Friday, August 31, 2007

A Proposal For Making the United States a Real Democracy


It's pretty obvious that the problem in the United States is that we have fake democracy, not real democracy. This is a problem not just for Americans, but for people around the world because if ordinary Americans were really in control of our government and were able to be fully informed about things they would not allow the government to wage unjust wars or support crimes like Israel's ethnic cleansing of Palestinians.

The fakeness of our "democracy" has become so obvious to so many people that even the actor, Paul Newman, in a letter backing the Democratic Party, says:

"America isn't of the people, by the people and for the people any more. It's about something completely different. And completely wrong."

In the United States money is power. It's not one person one vote, but one dollar one vote. The real rulers are the richest Americans who control the huge corporations, including the mass media. Any politician who is not independently very wealthy needs to curry the favor of upper class Americans in order to receive their financial and media backing that is necessary to win any important election. This is why government policy consistently opposes things that the public actually wants, such as universal single payer health care, a tax code that makes a more equal society, a foreign policy that doesn't wage unjust wars, an end to the "high stakes" standardized testing of our school children that is turning our public schools into destructive test-prep centers, and the list goes on. Our government supports Israel in its ethnic cleansing of Palestinians for the same reason--because (as discussed elsewhere (pdf)) it strengthens the power of the American elite.

Some of us were taught in school that democracy is a bad thing, because it means rule by ordinary people--"mob rule"--and that it is therefore better to have what our Founding Fathers created--a "republic"--in which elected representatives, almost always upper class individuals or at least lawyers and virtually never ordinary working class people who will go back to their working class jobs, do the actual ruling.

Most of us, however, were taught in school that democracy is a good thing, and it means exactly what we have now--representative democracy.

Whichever version we were taught, it was a Big Lie.

Ordinary people, not upper class so-called "representatives" of ordinary people, should rule. The values of most ordinary people are quite different from those of the elite: equality versus inequality; solidarity versus pitting people against each other to control them; democracy versus top-down rule. Ordinary people try to shape society by very different values from the elite. Policies that express elite values and aims are invariably the opposite of policies that express the values and aims of ordinary people. The elite want us to fear "mob rule" so that we'll accede to elite rule. They want college-educated people to believe that non-college-educated people are bigots or simpletons. They want the latter to believe that the former are elitist snobs. They use "social issues" like same-sex marriage to reinforce these stereotypes and to obscure the fact that most people, college educated or not, share fundamental values like equality and solidarity and democracy while the elite opposes them. The elite do this to undermine the idea of democracy--that ordinary people, not elites, should rule.

Representative democracy was conceived by the Founding Fathers as a means of preventing ordinary people from actually ruling society. From the beginning, the elite have ensured that only members of the upper class, or individuals seeking to please the upper class in order to rise in the world, would win elections. The purpose of representative democracy is to keep ordinary people out of the loop, and to do it in a way that pays lip service to the idea of democracy.

The only democratic-seeming features of our so-called democracy are the jury system and, in the few remaining small towns where it still exists, "town hall" government in which all citizens meet and vote on policy.

In reality, however, even "town hall" government does not equal democracy. To see why, consider the contrast between what it would be like if a town community were a democracy versus what actually happens with our "town hall" government. In a democracy, the people of the town would decide how, and towards what ends, they would spend the working hours of their days. They would decide if they wished to produce SUVs or homes for the homeless, weapons for an unjust war or healthful food. They would decide what to do with the land and other resources in the town. But with "town hall" government these decisions are off limits; they are made instead by the corporations who own the land and resources. The majority share-owners of corporations decide how the town's land and resources will be used. The townspeople are not the deciders; they are employees of the deciders and do what they are told to do or get fired. The only thing left for people to decide in their "town hall" government is how to adapt to the rule of the corporations: when the local school needs improvements the people can't raise taxes on the corporations for fear they'll fire everybody and leave, but they can "democratically" decide whether to raise taxes on poor people already having a hard time making ends meet, or let the school deteriorate. That's "town hall" "democracy," in practice.

Juries are legally allowed to decide guilt or innocence on any basis whatsoever, even on the basis that the law should not be enforced in a particular case or ever--"jury nullification." Ordinary people in a jury exercising power this way is extremely democratic. Unfortunately, judges tell juries they are only allowed to decide the facts of the case; they tell jurors they must find the defendant guilty if the facts indicate he/she broke the law, and that they cannot return a "not guilty" verdict just because they don't think the law should have been enforced. Most jurors do not know that such "jury nullification" of the law is indeed legal. Thus, in practice, the jury system has been stripped of much of its democratic potential.


The solution is to do whatever it takes to get rid of our fake democracy and create a genuine one. Whatever else it may take to do this, the first and most crucial requirement is that millions of Americans must make this a goal that they seriously aim to achieve. This in turn means there must be a widespread public discussion that focuses on the root of the problem--that we have fake democracy and need real democracy.


How can we cause such a discussion to take off? I have a proposal.

Wherever it is possible, let's put referenda questions on the ballot that propose the following: That ordinary people, selected at random (like a jury), make the decisions that currently are made by elected politicians.

The details are not unimportant, but they are secondary, because the idea is to launch the idea of democracy--real democracy--and let it gain widespread support as a step towards building a mass movement that will figure out how to achieve it.


* At the state level, the state legislature is replaced by 100 residents (called the Council) selected at random to exercise (by consensus if possible or else majority vote) the powers of the former legislature and in particular to be the final authority on the state's budget, its tax code and how the national guard is used.

* The Council has subpoena power and the power to hold public hearings.

* Laws, like our jury-tampering laws, make it a crime to bribe or coerce a member of the Council.

* The term of office is short: one year, the first six months as a non-voting member (to partake in all discussions and gain knowledge and confidence) and the second six months as a voting member.

* Those selected receive in payment from the state, during their term of service, whatever it takes to maintain their income at the same level it was when they were selected, up to some reasonable upper limit.

* The selections are staggered over time so that the Council has continuity as individuals enter and leave it.

* All adult residents of the state who have not previously served on the Council in the last 20 years will have an equal probability of being selected to serve on the Council.



Ballot questions are excellent for promoting public discussion of an idea, which is the main objective in this case.

It is not difficult to get a question on the ballot, especially a non-binding question (i.e. one that, if passed, would not require the legislature to do anything.). Since the main point is to get an idea discussed, it isn't a big problem if the question is non-binding.

It is easy to involve people in working for a ballot question because people are already familiar with what is involved in such an electoral campaign; there is nothing "strange" or novel about it.

Unlike single-issue ballot questions, this question excites most people no matter what particular issue they are mainly concerned about, because virtually all the things that concern people would be improved if ordinary people were making government decisions instead of the upper class.

In some states (like Massachusetts) one has a legal right to campaign for a ballot question on privately owned public-access property (like a shopping mall or supermarket), even if the owner says no. In contrast, one has no right to pass out literature or hold signs on private land if the content is not about something on the ballot. With the privatization of many public spaces, being able to campaign in shopping malls and supermarkets is often the only practical way to reach much of the public.

When the question gets a lot of votes, the public will know it and people who voted for it will gain confidence from knowing they are not alone--a key factor in building a movement that is serious about winning.

Cons (with replies):

Some people will say that it is unrealistic to win real democracy through a ballot question. (I would agree with them, and point out that the purpose is to get the idea of ordinary people making government decisions discussed by the public so that a movement can grow that will do whatever it takes to win it.)

Working for a ballot question could distract people from the more ambitious goal of building organizational strength against elite rule, on the job or in neighborhood organizations or inside the military. (Much organizing goes on in these venues, but unfortunately the idea of dumping our fake democracy and creating a real democracy is usually not a part of it, which weakens these efforts by making them seem unconnected. The ballot question would help these efforts join with each other around the goal of winning real democracy, and thus strengthen them. For example, the idea of having randomly selected workers make not only government decisions but decisions about how to use corporate property, might catch on.)

There are other ways of having real democracy, possibly better than this Council idea. (This is true. One way might be for "Town Hall"-type meetings where people work and live to make local decisions and send recallable delegates to regional "town hall" bodies to make decisions at a regional level, and so on to higher levels. Again, the purpose of the ballot question is to get exactly this kind of discussion going among millions of people and to let people know they are not alone in wanting a more democratic society. We would say that voting for the question is simply a way of showing support for the idea of ordinary people taking decision-making power back from the elite; it is not mainly about the secondary details.)

A ballot question involves only registered voters or people eligible to register to vote, thereby excluding many people. (This is a big "con." It needs to be balanced against the "pros.")


At 10:43 AM, September 01, 2007, Blogger npro said...

I like the idea of a bottom-up democracy and getting a higher level of involvement by the majority of citizens.

I have a small disagreement with what I have read from you elsewhere - it's that you seem to think there is a small elite in the US that makes all the decisions when in fact there are lots of little and large schisms - for instance a real handmaiden of the ruling class, Condi Rice, will not be allowed to return to Stanford to teach - a slap in the face - such as was experienced by Kissinger at Harvard.


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