"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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Wednesday, October 8, 2008


Craigslist founder Craig Newmark in the following piece presents his thoughts on the possibilites for more direct democracy facilitated by the internet. He discusses both how the internet is already aiding participatory democracy at the grassroots level by providing more access to information through the alternative media of independent bloggers and news media, and how more transparency and accountability in government is acheived through this freer flow of information. He also discusses the future possibilities for e-Democracy, truly direct democracy achieved by every citizen casting their vote on legislation via the internet. - Editor

New technology brings us to old idea

By CRAIG NEWMARK 10/2/08 4:56 AM EDT

Americans this election season are using the Internet to vastly expand their ability to participate directly in our democracy, but it’s just a beginning. Over the next 20 years, our governments will adopt a form of direct democracy envisioned by the Founding Fathers that previously was impossible to carry out.

Two hundred years ago, Thomas Paine, Ben Franklin and the other forefathers of today’s bloggers embraced the notion that government should function with the consent of the governed. Key to the success of the idea was exploiting communications technology, including the printing press and the postal service.

Based on similar efforts in the ancient Roman republic and Britain, the Founders designed a government based on a small number of elected representatives, with a separate judiciary. Checks and balances were provided so that one group couldn’t seize power. A free press served as a further check against tyranny.

In recent years, the balances have seriously eroded, but at the same time, a new communication technology, the Internet, has flourished.

People use the Net as their own printing press, giving them a voice and a reach they’ve never had before, for better or for worse. They are networking at the grass-roots level more effectively than ever before.

In politics, Democrat Howard Dean pioneered use of the Net for organizing and fundraising in his 2004 presidential bid. He was ahead of his time, though, because broadband technology had not yet reached critical mass, with the resulting spike in traffic.

Given the low cost of Net advertising of any sort, it appears the 2008 election starts the transition from very expensive, top-down campaigns to less expensive, network-driven ones.

Following Dean’s example, many candidates this year are using the Net for fundraising and organizing with extraordinary effect. Barack Obama’s campaign is based largely on grass-roots networking and community organizing, with an eye toward boosting grass-roots participation in government. John McCain’s campaign has not tapped into the Net as systematically or effectively, but many McCain supporters are using it among themselves.

People also are using the Net to strengthen or debunk political claims, engaging in levels of fact-checking that the traditional press was unable or unwilling to do.

Currently, even sitting politicians with the best of intentions find it necessary to spend an inordinate amount of time fundraising rather than governing. This election accelerates the trend to something else: People are using the Net for governance in ways that have barely been noticed.

New York and San Francisco are experimenting with telephone customer service systems that soon will be complemented by Net-based systems. Using the Internet, people will be able to navigate through local government to get things done — the ultimate in pothole politics.

Another emerging area of grass-roots, networked democracy involves transparency and accountability. The idea is that if we all see how the sausage is made, it will facilitate reform throughout the country.

A lot of accountability data are already available to the public — but in forms that limit their use and accessibility. For instance, there are loads of information about lobbyist contributions to congressmen and what they presumably get in return, such as sweetheart contracts.

The Sunlight Foundation is harnessing a network of organizations to build online tools so anyone can examine the data. For example, MAPLight.org focuses on the connection between money and politics, and the Center for Media and Democracy runs Congresspedia.org, which is basically a Wikipedia-like site for the U.S. Congress. (Full disclosure: I’m on the board of Sunlight.)

It’s still a struggle sometimes getting the sun to shine in on Capitol Hill. Online access to Senate election data is being obstructed by Sens. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and John Ensign (R-Nev.), but their efforts are being countered online by Pass223.com.

In the fullest expression of direct democracy, every citizen would vote on every piece of legislation; representative democracy was, until now, the best compromise. The new challenge is how to give many millions of citizens a voice in government without overwhelming the system.

There are two approaches, both of which rely on technology that is available but not yet fully exploited. In online democracy, people need verifiable identities, the online equivalent of a driver’s license. Today, one example is the “digital certificate,” which, if widely disseminated, could help positively identify people on the Net and minimize fraud.

Congressmen and Hill staffers tell me that messages from verified people in their districts carry far more weight than blind e-mails that possibly are mass-produced. In other words, communications from known constituents are read, but form e-mails may not be. That’s one step closer to networked democracy.

Another approach involves large-scale discussion boards where citizens with verified identities can discuss issues online. The challenge is sorting the wheat from the chaff, but a solution is to let citizens do the work by filtering up the best ideas. Pioneers in this sort of scheme include Slashdot.org, Digg.com, and even Amazon.com.

Such systems, in theory, need hundreds of millions of citizens. In practice, they would number far fewer. Most people, including myself, would rather not be bothered with politics. From my day job, I’d guess that the number of interested citizens would range from 1 percent to 10 percent of the population.

Universal access to such systems must overcome the “digital divide,” but I believe that could be solved by using mobile phones to almost universally plug citizens into the process.

However it is done, we’re on the verge of realizing the vision of democracy upon which America was formed, from the grass roots up. It’s time to recognize what’s happening and get serious about nurturing it.

Craig Newmark is the founder of and chief of customer service for Craigslist.

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