DIRECT DEMOCRACY & ALTERNATIVE COMMUNITIES
(A BRIEF Q & A)
What is Direct Democracy?
Direct Democracy (DD) is a system where citizens vote on legislation directly without the presence of, or need for, politicians or any other middlemen. This is in contrast to our current system of Representative Democracy (or Republic) where the citizens elect officials (representatives) to introduce and vote on legislation for them. Though the United States of America is officially a republic, it does contain some examples of direct democracy, limited as they are: such as referendums, ballot questions, and in a handful of states open town meeting. I believe these should be expanded on dramatically, with the initial focus being at the local level but in time growing beyond this.
Why is Direct Democracy necessary?
Direct Democracy is necessary because Representative Democracy is a fatally flawed and inadequate system. These flaws can be demonstrated in three main areas. The first is the nature of the representation itself. In theory, politicians are voted in as representatives of their constituents. But seated politicians rarely conduct local polls on issues they're set to vote on, which means they have little idea what the majority public opinion is on issues; nor do they seem to care - since, if they did, they'd be conducting such polls regularly. Some may argue this is unnecessary since politicians are elected largely due to their party affiliation and political philosophy, and the winning politician then votes accordingly on legislation. This results in a significant portion of the electorate (those who voted for the losing candidate) being represented by someone who has different positions than themselves. Even those who agree with a politician most of the time will likely not agree with them all of the time - so even the most fervent supporters will find their representative, on occasion, voting against their wishes. The reality is (as everyone knows): representatives aren't required to reflect the views of their constituents at all. There is no law or tradition requiring representatives to ascertain or follow the majority opinion of their constituents. This leaves representatives as people who vote in your name, even if that vote is diametrically opposed to what your position is. And this might be on issue after issue. In Representative Democracy politicians are given legitimacy by the citizens yet have no requirement to follow (or even seek out) the citizens' opinions. This isn't representative of the citizens' opinions, it's representative of the representative's opinions. In truth, we don't vote for someone to speak for us, we vote for someone to speak instead of us. No one is qualified to represent ourselves except ourselves. The further we deviate from this simple truth, the greater we contribute to our own voicelessness. The second flaw is the quality of the representatives themselves, the competency and honesty of the politicians who are being handed this great responsibility. To observe the level of corruption in both major parties, and the influence of money on elections; to witness the corporate media continually marginalizing any candidate who doesn't belong to either of the two corporate-influenced parties, is to know how questionable the character and qualifications of these politicians are, and how massive the job of reforming this system is. In fact the corruption is so rampant, so deeply rooted as to be nearly impossible to eradicate. Even if it were miraculously extinguished, how long before similar corruption would creep back into the system? We need to be honest with ourselves and each other. This is a systemic flaw. The structure of the system allows it to happen - and continue to happen. As long as a relatively few people introduce and create legislation, powerful minorities will be able to dominate and control many of those people and therefore dominate and control the system and society - warping it to their own ends. The third flaw is that Representative Democracy retards the development of individuals and societies. It does this by taking direct decision making out of the hands of the vast majority of the adult population, leaving them largely spectators in the public life of their own communities, states and nation. Responsibility breeds maturity. Most of us experience this in our private lives. This holds true in public life as well. When people are intentionally left out of the decision-making process, when they're reduced to voting for politicians rather than policy, they're put in a state of arrested development, treated like children who must step aside while the purported adults decide how society will be organized and run. It's no surprise then that the trumpeted 'freedoms' that result are the freedoms of a child in a fenced-in yard. We may work and play within the confines dictated to us by those who make and enforce the rules. But we're not children, and what might work in regards to children becomes intolerable for adults. Even if every member of Congress were miraculously transformed into a Mahatma Gandhi or Mother Theresa, saints with spotless records and peerless integrity, this fundamental flaw would remain. Just like a child can never fully mature and develop if they're not allowed to make fundamental decisions in their private life, adults can't fully develop if they're not allowed to make fundamental decisions in public life. And this multitude of undeveloped, uninvolved citizens inevitably leads to undeveloped, uninvolved communities. When only a small portion of the population is making decisions many important issues are either unaddressed or inadequately addressed - with a tiny (but powerful) segment of the population being continually favored at the expense of the majority. The full talents of the population, much of its energy and imagination, is hardly tapped into. Every community becomes virtually a carbon copy of a top-down, elitist version of what economic, social and cultural development should look like. Innovation is stifled. So what can be done about this? A lot. DD either reduces or eradicates these three flaws. The representation is direct, with each adult citizen able to vote on issues they wish to; the opportunity for wealthy elites to easily corrupt the legislative process is removed; and people will be able to fully develop themselves not only in their private lives but public lives as well, democratically changing the ground rules where they see fit. And this is what real freedom is. The freedom of citizens to democratically decide on the direction of their lives and their communities themselves. No middlemen. No dilution. Politicians aren't just unnecessary, they're an impediment to our progress towards freedom.
What is the best way to achieve Direct Democracy?
It's unlikely that discussion and debate alone will produce the structural changes necessary to achieve Direct Democracy. Though these will contribute to consciousness-raising, the more crucial element will be the development of physical, on-the-ground communities. These alternative communities (communities providing an alternative political system) should be made up of dedicated people willing to live in these communities. And it'll be mainly these initial inhabitants (pioneers in a sense) who'll need to determine and implement the participatory mechanisms necessary for a truly functioning direct democracy. Due to the complexity and novelty of the new system, these communities should be small to start with. The pioneer inhabitants should believe in the tenets of direct democracy so they contribute to its development rather than impede it. Each community will develop along its own path based on the desires of the inhabitants. Though DD communities might be influenced by each other, they wouldn't be carbon copies of each other. DD is a platform, not an ideology. It's also important that these communities not be isolated, fenced-in enclaves; or have any separatist agenda. They're meant to be open showcases with the goal of changing society, not hiding from or breaking away from it. Inhabitants and visitors should flow freely in and out as they would in any other town in the nation. This will help publicize what's going on, and keep the information accurate. And lastly, for those who view alternative communities as too radical a step, I'd say that what might appear radical to contemporaries of the pioneer generation, will seem not only commonplace, but common sense, to those in following generations.
What should be the founding principals of DD communities?
The primary principal, as noted above, is legislative freedom: Self-government by the people, with no middlemen involved. From this fundamental freedom all other freedoms will follow. I'd suggest two accompanying principals to help deepen and maintain the new communities: public determination of the amount of taxation, and participatory budgeting. The first is simply allowing inhabitants to democratically decide the form and amount of local taxation. The second is allowing inhabitants, again through democratic means, the opportunity to vote on the local projects or systems they wish to fund with the taxes they've conceded to. (More on these below.) Each community should also ensure that no discrimination be allowed on the basis of gender, race, color, religion, nationality or sexual orientation.
How could these communities be started?
Here lies the major obstacle. In the USA, the closest option to Direct Democracy as a form of local governance is open town meeting, and this itself is legal in only a handful of states: mostly in New England. Accepting this as the current reality, what's the best strategy for moving forward? Let's look at some of the choices. Since the closest existing system to DD is open town meeting, it might seem sensible to focus first on towns already incorporated with this type of government. Open town meeting is a system of local government where instead of elected town councilmen, all registered voters of that town may vote on local issues. Some may or may not include elements of participatory budgeting. This is essentially direct democracy, though as currently practiced it lacks any networking or expansionary objectives, which are two areas I strongly suggest be developed if DD is to reach its full potential, and the general population its full power. In other words instead of being viewed as isolated pockets of DD, they could work together in a voluntary network of other DD communities over a broader geographical area; one which might eventually gain influence at the city, state, regional and national levels. It's this variance in purpose and scope which chiefly differentiates current open town meeting systems from the DD system I'm suggesting. It's important to understand this difference to understand the potential. But to get back to our current situation, the voter participation rates in towns with open town meeting government, on local issues, is not particularly high. Though this might be discouraging to advocates of DD (Why, when given a say on issues, aren't more people voting?), it does hold the tantalizing appeal of making these towns appear an easy target for a dedicated group of pioneers to overcome legislatively if they were to move there in large numbers. But what would the reaction be? Would it inspire existing citizens to join the DD movement; or would it lead to a backlash of resentment as former non-voters suddenly rise up and vote against the DD 'invaders'? An even bigger problem would be housing. These are towns not cities: where would large groups of incoming pioneers live? Sure, there might be some housing vacancies, but likely not enough. No town is going to tolerate tent cities of activists camped out even temporarily. And until a DD-voting majority is in place, no large-scale housing development would be approved. If this 'Invasion' approach were to work at all, it'd have to be in sparsely populated towns, of let's say 200 or less. Some do exist, but again the housing issue (though diminished) would still remain. It'd be better if pioneers were invited into a town by a substantial number of existing citizens supportive of DD goals. In this case the housing problem could be alleviated by established citizens temporarily housing incoming pioneers until long-term housing was available. This 'Invitation' option however would require a significant number of preexisting allies. A variation on the above would be to shift our focus from existing open town meeting governments and 'invade' or be 'invited' into a tiny town anywhere in the country (regardless of its local government system) and over time agitate for the host state to recognize open town meeting governance. The options thus far outlined all involve altering existing communities: that is pioneers and established supporters struggling with opponents and indifference amongst their fellow citizens. This could make for a tense and frustrating uphill battle. But there remains another option: settling unincorporated areas with a pioneer majority and then incorporating them with a governmental system as close to DD as possible. With this approach vast areas of geography become available for potential settlement. It also has the advantage of the founding citizenry being all, or nearly all, pioneers, and therefore sharing an ultimate goal. If this were the case, even if they were incorporated as a traditional form of local government (mayors, council, etc.) they could be openly run as a DD community. For example, candidates for mayor and councilmen could be chosen from the pool of pioneer citizens, who being already committed to this new system could then govern accordingly, as if a direct democracy were already in place. That is, they'd agree to follow the citizens democratically-determined decisions - determined, for instance, through polls or 'non-binding resolutions'. In this case even though local governance has a traditional form on paper, in practice it's DD. And surely no state or federal government can force a mayor or local ruling body to ignore the majority opinion of a non-binding resolution. As in other cases, this would coincide with an ongoing campaign to convince the state to accept DD, or at the very least open town meeting, as a legal option for local governance. With this 'Incorporation' approach there exists no large group of opposed or indifferent citizens, no large segment hostile to building new housing for incoming pioneers. The strategy of the preceding paragraph could also prove successful with tiny, incorporated towns. Only a relatively small amount of pioneers would be necessary to outvote the original inhabitants. To ease tensions the new DD majority could offer to purchase the property of any disgruntled original citizen; even offering to help them relocate if they wish. The best option would likely be if a tiny town invited the pioneers in. A call could be sent out for any small town who'd want to welcome this. For a tiny town struggling with depopulation it might prove attractive. So we have the options of Invasion, Invitation or Incorporation. Alone or in combination. For those who find the invasion strategy offensive or antagonistic, the point can be clearly made that such a strategy would be unnecessary if DD were legalized on the state level. This argument might help gain support in individual states even from people who don't wish to live under a DD system themselves. What's also essential, of course, is people. The pioneers, most critically: people willing to relocate to a brand new community and make it work. But also supporters in the general public: people unwilling or not yet ready to relocate but who support the goals and wish to contribute time, money, labor or expertise to help the project along. This is an immense project and there's more than one way to participate. Any assistance would be welcomed with gratitude.
How might a DD community function?
If a suitable location is found and a DD community officially established, how might it function? The philosophy of DD dictates that the citizenry in each individual community should decide that, so what I offer here are merely suggestions, not a blueprint. I personally don't view these as communes where inhabitants live and work collectively. While I have nothing against the concept of communes, I don't feel they appeal to a large percentage of people. Cooperation, however, is a different matter and citizens will certainly have to do so in a DD system. It may also prove true that due to circumstances the founding pioneers might have to share living space, at least temporarily. Though the citizens in each DD community will decide what economic, religious, or social ideology (if any) they wish their town to follow, no such restrictions or rules would apply for the Movement as a whole. The only feature DD communities would have in common is a political structure where the entire citizenry decide local policy, rather than politicians. For instance, if some wish to allow private property while others limit it, that's the business and decision of the citizens within that community. My guess is that the need to attract and keep citizens will ensure that nothing too extreme is voted into law, or if so it'd be eventually overturned with a subsequent vote. Money would be another issue to decide on. Local currency (legal only in the town itself, or throughout other participating DD towns) could be used as a way to stimulate the new economies.
If the community is in an isolated, undeveloped area, jobs could be created by encouraging self-employment, particularly co-ops. Capital could be acquired through town banks using the local currency. Some towns might choose to start community-owned businesses (gas stations, general stores, restaurants) where a percentage of the profits is used for community development and maintenance. Others might choose traditional forms of taxation such as property taxes.
Perhaps a barter system might develop alongside this. Pioneers could barter amongst themselves; or with supporters or willing businesses and individuals located elsewhere. In such a way food, water, building materials and other necessary items could be obtained. Donations from supporters eager to see a DD system develop would likely also help, though self-sufficiency should be encouraged as soon as possible. In reality, a hybrid system entailing some or all of these ideas would probably need to be used. The central feature of these communities, of course, would be the legislative process. In a DD system any citizen should be able to propose a prospective law; and even encouraged to do so. Such proposals could be posted on a free community website for consideration. If a certain amount of fellow citizens co-sponsor it it could then go onto a ballot to be voted on. The co-sponsors wouldn't need to be in favor of the resolution, merely in agreement that the issue is important enough to warrant a vote. The percentage of votes required to pass the resolution would be up to the community to decide. It should also be noted that no one's suggesting that citizens in a DD system have to vote on every initiative on the ballot. They vote on those they wish to, and leave others blank. A local judicial system would also be required to ensure that all legislation passed be faithfully followed.
How might a DD community sustain itself?
Sustaining a DD community might prove even more of a challenge than starting it. If you examine towns that currently have open town meeting forms of government, the participation rate isn't particularly high. It likely was different during the town's early years, but with time came distractions and disillusionment. So the question becomes how do we prevent apathy from setting in and undoing all that's been achieved? To maintain interest and participation the citizens need to feel and see that their involvement is having a clear and positive effect. They need to see a direct connection between voting and results. Once again what follows are proposals not dictates. I'd offer four main suggestions; two of which I've touched on earlier. The first is simply allowing inhabitants to democratically decide the amount and form of local taxation they wish to charge themselves. That is: what is to be taxed for local purposes and how much. This can be adjusted annually if the citizens see fit. In conjunction with this should go the right of participatory budgeting. What that means is the citizens, again through democratic means, get to vote on the local projects or systems they wish to fund with the taxes they've conceded to. This would include payroll, public maintenance, and community improvements. In this way, the citizens will decide where every penny of their agreed-upon tax revenue will go. It also allows them to see year-after-year how their decisions and direct participation are not just maintaining - but improving - their community. Thirdly; divide the electorate into separate districts when necessary to ensure voting blocs remain at a workable size. Population growth is a sign of success for a town but can also threaten participation if left unaddressed. When the voter rolls swell to such a size that citizens begin to feel their voice (and vote) is being lost in the multitude it can negatively affect participation. To prevent this communities could have agreed-upon limits on the amount of citizens in any one voting bloc. Prior to this point being reached, the town should decide how the electorate is to be divided: such as different boroughs or districts in a single town. After the split, inhabitants would be eligible to vote on issues within their own borough, and also on issues within the overall town - but not on issues that solely involve a separate borough. This would have the extra benefit of helping to create working models, or at least examples, for DD expanding into more populous areas. The fourth and final suggestion is to include a mandatory civics education in the local curriculum. The DD system needs to be taught, at appropriate levels, from grade school until graduation, so that students learn how to fully engage in a DD society. It'd be particularly effective if high school students were allowed to vote on certain school issues; even run a mock community within the school itself, so they could garner some experience in self-governance before they become voting citizens.
Why am I personally advocating for this?
First, because I want to live in a true democracy. For me, a republic doesn't offer enough of a voice in how the society I live in operates and develops, or what issues are prioritized. I find the decisions of the political class increasingly difficult to tolerate. With their agenda of domestic control and foreign empire, where they're trying to lead us is no place I want to be led. And secondly, because I'm unaware of anyone else doing it. It seems like the obvious solution, yet I know of no organization attempting it. But it has to get started or it'll never occur. Once you make DD your core value, the elite lose all legitimacy in your eye and therefore need to be replaced. Which means we, the people, need to get organized. This is my attempt to find others who feel the same way and would like to help this process get started.
At their inception, republics were rightfully viewed as an advance over monarchy. Now, centuries later, it's time humanity took the next step forward in its personal and public development. No violence is necessary. All the tools are in place to achieve these changes peacefully and democratically. But it should be done in a systematic way, with patience and purpose. I believe direct democracy communities offer the best path forward. By starting small communities of pioneers, individuals dedicated to the ideals of DD, we can figure out together how to make this work; learning from our mistakes as well as our successes. If the communities are viable, they'll attract a second tier of settlers. And then a third and so on. Slowly but surely the percentage of citizens demanding a greater say in how society is run will rise - inevitably spreading beyond these initial communities. For sure, there'll be some who find these ideas unappealing. All that means is DD communities aren't for everyone. Some people will always prefer being taken care of to taking care of themselves; but removed from a Representative Democracy (RD) system that encourages these attitudes, would these individuals be as prevalent as some might think? Let's imagine that DD communities did exist. If adults moved from one of these to an RD community would they revel in not having any direct say in policy (particularly when RD governments have such an historically poor record at serving their constituents?) or would they find that freedom from responsibility isn't really a freedom at all, but a loss of freedom? An exclusion from decision-making? I think the latter response more likely. Which is why I think DD would also influence an individual's overall character. What we currently accept as 'freedom', they'd view as demeaning, oppressive and primitive. It's all relative. Our definition of freedom is limited because we have a system that limits freedom. That's what needs to be changed. The definition needs to be expanded by a working example, and by expanding the definition you expand the public consciousness. If supporters aren't able to relocate to a new community, that's fine. As stated above there's many ways of contributing. But it's every supporter, pioneer and the non-pioneer alike, who'll make this happen; who'll figure out how independent, freedom-loving individuals can work together to create a truly free society - not dominated by church, state or business; where free and open debate is not only encouraged, but it's the essence of the community, the foundation of the local system of law. This is a peaceful, robust drive for full democracy. Not watered-down democracy. Not phony democracy. Not controlled democracy. Not centralized democracy. Not top-down democracy. But direct democracy. It's a system that requires fully mature men and women, and for such people no other system is respectable or acceptable. Nothing else will so significantly change the current system, and remove power from those who've proven themselves incapable of handling the responsibility. It's time we take the next step. It's time we demonstrate what real freedom is.
© 2018 by Jeff Koslik
My name is Jeff Koslik. I'm a writer,
as well as the business owner of Drawbridge Puppet Theater. I've been
a professional puppeteer for 27 years. Politically, I view myself as independent and don't identify with any party. I believe in responsibility, diversity, creativity, cooperation, freedom and the ability of
the human imagination to solve any problem it faces. And yes, I would
be willing to be a pioneer in a Direct Democracy community if this project
were to reach that point.
Feel free to share this link with any group or individual you feel might be interested.
To leave a comment, you may click the link below. I'm particularly looking for people interested in helping to move this idea forward. Please keep in mind this project (and email) is for those who support the concept of direct democracy.
Photograph courtesy of Krista Prehl: Nov. 2017