"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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Friday, October 31, 2008


Reading the fine print

Lorraine Collins
Source: http://www.bhpioneer.com/articles/2008/10/22/opinion/doc48ff58af16094977614025.txt

By now many people around the country are probably wishing they had read the fine print in their mortgage contracts, their credit card agreements, their brokerage accounts, insurance policies, and so forth.

But meanwhile, we in South Dakota are being urged by some television ads to read the fine print of initiated measures on the ballot when we vote Nov. 4.

When the South Dakota Constitution was written, it made provision for citizens to either initiate laws or to refer laws the Legislature passed to a vote of the people. In this respect, we are the proud inheritors of what I'd call Direct Democracy. So two years ago an anti-abortion law passed by the Legislature was referred to the people who voted it down.

This year we don't have a referendum, but we do have an initiated measure dealing with abortion as well as two others that are perhaps more obscure and complex but which also could have serious implications for how business and government will be conducted in South Dakota in the future. So here they are in numerical order.

Initiated Measure 9 calls itself “The South Dakota Small Investor Protection Act” and so far as I can tell it deals with “short selling” securities. This initiative apparently has its origins outside of South Dakota and is promoted by a group that is trying to get the issue on the ballot in several states. I haven't read the entire bill, but the proponents indicate it would “allow our courts to intervene when federal bureaucrats and New York courts don't.”

This is not persuasive to me and I guess I'd go with the opinion of the director of the South Dakota Division of Securities who says we should vote no.

Initiated Measure 10 is one that has generated a lot of TV ads about reading the fine print and it seems to be opposed by a lot of organizations and government entities who claim it is a “gag law” that takes a shotgun approach to what may or may not be a problem requiring something of a more specific and surgical nature. It says it wants to prohibit tax dollars from being used for lobbying and political campaigns. It's hard to argue with that but again, it seems complicated and diffuse and apparently was not generated by any specific problem known to exist in South Dakota.

Initiated Measure 11, which seeks to overturn the vote of 2006 that rejected a strict anti-abortion measure is, so far as I know, generated locally. However, the other day I did get a call from somebody in Virginia supporting this proposed law. Again, those who oppose this measure urge us to read the fine print. I think that's a good idea. Get the whole bill and read it.

Actually, I think a proposed law like this should also lead us to read the fine print or the bold print of the Constitution of the United States. It should lead us to think about why we have government, what we believe is the proper exercise of governmental regulation, and about when government should intervene in our private lives. Personally, I think the discussion about this proposed law should be less about whether it includes enough exceptions and more about what democracy is.

Some of the first colonists who came to America really thought about founding a theocracy and enforcing laws that conformed to their beliefs, but that soon gave way to the idea of freedom of conscience. We can all be grateful for that. I think the problem with Initiated Measure 11 is that seems to require us all to agree with the opinion and beliefs of those who are promoting it. I don't think that's a good idea in a democracy. In that respect, I don't think Initiated Measure 11 belongs on the ballot.

Reading the fine print is a very good thing to do in many areas of our lives and it's especially important when it comes to voting for new laws.

Lorraine Collins is a writer who lives in Spearfish. She can be contacted at collins1@rushmore.com.

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