"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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Monday, December 15, 2008


Commentary: Internet can strengthen democracy

August 26, 2008 -- Updated 0117 GMT (0917 HKT)
By Craig NewmarkSpecial to CNN

Editor's Note: Craig Newmark was working as a San Francisco-based computer programmer in the 1990s when he started e-mailing friends about local events. His simple Web site has grown into
Craigslist, which provides classified ads and forums for more than 500 cities in over 50 countries. This commentary by Newmark, a Barack Obama supporter, is one of a series from McCain and Obama supporters attending party conventions.

"How do we build what some call 'participatory democracy'?" asks Craig Newmark.

SAN FRANCISCO, California (CNN) -- Like most people, I really don't want to be bothered with politics. On a gut level, it seems to be the province of the popular kids, and I'm a nerd. (Plastic pocket protector, thick black glasses taped together, that was me in school.)

Now, my day job is customer service for a Web site I founded, helping tens of millions of people. I'm in touch with a lot of everyday human concerns, that's the gig. Every day, I connect with people across America who want to make things better, a new generation committed to civic engagement.

To that end, people are using the Internet as the platform for tools for elections and governance. Speaking as a nerd, I love the technology, but what really matters is the means by which we all can use the Net to strengthen democracy in the USA. We can address practical problems and also better realize the vision of the Founding Fathers.

Nationally, the Howard Dean presidential campaign pioneered the use of the Net for grassroots campaigning, involving ordinary people in the election process. The Net proved to be an effective tool for organization and fundraising. However, this campaign didn't quite reach critical mass, perhaps because there weren't enough Americans with high-speed
Internet connections at the time.

In this electoral cycle, we see campaigns like the
Barack Obama campaign using the Net for organizing and fundraising very successfully. Additionally, we're seeing the Obama campaign use the Net to battle disinformation campaigns. For example, rumors that he's a Muslim or wants to raise taxes for ordinary Americans.

The key is that the campaigns manage to get ordinary people involved, including people like me who'd rather not be bothered with politics.

After the participatory campaign, how do we build what some call "participatory democracy" or "networked democracy?"

Here are several areas where people are starting to make that real:

311: Customer service for government -- In New York and San Francisco, California, people can call 311 for city services. For example, you can get a pothole fixed, or find out how to get a license. In the future, it will be possible to make direct use of 311 systems over the Net. I feel all levels and departments of
U.S. government should provide customer service this way.

New York and San Francisco have made a good start, and interestingly enough, the Transportation Security Administration is doing a good job with its
blog. Transparency and accountability -- Money plays a much larger role in government than a democracy can survive. Some companies find it's easier to lobby for privileges than to compete in a free market. A notorious example of that involves "no-bid contracts." Sunlight Foundation is the hub of a network that allows people to blog about how lobbyists and others use cash in ways that might not survive public scrutiny.
Take a look at MapLight.org
, Pass223.com, and Congresspedia.org, for examples. I feel all government action should be made visible to the public, probably including all contributions by lobbyists.

Supporting the troops -- There are small things we can do, like supporting the new
GI Bill and helping get adequate medical care for veterans and their families and the Iraq and Afghanistan veterans of America. The Net helps veterans in obvious ways, like awareness and fundraising. Even better, it connects citizens with the soldiers and military families who need a hand, like the Yellow Ribbon Fund, Adopt A Platoon and Any Solider. The theme is to get help directly to the people who need it, with the least middlemen possible. The focus of much of this is the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, who helped pass the new GI Bill.

The Permanent Town Hall -- Americans overall are pretty smart and we know how to run things, providing we can overcome the privileged trying for more privileges. The problem involves too many voices providing a wide range of ideas of varying quality. We need Internet-based platforms that people can use to voice needs and suggestions, with means by which the participants can rate the priority and usefulness of those statements.

Such systems exist in their infancy, like the ratings on Amazon.com and the filtering provided in Slashdot.org
. The first of these is already happening and we need to recognize their importance and accelerate their adoption.

The last requires more work, but is more important. American leaders are surrounded by people who filter input and who can isolate the leader in a bubble of disinformation. (Symptoms include low approval ratings or not knowing how many houses one owns.)

iReport.com: Watch Newmark's iReport endorsing Obama

However, if you know how Americans use the Net to talk, you can easily stay in touch with real people.

Speaking as a customer service rep, that's the real deal.

1 comment:

Evan Ravitz said...

But it's hardly a substitute. A recent Phd thesis shows "Web 2.0" networking is no substitute for real participatory democracy: http://spryeye.blogspot.com/2008/11/study-web-20-no-substitute-for-direct.html

The best project for real direct/representative democracy?