"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…



WashingtonOregonCaliforniaAlaskaHawaiiIdahoNevadaArizonaMontanaWyomingUtahColoradoNew MexicoNorth DakotaSouth DakotaNebraskaKansasOklahomaTexasMinnesotaIowaMissouriArkansasLouisianaWisconsinIllinoisIndianaMichiganOhioMississippiAlabamaGeorgiaSouth CarolinaNorth CarolinaFloridaTennesseeKentuckyVirginia West VirginiaPennsylvaniaNew YorkMaineVermontNew HampshireRhode IslandConnecticutNew JerseyDelawareDistrict of ColumbiaMassachusetts

Friday, September 12, 2008


The following article, aside from explaining how a recent exercise in direct democracy in Michigan was squelched by a court ruling, also gives insight into the historical movement for direct democracy led by William Jennngs Bryan around the turn of the century. - Editor

Despite breadth, Reform Michigan Government Now! ballot proposal isn't too difficult to comprehend

PUBLISHED: Sunday, August 31, 2008
Of The Oakland Press


It's too bad Michigan taxpayers apparently won't have a chance to vote on the Reform Michigan Government Now! proposal to change the way business is conducted in our state capital.

Critics claim that the group's proposal was a stealth effort to change the way redistricting occurred in Michigan so as to benefit Democrats. It would have been a great experiment in direct democracy.

At the turn of the century, there was a politician by the name of William Jennings Bryan. He was called the Great Commoner because he claimed to represent that era's person on the street --or in those days, it was just as likely to be the person on the farm.

He must have been popular, because three times the Democratic Party nominated him for president: in 1896, in 1900 and again in 1908. He was a forerunner of the later Progressive movement and pioneered reforms such as the referendum, recall and initiative.

It is through such devices that people in our form of governance can take matters into their own hands when their elected representatives fail.

Our system is designed as representative democracy, not direct democracy. Yet Bryan's slogan was "let the people rule," and he believed the public fully capable of making critical decisions.

"To Bryan, truth and virtue were determined by the popular will," wrote Ray Ginger. "He resented the experts in government as much as he resented the plutocrats in business. He insisted that ordinary people are fully competent 'to sit in judgment on every question which has arisen or which will arise, no matter how long our government will endure.' And so Bryan advocated all measures that would extend direct democracy in government: the initiative, the referendum, direct primaries."

In barring the reform proposal from the ballot -- despite the fact that some 400,000 Michiganians signed petitions to put it there -- the three judges of the Michigan Court of Appeals stressed that "we do not act to prevent the citizen from voting on a proposal simply because that proposal is allegedly too complex or confusing. Nor do we seek to substitute our own preferences as to governmental form, structure or functioning for those of the electorate."

But you have to wonder. Among other things, the proposal, billed as an amendment to the state constitution, would have reduced the number of appellate judges and cut the salaries of those who remain --among other things.

Be that as it may, the reason the court gave for striking down the proposal was that judges said it constituted a general revision of the constitution because it dealt with more than one subject. They pointed out that the proposal affected four articles of the constitution, seeking to modify 24 sections and add four others.

But as Andrew Nickelhoff, attorney for Reform Michigan Government Now! pointed out, there is no such specific language in the constitution restricting the amendment process.

Oddly, the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, one of the organizations seeking to invalidate reform group's petitions, itself proposed a ballot plan last year seeking to change multiple sections and articles of the constitution.

"Talk to the person on the street," said the reform group's spokeswoman, Dianne Byrum. She said they appeared to understand the proposal as they jumped at the chance to sign the petition.

If true, would the people have been smart enough to figure that out?

What do you think? The proposal as it would have appeared is printed alongside today's column.

Do you understand it? How would you have voted: yes or no?

Let us know -- and why.

Glenn Gilbert is executive editor of The Oakland Press. Contact him (248) 745-4587 or glenn.gilbert@oakpress.com.

No comments: