Friday Feedback: Real Democracy

istock_000001483014xsmall.jpgFridays the LA Progressive features a comment that was particularly noteworthy. This week we are featuring a comment submitted by Joe Weinstein commenting on “Our Incredible Shrinking Democracy,” by Robert Reich.

Here’s Joe’s comment:

Reich has identified the problem, but his ’solution’ – though more radical than 99.9% of would-be ‘radical’ reformers – is too blinkered and will fail.

Like all other USA vocal ‘reform’ proposals, his too simply calls for cleaner selection of our political oligarchs. The only hope of real solution is to end the constitutionally mandated oligarchy altogether, and replace it with real democracy, the likes of which we’ve never truly had or have even taken the trouble to discuss.

Democracy gets ever less possible when there are ever more people being forced to delegate political power to the very same size small oligarchy. What’s been forcing this? Not hidden plutocrats (a la leftist dogma) nor leftists (a la rightist dogma) but the oligarchic provisions of the once-advanced but now hopelessly outdated US Federal Constitution and its copy-cat state constitutions.

In 1887, 100 years after the drafting of the constitution, Lord Acton (pithily and famously summarizing what was already known in ancient Athens) noted that ‘power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely’.

Precisely! The mechanism behind corruption – and indeed official dereliction of duty – problem is indeed the concentration of decision power: for 300 million Americans (including tens of millions of well-educated adult citizens ready to do their civic duty), just a few hundred in congress and high exec and judicial offices get to make all the decisions. Those few are the ordained gatekeepers over an extended time period, so of course it can be – and for some it is – worth big bucks to buy them.

This is the case no matter how ‘clean’ are the campaign funds to elect them. Crime and other behaviors result, as well known, from motive + means + opportunity. With decisions centralized in a few long-term power-holders, corrupters as well as the power-holders themselves have plenty of motive, and power-holders have repeated means and opportunities to extort or anyhow invite being corrupted.

The bigger our population and the better educated, the worse the discrepancy between all of us who could help decide – and the few who are given (by election or appointment) all the power to decide. We have far less democracy now in any one of our states or large cities than did the American colonies which in 1776 revolved against taxation without representation.

Real democracy would cure most or all of this. It would decentralize decision power.

For instance, instead of the same few hundred people, hundreds and thousands of different deliberative juries, comprising ordinary citizens recruited for manageable and limited time, would make federal decisions of law and policy – and ditto at state and local levels. And, for due precaution, yet other citizen juries would review each of the decisions, with power to affirm or veto.


  1. says

    Thanks for all the response comments – all three are valuable to me as unexpected and useful aid for my own thought as well as (I hope) others’.

    Yes, as MyLeftMind notes, Prop 8 is a cautionary tale. We must keep the good parts of the US and state constitutions – at least their basic human rights protections, and their sometime (actually insufficiently) precautionary attitude (separation of powers – via bicameral legislatures, etc.). As Prop 8 shows, we need further precaution. We should never allow a single electorate’s or other body’s decision to be the uncontestable word. We need citizen review juries as well as decision juries.

    Thanks very much to ProgressiveMews for the reference to ni4d. This reference was really valuable because I had lost (if I ever had) awareness of ni4d. That project represents a real advance over other USA reform effort I have seen, even though in my opinion it doesn’t go far enough and moreover even for what it would do it has some problematic features or anyhow gaps that need to be worked on further.

    Thanks much to MichaelC for the reference to USNow. I started watching it but had to quit, as there was no indication of run time (or indeed of other key meta-data aspects). I hope that somewhere someone has briefly summarized the operative messages of the film for those of us who find that life is short. Likely MichaelC’s comment has done just that.

    Both ni4d and the USNow-type proposals seem to prominently incorporate mass voting. Actually, adversarial voting as a preferred or first-resort method – or even as a usual back-stop component – is in my opinion a very dubious idea. The more I’ve been forced to think about structural political reform (for reasons noted below) the more I see our problems as owing not only to a lack of democracy but also to a lack of built-in promotion of scientific-age reasoning and deliberation procedure in our public decision-making. All this despite the advent of sophisticated modern decision analysis over the past half century. Its use features consensus definition of goals and of measures of attainment of goals, and use of those measures to evaluate all available options. This approach can even promote consensus where none seems to exist – see Fisher and Ury, ‘Getting to Yes’.

    Our present public choice method instead generally requires no explicit goals or rationales, let alone cogent and legally challengeable ones. Final choice is among pre-fixed options, and is made by polarizing and adversarial (and free-to-be-whimsical) voting (whether the vote is by a single officer, a small council, a large assembly, or a mass electorate). Arguably the worst case is a mass vote, because then all sides – polarized already – strive at great cost to mobilize the most marginal and uncomprehending votes by those who have least stakes in the choice; and moreover in that situation an individual voter has the least effective power – typically zero.

    My original comment was prompted by several years work – nearly done – on a long essay. The essay comprises a manifesto (from my philosophical side), some quantitative analysis (from my science and math side) and systematic survey of some background. I hope soon to post it (at last).

    The essay, in turn, is the result of what I’ve been forced to think about during recent years on account of what activists have to contend with on the local level here in Long Beach. The setup utterly belies the idea of strong local democracy and reasoned decision as the foundations of a healthy political system. Here, under our antiquated muni charter, all legislative and exec power is vested in 9 poohbah council members, a mayor and a manager. The 10 electeds are in each for a 4-year term. Within that time, they hold all political power, exercise it responsibly or half-assedly or not at all, according to their whims and corruptions, and the remaining half million residents (including 200,000 capable citizens who have registered to vote) effectively have none.

    If you’ve read all this – THANK YOU! – Joe

  2. MyLeftMind says

    The idea of the people having more control over our government is very appealing. But with the recent passage of Proposition 8 in California, it’s clear we need to limit the ability of the majority to vote away the rights of a minority.

  3. ProgressiveMews says

    Yes, and no.

    Perhaps we need more reps for more people, better representation. However, this idea presented is just as vague as the one it criticizes!

    The closest concept to what I believe is being suggested here is this:
    And yet, I think the NI4D is a bit better because it is not only oversight, but also grants the citizenry lawmaking power too.

    Otherwise, if we are going to work with the system we already have, I think publicly funded campaigns and Instant Run-off Voting are the actual keys to a real democracy. Enable citizens of all financial status to run for office, as our Founding Fathers intended. Plus, open the door for third parties to truly become viable.

  4. says

    I think the future of government is inevitably headed into more of a distributed democracy rather than the representative one we have now.

    Given a choice most voters would prefer a candidate that would vote the way they would, and with today’s communication tech (with security perfected through ecommerce tech) it is a trivial task for a elected official to ask his constituents to vote on issues on a daily basis. In this new world the elected official’s task would be to find information to help his constituents make an informed decision, and then pass the results of their votes along in his vote.
    Any deception on his part would mean immediate replacement.

    Once one elected official commits to doing this, any official who does not would be at a disadvantage at election time.

    Because of time and interest constraints of course not every constituent is going to vote on every issue, but the issues that are of most interest to them would be the ones they would concern themselves with. For example, I am pretty well informed and interested in Energy Policy and Education and Military issues, so I would sign up for alerts for whenever those issues are being voted on so I could cast my vote. On the other hand I don’t know much about banking, so I would let other folks with that interest (and expertize) watch over that subject.

    If there is an issue that I was not interested in, but some decision that was made disturbed me, I would add that to my list of alerts so I could participate in future votes on the subject.
    This idea naturally extends beyond merely voting to proposing subjects to be voted on.

    A nice little film that explores this in some depth is US NOW. You can see it here:

    Of course if corporations have free rein to spend whatever they want, the airways and cable will be flooded with disinformation to cause votes for their interests.

    this makes it clear that whatever the method of our future government, we need to strip non human entities of their rights to interfere in elections.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *