"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

Monday, October 6, 2008


The following article calls for a constitutional convention to update the constitution of the state of California. This would be a worthwhile effort if the objective is to strengthen and reform the direct democratic institutions enshrined in the constitution rather than an opportunity for opponents to weaken them and try to trun back the clock on California's tradition of Initiative & Referendum. - Editor

It's time to rethink California's defective constitution

By Larry N. Gerston

Article Launched: 08/15/2008 01:31:57 AM PDT

The latest California state budget flap reminds us that our constitution no longer works. The governing process in California is broken - not temporarily disabled or momentarily off track, but broken - and the only way to fix it is with a constitutional convention.
For some time, people have sensed a system gone awry, and they've tinkered to make things function.

The Progressives brought "direct democracy" a century ago to take power away from interest groups, yet interest groups have come to dominate the initiative and referendum processes. The electorate made the Legislature a full-time body in 1966, so instead of avoiding big decisions for 90 days every other year, it avoids big decisions year-round.

Some people thought we could improve the quality of legislators by creating term limits in 1988, which has only given more power to bureaucrats and lobbyists. We've passed more than 500 adjustments since our constitution's adoption in 1879 (compared with 27 changes in the U.S. Constitution), but these piecemeal efforts have failed to make California more governable.

When you think of how California has changed, it's understandable. Massive transportation corridors have replaced wagon trails, huge water conduits have taken the place of individual wells, and towns have blended into urban behemoths sometimes more than 100 miles long. Education, once a privilege for the few, is required for all.

We need a constitutional convention to look at California with 21st century eyes. In attendance should be a large group of people, perhaps 200 or 300, who should create a comprehensive document for state governance, and then present it to the voters.

The stakeholders should include representatives from businesses, organized labor, farmers and environmentalists, taxpayer groups, civil libertarians, some elected officials, and yes, a few (not too many!) academics. The constitutional convention should hold hearings across the state for ideas.

Here are a few ideas that should be on the table:

• State finance. What kinds of taxes should be collected and for what purposes? Which interests should get tax breaks and why? How easy or hard should it be for citizens to determine their own taxation?

• Checks and balances. What's the appropriate threshold for passing legislation and responding to a governor's veto? (Hint: No governor has had a veto overturned in more than 30 years.)

• Organization. Now that legislative districts are organized by population, is it wiser to move to a unicameral or one-house Legislature with smaller districts?

• State/local relationships. What public policy areas should be assumed by the state, and which should be assumed by local governments? And how can we help the two levels work together?

• Direct democracy. What's a reasonable threshold for qualifying an initiative for the ballot? And should the Legislature consider the topic before it goes to voters?

There are many more issues to consider. The point is simply this: California's patchwork quilt of reforms has frayed beyond repair. Our elected officials may come to office with noble ideas, but the system discourages them from governing. The public suffers from their political impotence.

Organizing a constitutional convention will be costly and time-consuming. There will be conflict and finger wagging. But if we bring enough thoughtful people to the table, we should be able to create a vast improvement over the present product. Let the debates begin.

LARRY N. GERSTON teaches political science at San Jose State University. His "California Politics and Government: A Practical Approach" (with Terry Christensen) will be published in its 10th edition in January.

No comments: