"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, November 28, 2008


Democracy withers if civics not taught

By Bob Graham, Special to the Times
In print: Wednesday, October 22, 2008


After a speech on education I gave as a state senator in 1974, I was approached by Sue Riley, a teacher skeptical of politicians who lacked classroom experience. How could we know what was best for students if it had been decades since we last stepped foot in a classroom?

Our conversation led me to spend a semester teaching civics at Miami Carol City Senior High School. The teaching experience was the beginning of what became the "workdays" program, through which I spent over 400 days working at jobs across Florida.

Thirty years later, the memory of teaching civics still motivates my work. Since my semester in the classroom, concern for political correctness plus a lack of institutional support, flexibility and funding have forced schools to de-emphasize civics. Most high schools today offer only one, often optional, civics course as opposed to the three courses that were the norm until the 1960s.

Not only has the quantity of civics education decreased, but there has been a steady decrease in quality. While older civics curricula emphasized civic participation and engagement in democracy, the current teaching is largely preparation for life as a spectator. In 2006, the National Assessment of Educational Progress reported that 81 percent of eighth and 12th grade students reported learning most about civics from watching television or in class videos. Only 18 percent and 25 percent, respectively, gained their insight by writing a letter expressing an opinion or helping to solve a community problem.

The results of this decline have been staggering. In 1972, the first year 18-year-olds could vote, more than half of the 18-to 25-year-olds turned out at the polls. In 2000 only slightly more than a third voted.

The data are even more jarring in traditionally disenfranchised communities. African-American, Hispanic and low-income students were twice as likely as their white counterparts to score below proficient on the 2006 NAEP in civics. How can government respond to the authentic voice of "we the people" if only some of the people speak up?

This week we got a discouraging but not surprising report card. The National Conference on Citizenship is developing indicators of civic health nationally and in the states. Based on public data and interviews with 506 Floridians, Florida's civic health was diagnosed as:

• 32nd in average voter turnout;

• 47th in average rate of volunteering;

• 49th in the percentage of Floridians who had attended a public meeting; and

• 40th in the percentage of Floridians who have worked with others in their neighborhood to solve a community problem.

Summarizing this information, Florida's Civic Health index for 2007 puts us at 47th in the nation.

Civic education can convert our democracy deficit into an abundance of civic knowledge and energy. This idea is not new. In describing the purposes of public education, Thomas Jefferson stated, "The objects of primary education … are to instruct the mass of citizens in these: their rights, interests, and duties as men and citizens … to understand his duties to his neighbors and country, and to discharge with competence the functions confided to him by either."

While much has changed in the two centuries since Jefferson wrote, his words continue to resonate. If we want future generations of Americans to sustain our democracy, we must educate them to be informed, skilled and engaged citizens.

The Florida Legislature has taken a first step. Today every middle school student is required to take one semester of civics. This summer a coalition of the Florida Bar, the League of Women Voters, the Lou Frey Institute of Politics at the University of Central Florida and the Bob Graham Center for Public Service at the University of Florida, with the generous support of the Helios Foundation, trained 133 middle school teachers to teach participatory democracy. More will be trained next summer.

Admittedly, our schools are being asked to educate students in everything from hygiene to driving a car. But there are creative ways to blend citizenship into other subjects. While an elementary student is learning the skills of reading, why not also start teaching him or her the content of American history? While high school chemistry students are focused on elements and compounds, wouldn't the course be more relevant if they also learned how science and civics have combined to make our air and water cleaner and safer?

In the age of high-stakes testing, a major advance will be the inclusion of civics in state assessments, such as the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, and the national No Child Left Behind student evaluation. The reality is if a subject is not tested, it tends to disappear from the curriculum. While not all policymakers agree with the current testing regimes, we should all be able to agree that if reading, math and science are tested, it does a disservice to our student citizens and our democracy if we fail to test civics.

Democracy does not automatically renew itself in each generation. Sustaining it requires a continued commitment to ensuring that all citizens have the knowledge, competence and motivation to make their mark on the American story.

Bob Graham is a former Florida U.S. senator, governor and state legislator.

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