do not bear this out, Smith said. The legislatures of Arkansas, Florida, Mississippi and Texas were among the early states to place referendums on the ballot-granting residents the opportunity to adopt direct democracy reforms, he said.

Minnesota and Wisconsin, two progressive states, have never implemented this form of direct democracy because voters ultimately did not approve it; and the supposed populist explanation does little to explain why Missouri adopted the initiative, Smith said, but not neighboring Kansas, a hotbed of populist sentiment a century ago.

“Lawmakers inherently don’t like the initiative process because it takes power away from them, so it raises the question of why they would give up their institutional authority in order to allow citizens to pass laws,” Smith said.

The study found that legislative competition between political parties played a key role in lawmakers’ decision to give citizens a direct role in shaping public policy. On average, the majority party’s surplus of seats was 22.5 percent among the 20 early state legislatures that referred the initiative process to the ballot compared with 26.7 percent for those state legislatures that did not, Smith said.

“A minority party might be willing to sell out the institutional powers of the legislature and allowing citizens to gain political power, in order to curry favor with the people and hopefully become the majority party,” he said. “And the majority party is put in the position of not wanting to be anti-populist.”

Also more receptive to citizen initiatives were states with weaker political parties — possibly because they achieved statehood later and had fewer established political traditions — and states with third parties, which further diluted majority power, he said.

In place in 24 states today, the initiative process is arguably the most important political institution available to citizens, but it has repercussions, Smith said. By allowing citizens to pass laws and constitutional amendments that can impinge upon the legislature’s ability to raise money, restrict certain taxes or direct types of expenditures, state legislatures become inherently weaker, he said.

“I think there are some aspects to it that are clearly troubling when you have votes taking place that are not fully informed and there’s no iterative decision-making — it’s a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ vote on a particular policy with no chance to amend it,” he said. “On the flip side, there are a lot of positive ‘educative effects’ about the initiative process.”

States with initiatives over time have higher turnout in midterm and presidential elections, drawing voters to ballot measures and presenting candidates with substantive issues that can help set the campaign agenda, Smith said.

“People who live in initiative states are more likely to talk about politics and contribute money to interest group,” he said. “It makes sense because they are more engaged in the process, which is something the Progressives argued in its favor back in the early 1900s.”

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