Reform Is another Way to Say “I’m Sorry”, but it is not Change
Ross Perot, a multi-billionaire who ran for president as an independent in 1992 became a bit of a folk hero with his Southern twang, high pitched voice and “simple” way of explaining what was wrong with the American system of government and how he would “lift up the hood and fix it.” Part of his political credo was that even the few good folks who got elected to Congress got corrupted once they got there because “the system” itself was corrupt. We noted pretty much the same view from the book The Ruling Class, also from a conservative point of view in Chapter 11. “The system in Washington is the problem – not the people we send there.” (Perot 1992, 119)
One of the Least Democratic Nations in the
Modern Industrialized World
Yes, that’s the same “system” invented by the “Founding Fathers.” It’s still chugging along, fouling the political atmosphere of America and the rest of the world, making it impossible for ordinary Americans to get to where they want. Many years ago, Becker compared America’s present system of governance to like having an old clunker of a car that regularly breaks down on you. You replace a spark plug here, and a tire there, an alternator here, a fuel pump there, and it keeps on huffing and puffing along until it strands you again. (Becker 1976, pp. 423-25) That analogy holds as true today at it did in 1976. Nothing has changed except more parts are wearing out. President Obama’s “Cash for Clunkers” program may have sold a few new cars, but it didn’t do a thing for America’s ancient political system.
This somewhat helps account for the phenomenon that Americans are arguably the least involved citizens in Western democracies. The American voting turnout, percentage-wise, is much less than a majority of eligible citizens, since a large minority of eligibles never even take the time or trouble to register. In presidential elections, voting turnout among those registered voters has been a bit more than half for the past half century or so
In Congressional elections, about 38% of potential American voters bother to cast a ballot. In state elections of all major officials, it’s about 1/3, and at local elections, including for mayor, the turnout rate of registered is in the 20% range. These are ballpark figures, but give or take a tweak or two, it is obviously nothing to brag about. This is just one other reason why we claim America is about the least democratic nation in the industrialized…and industrializing world. Let’s compare.
In the 2004 and 2008 presidential and other elections, the turnout of registered voters was higher than in 1996 and 2000. But despite growing voter registration (about 75 percent in 1996 and 2000), the actual turnout at the polling places has not greatly improved. After having varied between 50 and 60 percent since 1968 (and dropping beneath 50 percent in 1996), the much ballyhood “huge” voter turnout in 2008 was somewhere around 60 percent, barely coming out of a four decades long slump…this despite the clever internet campaign of Barack Obama and his drawing record black American voters to the polls. Still, among 37 democracies around the world, from 1960 to 1995, the United States ranked 35th in percentage of eligible voters who turned out for elections…although comparative data show that voter turnout in just about all of the so-called “representative democracies” is in a pretty steady decline.
So why is this so, particularly in the U.S.A., the self-declared “leader of the free world”? During every presidential election year, we hear a chorus of urging and cajoling voters to vote from the establishment itself. They blare Souza marches, Old Glory is waved and celebrities and governmental leaders all cheer citizens on to get themselves to the polling stations. Americans are reminded time and time again that throughout history people died fighting for this right. Americans are scolded ad nauseum that voting’s an important civic duty one should not shirk. But the American people still shy away from voting in droves. In American political science, we dub these folks: “alienated voters.”
All kinds of data are collected and analyzed every which way, and it is clear that certain demographic groups rarely vote and others vote at a high percentage of their numbers in the nation. This kind of data are used strategically by political consultants, i.e., to mobilize voters most likely to vote for their candidate(s). But the truth of the matter is that most people who don’t vote do so quite rationally: They know it doesn’t really matter what they think, say or do, as to what the government actually does or doesn’t do. So why should they stand in a long line to pull a lever when they get no cheese? Deep down they know the U.S. is not democratic. They just keep being told it is, but it goes in one ear and out the other.
Reform for the Sake of Reform:
Citizen Perot and the “Contract with America”
Perot’s public complaints about this system were exactly the same as ones we’ve discussed in earlier chapters and they fell upon many receptive American ears. Thus, he garnered 19% (the most for a third party candidate since Teddy Roosevelt in 1912) of the presidential vote in 1992 and cost President Bush I re-election to the presidency. Perot became so popular because he presented a long list of what he wanted to “fix” in American government, as though he was going to be a good automobile mechanic.
That’s a reasonable analogy, This kind of “repair” work on the “broken” machine is generally referred to as “ political reform”, just as the Populists, Progressives, The New Deal, and this latest crop of Republicans believed that they could change the system and make it work better for the American people. At least that’s what they said they believed.
The truth is, as we’ve tried to make clear throughout this book, that anyone who tries to become or becomes a member of this system (whether as executive, legislator or administrator) – and whose platform was based on a promise to “reform” it, actually is trying to keep its fundamental structure intact. In other words, almost always, they like the “elected oligarchy” just as it is and want to keep it that way by convincing the American public that the parts they replace, or the new doo-dads they add to it – will now make it work much better.—but for whom?
We’d like the viewer to watch the following video from a website known as “www.matrixrebellion.com,” which we think will remind the reader of what we said in Chapter 7 about the political spectrum. We do not agree totally with this video, but it is close enough to our thinking and well enough produced to help us make our point visually. The video concludes with the question all citizens of all “representative democracies” or “republics” must ask themselves: We know we don’t want dictatorships or anarchy, so which do we really want: an oligarchy or a republic? We just ask the reader to keep in mind that there are two kinds of “republics,” which this video does not discuss. As we’ve pointed out, the American signers of the U.S. Constitution were for the Platonic kind, an oligarchy. They did not want any serious synthesis of oligarchy and democracy, the Aristotelian brand of “republic.” THAT is the real question that we will address in this chapter. How do we move from the original Platonic Republic to Aristotle’s version that empowers the people directly to determine the direction of their polity?
So, as we believe we have amply demonstrated in earlier chapters, if you look at the whole sweep of U.S. history, with all the swapping and changing and adding of new parts to the system the Founding Fathers originally established, what big difference do you see from 1789 to 2010…221 years later? The same ruling oligarchy rules. Congress is still comprised mainly of rich white men whose interests are global in nature. The people of Vermont are as far from being empowered in the central, federal government today as they were when the first Congress convened in New York City.
The fact that a broader segment of the citizenry (women, blacks, people without property, etc.) can now elect one or another “faction” of this oligarchy simply means that more people are free to vote for various cliques in the ruling class. The outcome of this system, even today, looks like the vast majority of Americans are struggling to survive economically – to make ends meet and/or avoid foreclosures on their homes, much like they were in 1787…when actual citizen rebellions erupted.
The biggest trick in the American oligarchy’s vial of political bromides is to pour out a few “reforms” that are touted to make a big difference. We call them either “regressive” or “conventional” – because they really keep the same system in place and generate much the same, if not even sometimes, worse results for the vast majority of American citizens. Not convinced? OK, let’s take a look at the most recent set of “reforms” offered by the “conservative” Republican wing of the political spectrum from 1992-2006.
Candidate Perot (though running as the candidate of the short-lived Reform Party) had a number of ways he proposed to reform the American political system at the national level. By way of example:
* Prohibiting former U.S. Congressmen to be paid by foreign governments to use their knowledge, expertise and contacts among Congressmen they knew to arrange favorable deals for these foreign interests. This was not a total ban. It just meant they had to wait a year or so before they could become foreign agents. He called this “economic treason” on their part. He also considered NAFTA to be a bit treasonous as well, predicting it would produce a “loud, sucking sound” of American jobs going to Mexico. That was in the 1990s. He didn’t realize then that the world’s largest American job vacuum cleaner was going to be China.
* The U.S. government needed to have a “balanced budget” each year, just like U.S. states require in their constitutions. It would take a constitutional amendment to force the Congress and the President to maintain a balanced budget every year…but it would stop them from running up impossible debts for future generations of Americans to pay off.
* There must be a limit on how many terms any Congressmen could serve so that no one could make it a lifetime career as many Representatives and Senators have done throughout American history. He believed, as do many Americans, that without term limits, the Congress becomes an insider club and that term limits (say, no more than 2, 3, or 4 terms in office) would put a lot of “new blood” into power, which was all to the good. Several states passed such laws (mostly by citizens’ initiatives) curtailing the number of years Representatives from their states could stay in Washington, D.C. Some repealed them later and several were declared unconstitutional by their state courts.
* Perot also favored the abolition of the Electoral College, which would allow Americans to vote directly for the president of the United States and which would eliminate the possibility of someone (like George W. Bush) becoming president even though another candidate (like Al Gore) got more votes than he did. In other words, the candidate who got the most popular votes nationally becomes president, not the candidate who wins the most electoral votes. (This, too, could only be achieved via a Constitutional amendment.)
Just about all of the changes Perot suggested have been supported by many American political scientists and millions of citizens who are Democrats, Republicans or independents for many years now. Moreover, much of what he said about the problems America faced in 1992 have only gotten worse by 2010. Eight years of Clinton, plus eight years of Bush II, plus one year or so of Obama…and what’s changed? Listen to a 1992 CNN Report about Perot’s campaign at that time:
“Perot on CNN ? 1992”
So, even if you threw in the extra gasoline tax, it would still be nothing more than a bundle of incremental change in how the already established political system performs. That’s why it’s called re-form. Even if they were all adopted at the same time, the system would maintain the same oligarchic super-structure and would reproduce the same relationship between the ruling class and the rest of America. There is no real empowerment of the citizenry in any of them, perhaps with the tiny exception of removing the Electoral College (which remains in full effect to this very day). At least this “change” would allow the democratic ideology of “one person, one vote” to effectively select which oligarch becomes the CEO of the American national government and not let someone with fewer votes of the people ascend to the throne room of the “Elected Oligarchy.”
A few years later, another conservative figure, Republican Congressman Newt Gingrich from Georgia, helped author a series of proposed changes to the American system of governance that many Republican candidates for Congress agreed to pass as laws once they took office in Congress. This was called “The Contract with America.” They convinced a majority of the American voting electorate that these would change the political culture in Washington, D.C. and make things much better for the American public. Here are some of the more prominent provisos of this “contract.”
* Term limits for Congressional chairman and the Speaker of the House.
* Congressional staffs and special favors to Congressmen would be cut.
* A large accounting firm would audit the U.S. House’s finances.
* The U.S. budget would be balanced.
* The president would be allowed a “line item veto” for the U.S. budget.
* Taxes would be cut.
* Military expenditures would increase.
* All laws that apply to the rest of America would apply to Congress.
* All Congressional hearings must be open to the public.
* Congress would need a 3/5 vote to pass any tax increase.
Okay, let’s assume all of these “reforms” were implemented by a Republican controlled Congress from 1994-2006, with a Republican president in power from 2000-2006. What have been the cumulative result of these “reforms” in 2010?
Well, it should be agonizingly obvious that some of these promises were completely inconsistent. As we believe we showed pretty convincingly in Chapter 13, the central “Reaganomics” idea of cutting taxes and increasing military spending (and foreign adventurism and expansionism) has not had the predicted result of balancing the budget and eliminating deficit spending. In fact, it has had the precisely opposite effect of creating this unprecedented-in-the-history-of-the-world U.S. national debt…which is now well over $11 Trillion (remember Ross Perot’s chart in 1992 that showed it at $4 Trillion? Thanks also to Wikipedia for the above photo taken of the “National Debt Clock” on September 15, 2009). Ironically, this “clock”, which went up in New York City in 1989, as NBC Nightly News recently noted in the video below, had to be changed to add a 14th digit to the debt (tens of trillions) – depth of debt recently reached.
“U.S. National Debt Grows Too Large For National Debt Clock”
So, despite all the promises of balanced budgets and term limits and raising and lowering of taxes, this unsustainable and disastrous national debt is now predicted to climb substantially, more than $1 Trillion per year for at least a significant part of President Obama’s first years in office. The absolutely predictable devastating future effects on this country of this huge pile of poisonous financial sludge are being totally ignored by the American Corporate Oligarchy as it tries to spend and/or borrow its way out of the present economic chaos
Furthermore, are all Congressional hearings now public? And if they were, who would care? Has Congress been audited? If so, who knows and who cares? Is the House Speaker’s term limited? Who cares? What difference would it make? As Ronald Reagan asked the American people when he ran for president the first time in 1980: “Are your lives better today than they were in 1976?” We would like to ask America today: “Do you think America in 2009 is in better shape than it was in 1976?” We think that most Americans who were alive then and can remember what it was like would say “No way.” And that was when “The Cold War” was still in progress…and America was under the alleged threat of a Soviet nuclear attack.
Thanks to whichever of these reforms may or may not have been passed into law by this very same ruling elite, America in 2010 is slogging through what even every American economist and economic expert continues to call “the worst economic disaster since the Great Depression.” In addition, thanks to whatever “change” these “reforms” have occasioned, America is now bogged down in at least two unwinnable foreign military escapades and has lost millions and millions American jobs to Latin American and Asian countries. The only Americans who can enthusiastically say “Yes” to this Reaganesque question are the top 1 or 2%…who became VERY RICH during that period of time. If you’re surprised, you haven’t been reading this book.
So, what about President Obama and what he has promised, that is: “Change.” The $1 Quadrillion Dollar Question is: What kind of change? Are they more “reforms of government?” We don’t remember him mentioning even one with any specificity. President Obama has said that he will “redeploy” troops in the Middle East and Central Asia. That’s a foreign policy – not a systemic-reform – and actually a continuation of the aggressive military policy initiated by George W. Bush in the Middle East and Central Asia. He promised in 2008 that he would raise taxes on “the rich”, meaning those who were earning over $250,000 a year. But he reneged on that one even before his inauguration and it, too, is not a “reform” of the system, but a tax policy. He is obviously reorganizing and increasing funding of various governmental agencies to stimulate and regulate the economy far more vigorously than under Republican governance. But this is only a retrograde “back to the future,” which might be termed The New Deal Lite.
None of the above even reaches the relatively high status of “governmental reform”. It is just a substitution of some members of the ruling class for others as to who has their hands on the steering wheels of the power train. The oligarchs in the Obama Administration believe in ever more governmental spending and debt (much like their Republican predecessors), and any variations in foreign policy seem more stylistic than substantive, e.g., Obama’s “surge” of 30,000 troops to Afghanistan had a vaporous “time line” where Bush’s surge of 30,000 in Iraq did not have any at the time. What is clear, however, is that the position and strength of the military-industrial complex and the “permanent war economy” on American government and the political economy will remain mostly untouched. In fact, the entire system of governance remains exactly the same…with the possible exception of giving even more power to the banking class via The Fed to regulate more of the financial sector. President Obama acts and speaks differently within it, but the old banking and imperial oligarchy remains pretty much intact. Here is an Associated Press video demonstrating the kind of change we can expect from President Obama in the future.
“AP: Obama Appoints Bernanke for Second Fed Term”
Dr. Ron Paul, who we’ve mentioned before as being a genuine Republican fiscal conservative (actually a Libertarian), put up this statement on YouTube presenting his view, one we share, that this shows that the Obama Administration is adhering to past banker oligarchy rule of America’s economy. Paul has been pushing for a system reform, i.e., Congress assuming the power to conduct actual audits of The Fed so that it would become more transparent to the public. We have not heard the Obama Administration agreeing with this, thus we doubt this will occur and even if it did, we doubt it would be more than just another reform that did little to change the system or its outcomes.
“Texas Straight Talk: Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex), August 31, 2009”
It isn’t just extreme right wing Republicans who see this “no change” policy of President Obama as tilting towards Wall Street and banker bailouts via the reappointment of Mr. Bernanke. Listen to one of the most “liberal” U.S. Senators, Bernie Sanders of Vermont (who used to call himself a “Socialist”) say almost exactly the same thing about this move by Obama. This is very important to remember, not only about this appointment, but how the American right and left have a lot in common about the way they see the system stacked against the American people.
“Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT) Attacks Bernanke’s Reappointment”
Some Reforms That Would Actually Improve Voter Turnout and Broaden the Composition of the Oligarchy
As we’ve discussed before, one of the major ways to “reform” the “representative” political system in America that is used time and time again, to little avail, has been to change the way political campaigns for office are financed. As we saw back in the early 20th century, several laws were passed to forbid corporations from injecting their tremendous financial resources into the “democratic process”. All these attempts were dismal flops.
Then, after all the Watergate uproar, as we’ve mentioned earlier, new campaign finance laws were passed in 1974…and others have followed since then…but as far as we can determine, at the national level, none of these “reforms” have worked at all. Plus, there are always loopholes (remember that the lawyer class is drafting these reform laws). There are always ingenious ways around them that the political parties, political organizations, and politicians manage to locate. It seems to have been another American “war” (like the “war on drugs” or the “war on terror”) that can never be won.
“Clean Election Laws”
Actually, in recent years, there has been a movement at the state level to change the way that elections are financed that seems to be a “reform” that actually has teeth and can bite. It is called “The Clean Election Law” and it seems to be a really a healthy way to actually restructure the campaign financing system by which to (a) improve the quality and breadth of the political discussion during campaigns and (b) broaden the demographics of the kind of people who actually get elected to office. In addition, the way this new system is set up, the people who are elected using this method, are, believe it or not, not beholden to any powerful or well-heeled special interests.
Four states have adopted the Clean Election Laws up to now. Maine’s legislation (passed in a 1996 referendum and adopted in 2000) is perhaps the strictest and most successful. Basically, Maine allows any citizen who wants to run for the state House of Representatives to solicit $5 contributions from a certain small number of “supporters.” If they get 50 such donors ($250), they qualify for a substantial amount of state money to fund their campaign. Hey, even we could do that!
If someone wants to run for the Maine Senate, s/he must get at least 150 Mainers to donate $5 to their campaign. So, if this person raises all of $750 through such small gifts, she or he becomes eligible for state funding for his or her campaign. Hey, even we could do that! If several ordinary citizens want to run for Governor, they must obtain 2,500 donations of $5 ($12,500) to earn state funding for their campaign. The only catch: They cannot accept any private money whatsoever for their campaign, and they must limit the amount they spend to what they receive from the state.
Think about what the Maine law accomplishes. This is the only way to have elections in which the rich or big organizations cannot exert disproportionate influence on who runs for offices and on the agenda of the candidates. Oh yeah, you say, but what if a candidate who runs for an office using only donations from rich people and corporations raises much more than the state-funded, “Clean Election” candidates? The rich or gigantic special interests can outspend them all they want.
Well, if that occurs, the state then supplements the publicly-funded candidate(s) campaign coffers by matching each extra dollar the privately funded candidate raised with additional dollars of state support. This prevents the publicly-funded candidate(s) from being grossly outspent by the upper class candidates or those in tow to special interests. And this is precisely why successful “Clean Election” candidates are free of “strings”. It also doesn’t pay for the candidates funded with private sources to keep raising the ante, since the state will meet that bet. As a result, the costs of elections shouldn’t keep on escalating to dizzying heights.
One of the strengths of Maine’s election system is that the courts, thus far, have upheld public funding as being constitutional and in no way “limiting” the free speech of private campaign contributors (remember Buckley v. Valeo?). Privately-funded candidates can raise as much money as they want – no limits. Anyone who opts to receive only public funds does so voluntarily. So there is no “violation” of free speech. The public and its money can talk as loudly as rich contributors and their money, that’s all. Very refreshing. However, all is not clear sailing on this matter, given the highly oligarchic nature of the courts, as we’ve been emphasizing. So, a federal judge held a new Connecticut Clean Election Law as being unconstitutional in 2009—saying it discriminated against third parties—but Connecticut officials are appealing that decision. Good luck.
So far, a substantial majority of people in Maine seem very comfortable with public funding – as they should. After all, according to an analysis done by the New Rules Project (www.newrules.org/gov/cleanME.html) (a) there has been a great increase in the number of contested elections; (b) over 50 percent of the “clean election” candidates won races against candidates funded by private sources; and (c) roughly half of the Maine Senate has been elected via the use of public funds.
Similarly, a study by the ultra-conservative Hoover Institution at Stanford University found that in Arizona, which has a similar type of “Clean Election” system in place,…in 2002…39 of Arizona’s elected candidates were “clean”: 22 Republicans and 17 Democrats. The state’s voters also elected the first governor with no financial ties to special interests, Democrat Janet Napolitano (who is now the Director of Homeland Security in the Obama Administration). Moreover, and this is quite significant, voter turnout went up 10 percent.
This later study also found in analyzing subsequent elections in Maine, that the number of elected legislators there had grown to three quarters of the state Senate and half of the state House who had received public funding.” (www.campaignfinancesite.org). This is why we would classify this kind of reform, “progressive,” since even though it does not give the citizenry a power to vote for law (democracy), it has such a rich variety of people running for office who have equal power to project their widely contrasting views, that it engages a much larger segment of the voting public and stretches the content of the debate into an amorphous blob instead of within an elite-defined box.
Naturally, traditional oligarchic elites don’t take kindly to these laws and are fighting back politically, as well as through the courts. So, when a group of citizens formed “Clean Elections for Alaska” and had such put on the ballot, there was a heavy attack on it as being “state funded” elections, making it sound a tad socialistic. Thus, in the summer of 2008, the proposed law got a thumbs down from the voters of Alaska by a resounding 64-36 percent vote. A similar proposal was even more roundly defeated in California a few years prior to that, but the state legislature, with the consent and help of Governor Schwarzenegger, has put it back on the ballot for Californians to vote on in 2010. And who do you think is spearheading this drive for the new “Clean Election Law” in California? The California Nurses Association. Check it out on this PBS video.
“Votes For Sale – PBS 2009”
Voting By Mail (The Oregon Method) and by the Internet
As we observed earlier, one of the main symptoms of a continuing erosion of the legitimacy of what is called “representative democracy” is that the number of Americans who decide to vote for electoral candidates continues to hover at astonishingly low levels. And the United States has about the lowest percentages of voters among its citizens compared to just about all other “representative democracies” in the industrialized world.
Part of the reason for this is that this is fine with elected officials and candidates for public offices in America, despite their disclaimers to the contrary. After all, the fewer the voters, the fewer citizens they have to convince to vote for them. So, the fact that America almost stands alone in only holding elections on a single day, and choosing that day right smack in the middle of the work week, is one reason why so few citizens vote. After all, if several days were allowed for the vote…and the vote took place on the weekend (as is common throughout Europe)…it would be much easier on the working class to wait in long lines, would it not? People who toil during normal working hours find it difficult and/or inconvenient to take off from work or to vote early in the morning or late in the day after a full day’s heavy lifting or paper sifting.
Thus, if American political leaders and/or government officials really wanted a hefty turnout, they could schedule elections on weekends, couldn’t they? Or they could make it easier on the voter to participate in other ways as well. So, the State of Oregon, again only through a truly democratic citizens initiative, has devised and executed a system of voting by mail that lasts for two weeks for all elected officials.
What follows is a short video produced by a non-profit organization called “Why Tuesday”, at www.whytuesday.org It was shot near election day 2008…and it makes the point how easy and effective the Oregon system is, not only because of the time element, but thanks to the first class security provided by the U.S. Mail.
“Why Vote by Mail?”
Priscilla L. Southwell, a political scientist at the University of Oregon, conducted a public opinion poll in 2003 that verified the effectiveness of this method of polling. The Secretary of State’s office in Oregon had long stated that this method had greatly increased the voter turnout and was much less expensive. Southwell’s study confirms this.
Oregon’s Secretary of State, Bill Bradbury, wrote an article in the Washington Post on New Year’s Day 2005 extolling the many virtues of this method of voting and explaining how every single argument against it (it would suppress voting; it would increase fraud; it would deny citizens the “communal experience” of voting in polling centers) was dead wrong. In his own words: “The answer to the nation’s voting anxiety is not a national standard that imposes new rules on an outdated system of polling places. The answer is a low-tech, low-cost, reliable and convenient system that makes it easier to vote and easier to count votes. The answer is vote-by-mail.” (Bradbury 2005)
Want further proof that the ruling elite in America do not want to get more voters to the polls? No other state has adopted this method. No national political leader or official has ever proposed it as an amendment to the U.S. Constitution for national offices. No one in the mass media ever mentions it. It is true that many states have allowed for much easier access to absentee voting before election day and even for early voting, so as to take the pressure off the poll workers on election day. Both national political parties encouraged these tactics for the 2008 presidential election in order to “bank” votes before Election Tuesday, and this helps explain why the turnout of eligible voters was as large as it was in November 2008. But those citizens had to brave those very long lines – as seen in the photo above – instead of having the convenience of the U.S. Postal Service, right at their mailbox – shown immediately above.
As for voting by the Internet, there have been several experiments that have been successful in the United States and in other countries where these methods have proved to work well by increasing turnout and being extremely rapid. Various techniques have been used to ensure that when the Internet is one of the methods to vote being used in an election, that computers have been made easily available to the public in neighborhoods where few computers are owned privately. For example, the Democratic Party of Arizona set up computer/internet stations in poor black and Hispanic neighborhoods during its state primary in the late 1990s that were staffed by computer whizzes who helped teach the voters how to vote on the equipment. The turnout for that primary multiplied six fold.
However, as the presidential elections of 2000 and 2004 have warned, there is far too much leeway for electronic fraud, particularly when the electronic voting systems are privately developed and owned, with closed proprietary codes, and used in public polling stations as the exclusive method of voting. Thus, there needs to be a public transparency for any such programming – “open source codes” are a must – which is equally monitored by all the parties to election before, during and after the voting. As a back-up system, there should also be what some call “a paper trail” so that if there are doubts as to the count in any or many districts, independent written ballots will be available for verification.
It seems strange to us that the American banking system, which relies so heavily on the internet for deposits, withdrawals, and much more complex financial transactions, can be secure enough to trust. Why this cannot be done with elections remains a mystery. Are people more likely to use the internet to commit voter fraud or to steal money? Our guess is that pilfering money would trump political mischief.
If increasing voter turnout among the young is desirable, and all officials say that it is a priority of theirs, then how come no one seriously proposes and pushes the internet for voting? We would think that a system of User IDs and Passwords, with double checking of some other private information, monitoring by electoral commissions, political parties, nonprofit watchdog organizations, and news media before, during, and after the voting would create a difficult to penetrate firewall against voter fraud. . This should provide a fairly failsafe and easy way to vote. It would be a “reform” that would pay some citizen involvement dividends in the “representative” system… particularly if the candidates were “Clean Election” ones.
But you do not hear a single major politician or mass media organization in the United States ever bringing any of this to the public’s attention and advocating any of it as methods of making the U.S.A. one of the leading “representative democracies” in the world, much less even a modicum more democratic.
So has it been done successfully anywhere? Yup. Take a peek at the following video of an incredibly successful deployment of a true Internet Voting System in a small town in England named Rushmoor in 2007. It seems simple enough with a few common sensical rules and the results made it obvious that it is easily duplicatable if government really wanted to get more people involved in elections. This system gave people 8 days. You had to register and get ID and password info. And the turnout of registered Internet voters doubled the turnout of polling place voters.
“Internet Voting Success at Rushmoor 2007”
We could go on and on about how to improve “representative democracy,” but in all candor, we do not think any of the above do much for authentic democracy, any more than we think any of the other “reforms” (except dumping The Electoral College in a landfill) would help in direct citizen empowerment. We also are positive that America’s elected officialdom, at this point in American history, do not entertain more than the slightest inclination to alter the present system one wee bit. They operate freely within it and presently hope that they can excavate America out of its present and future holes at home and abroad, economically and politically. We doubt that. If “reform” in policy and structure is the name of the game, the score will remain the same. Oligarchy wins, hands down.
Democratic Transformation of “Representative” Hierarchical Governance: The Global Direct Democracy Movement
So, what can be done? Just as in the previous chapter, where we pointed out that we doubt that the American economy can or will be transformed by government, it is already transforming itself at the grassroots level. Various new ways of decentralizing the system via ESOPs, “quality circles”, co-ops, urban agriculture, local methods of bartering and “currency” are budding as the centralized system of the American Corporate Oligarchy and its buddy The Global Corporate Oligarchy continue to impoverish America and threaten “domestic tranquility” and “the general welfare.”
Let’s take a look at the following video presented by The McAlnany Financial Company. Don McAlnany is described in Wikipedia as an “American Christian Conservative political and economic commentator.” While there may be some quibbling about his exact numbers, the general trends in the value of American dollar up to this very moment are well within the ballpark of what many “mainstream” American and global investment counselors and media outlets are reporting as well. This video simply underscores and emphasizes what we’ve been saying all along. This is THE MAJOR CRISIS IN AMERICA TODAY AND CONTINUES—albeit on an unsteady course.
“The Ultimate American Dollar Collapse”
There are not enough increasingly valueless U.S. paper dollars in the U.S. Treasury to buy America out of its present economic quagmire. The Obama expenditures on rebuilding domestic infrastructure and subsidizing failing industries may help out some, and ease the pain of America’s present economic decline in the short term, at best.
However, it is going to be common ingenuity, determination and grit of the American people working together to develop a new economy and a new economic model of American capitalism. Also, there needs to be a public awareness and movement to send most of the obese global corporations back where they belong, under the tight control of the state governments that charter them – or new federal incorporation laws that legally force the American national and global corporations back to working in the American public interest in exchange for their limited liability.
We don’t believe that this economic transformation will be facilitated much by the present ruling class through their control of the American “un-representative democracy.” Little of the big government trillions to be spent in the next few years will go to the small farmers, small entrepreneurs, craftspeople, artists, and garage inventors who will be those who truly reinvigorate and restore America’s productive and survival capacity in the Post-Imperial global economy.
We do believe that this eventual economic transformation will most expeditiously be facilitated instead by the simultaneous transformation of the political system that is presently under way – but hidden from plain view by the mass media and the well established and insulated politician class.
A democratic transformation is happening now? You bet. It is a global phenomenon, and Americans have been and are well placed in inventing and practicing many old, traditional types as well as innovating new forms of political democracy as well. There’s a lot of real democracy in this world, as well as in America, and it is growing by leaps and bounds. It may have been kept as a well guarded secret to the average reader, but read on and check it out for yourself.
Caveat: as we describe the many direct and positive democratic developments in the U.S.A. and the rest of the world, and lead the reader to some of them via the Internet, we need to be perfectly clear. It is impossible for any nation state or large political unit (like a big city, province, region or country) to be exclusively a democracy. The people need to be economically productive, raise families, interact socially, nourish their spirituality, and in general “have a life.”
Thus, some form of institutionalized government that genuinely “represents” the many different values and interests of the general American public must promulgate most laws and rules, interpret them and administer them. That’s the job of a people’s government. It must represent the people’s will and public interest accurately and it must be completely transparent to the people and be held accountable for its mistakes and/or its criminal or unconstitutional behaviors. We believe we have made an extremely airtight case that such is far from the truth about American government—at every level–today
The question, then, is how to make this “representative” government actually representative of the public will and interests of the people instead of a façade for the rule by an oligarchy, which is pretty much the truth everywhere in the world today to one degree or another (Switzerland being possibly the lone exception to the rule—which we’ll explicate more fully below). This is at the root of so many of the crushing problems facing the entire human population today. The good news is that there are plenty of ways to do this that really work well! That is why we put them into the category of being “transformational.”
None of them, however, will do the job entirely by itself. What we are about to present will be a menu of democratic practices and projects worldwide that will give the reader a fair sampling of what is actually going on, not as any self-conscious, worldwide grassroots “movement” yet, but that are parts of an “emerging” network that is quickly connecting nodes. Each can serve individually, or in concert with others, as methods to democratize any so-called “representative” system in operation today at any level of government or type of governance (in families, companies, schools, whatever). If you are looking for workable solutions that are real democracy, read on.
Citizen Lawmaking at the National Level:
Initiative, Referenda and Recall – or I R + R
Back in 1976, at the tail end of The Cultural Revolution, Becker reiterated the value of the ancient Athenian practice and ideal of “true” or “pure” democracy. Placing some important lawmaking power into the hands of citizens, particularly at the national level, will be an important piece of the democratic political transformation needed in the United States today and in the near future. (Becker 1976)
One of the main advantages of what is redundantly called “direct democracy” is the way it limits the influence of organized special-interest groups. (Knutsen, 2003) Their extensive resources, permanent proximity to decision-makers, and narrow focus enable them to exert political influence way out of proportion to the number of people whose interests they promote. But when citizens make decisions themselves, their interests – the interests of the public as a whole – are accorded a much closer proximity of the weight to which they’re entitled if the system is to be considered “democratic.”. Because a much larger segment of the population makes the decision, a larger number and broader range of individual interests get taken into account, from the very conservative to the very liberal…or occasionally even radical.
Usually, when such wide and diverse interests have to be considered, the advantages of a proposal have to greatly outweigh its disadvantages in order for it to be approved. In contrast, as we’ve emphasized repeatedly in this book, when well organized, lavishly funded interest groups are able to influence officials’ decisions, it’s a lot more likely that a relatively small group will benefit to the disadvantage of everyone else. So, for example, subsidies to sugar producers
or corporate agribusinesses might result in big profits to them, while the public as a whole pays a higher price for sugar and other foods than it would in the absence of politically-extracted subsidies. This is exactly what Adam Smith warned us against. Such subsidies would probably get a huge thumbs down in a public referendum.
Earlier in this book, we discussed the putrid state of the American health care system and how Big Pharma, the gigantic health care insurance companies, and HMOs were all profiting immensely at the expense of the general public’s health and welfare—of course with the aid of Big Corporate Media which makes huge profits off of the “medical-industrial complex” TV ads and “infomercials.” We piled data upon data and showed how American public opinion and even that of most American physicians favored a national Medicare-for-all, or a “single payer system,” much like those in wide and effective use throughout the industrialized world.
If there were to be a national referendum on this issue in the United States, with a truly balanced presentation of fact and opinion, such a universal health care system, IOHO, would prevail by a large supermajority. But President Obama decided to dump this issue into the lap of the U.S. Congress. And look what has emerged: A Healthcare Bigfoot!. The House version of a “reform package” that was sent to the Senate in November 2009 is over 2,000 pages long!!! No wonder that the American public is mighty suspicious of its true intent and its future costs to them.
Here’s how the Great American Health Care Debate appeared to comedian Stephen Colbert, in the summer of 2009. Great comedy bares the absurdity of real life. This proposed law manufactured by Congress, with its long-winded promises, infinite number of small print provisos and exceptions, and the “debate” it engendered, is a comedy unto itself. Colbert only has to reveal it to get the laughs it so well deserves. The present oligarchic system will not produce a change in a system that benefits itself so richly.
“’Commonsense Health Care Reform Infomercial’: Stephen Colbert, June 25, 2009”
All democratic transformations must exhibit certain characteristics. First, the general public must acquire more of a direct say in what problems should be addressed, in what order, and in what manner. In other words, the public must have a direct say in setting the government’s agenda and priorities. Today, in just about all “representative democratic” systems, politicians and the mass media are the ONLY ones who set the public agenda. Worse, they are excessively secretive and deceptive about them, i.e., “hidden agendas” prevail. Once citizens have voted for their “representatives,” they are largely excluded from the process where hidden agendas are passed as laws by secretive governmental processes.
Recalls Are Not Democracy in Action
Take a gander at the following video of a speech by Arnold Schwartzenegger when he took advantage of the quasi-democratic practice of “Recall” in the state of California. A certain number of citizens had signed petitions demanding the revocation of the past election of Governor Gray Davis. The economy in that state had soured badly and there were such grievous problems in the system of raising revenue, providing key services like safety and education, that a number of citizens thought that a quick change in “leadership” would solve their problems. So, a photogenic and famed political “saviour” came forth – scattering promises to right the sinking ship if only he were elected Governor. Just look at all those self-deluded people behind and in front of him cheering his call for the government to be “returned to the people.” They cheered. He said “Hasta la vista, baby” They cheered again. He was elected.
Yes, this brought about a change in California’s budgetary crisis. Things have gotten much worse. Replacing one official with another will never be an answer unto itself. Voting for candidates in today’s political economic and corporate controlled media environment will not bring solutions. It will aggravate the problems—because it is the problem. See for yourselves. Who is setting the agenda here? The people abdicated that crucial democratic role to a Hollywood celebrity.
“Arnold Schwarzenegger Political Lies”
Second, at all levels of government the public must be able to pass or reject laws and other policies legislated by the political elite that usually controls government. There is ample evidence to show that such a “mixed system” of oligarchy and democracy works and works well – exactly as Aristotle predicted. In many countries around the world, citizens are empowered to make some of the most crucial decisions affecting their country’s direction, from its role in world economic affairs to local matters such as where to put stop signs.
Thus, the choice between citizen decision-making and decision-making by elected representatives or chief executives is not “either/or.” In fact, most countries that are considered representative democracies, including the United States, have political systems that contain elements of both (though in the U.S. it is only at the state and local levels).
In general, there are three forms of decision-making in which citizens can take part directly: initiatives, referendums, and the above mentioned recalls. We described the first two at some length in Chapter 7. Recalls do not give citizens the right to set agendas or make laws, they simply allow citizens to speed up elections of candidates, and thus are just a reform and not part of any democratic transformational process.
To our knowledge, the only country in the world that has a constitutional provision for a recall vote of its president is Venezuela. The person responsible for this proviso in Venezuela’s new constitution is its current president, Hugo Chavez. A short time after he was re-elected to his second (and final?) term, enough anti-Chavez citizens signed a petition of recall to have a new vote. The election occurred. Chavez won a resounding victory against the recall and retained his position.
On Citizen Lawmaking: Citizens Initiatives and Referendums
Shortly thereafter, he was responsible for putting another constitutional amendment up to the Venezuelan people as a referendum. Guess what it was? It proposed an unlimited term of office for Venezuela’s president. It was soundly defeated by the people in 2007, including many of his own supporters. Not to be deterred, his supporters in the legislature put up another referendum disbanding any term limits for the president (a constitutional amendment), but this time, in 2009, it passed with 54% favoring no term limits. As we noted above, recall is not a true friend of democracy. It is simply another way for citizens to vote for someone else to run their business. All it really does is to advance the date of a regularly scheduled election, or in this case, change the rules of who can run for election. It is part of the “elected oligarchy” system..
One objection to referendums and citizens’ initiatives – real citizen lawmaking – is that well-funded groups can use the process themselves, bending it to their advantage and to the disadvantage of the public (as though that is not exactly what happens in the “elected oligarchy.”) However, Elisabeth Gerber, who is Director of the Center for Local, State, and Urban Policy at the University of Michigan’s Gerald Ford School of Public Policy, has conducted a study showing that spending a lot of money on trying to persuade the public doesn’t necessarily translate into a lot of influence. (Gerber, 1999) Her study confirms what special interests such as the insurance industry and tobacco companies have learned by defeats at the polls: if citizens don’t like a proposed law, even an expensive, high-profile campaign won’t make them change their minds.
Gerber did find, though, that economic interest groups have had considerable success using direct measures to veto initiatives that others are proposing. Nevertheless, citizen interest groups with broad-based popular support and significant organizational resources have been quite effective in using referendums and initiatives to pass new laws.
In the United States, over the past several decades, there has been an explosion of citizens initiatives in many states (24 allow them) that have shown that the people think a lot differently about a wide spectrum of important issues than does the ruling class which occupies the offices of state governance. Thus, we have seen a spate of laws passed through citizen lawmaking that legislatures never would have passed, including the medicinal use of marijuana, term limits on Congresspersons, limits on raising property taxes, physician assisted suicide, bans on certain hunting practices, you name it.
The data is clear that there is no liberal or conservative bias in the use of citizens initiatives. Some are very “liberal” and some are very “conservative.” That is further proof that the use of citizens initiatives, needlessly called (“direct’) democracy, can pass laws in many directions. It is the democratic process that prevails in every state that uses it, not any particular political or economic ideology.
So, here’s a TV ad in the 2009 Maine Citizens Initiative that was in favor of banning gay marriage. The state legislature had passed a law permitting same sex marriage. This led to a concerted effort, supported by the Catholic Church in Maine, to put a citizens initiative on the ballot. Here is one of the TV ads that urged a repeal of the law thereby not allowing such marriages in Maine. The public voted to repeal the same sex marriage law by a 53-47% majority.
“Marine Ad Against Gay Marriage”
Here’s an example on the so-called liberal side of the spectrum. Michigan citizens managed to get a citizens initiative on the ballot to allow marijuana to be legalized for medical uses, just as a dozen or more other states had done in the past decade or so. This is a TV ad in favor of that. This law was passed by Michigan citizens by an overwhelming 62% of the vote in November 2008.
“Michigan TV Ad 2008: Pro Medical Marijuana”
This explosion of the democratic law making process has made many in the state oligarchies unhappy about the diminution of their monopoly of the lawmaking power. So, there has been both a legislative and judicial counterattack, with many new obstacles put in the way of getting laws on the ballot for citizens to vote up or down. Paul Jacobs, who has worked for the Republican Party and considers himself conservative on most issues, is an outspoken advocate and activist for the citizens initiative process in America. He now runs a nonprofit organization called Citizens in Charge (www.CitizensinCharge.com) and has this video up on YouTube describing the success of the process and the oligarchy’s increasing reaction against its wave of popularity at the state level.
“Initiatives Across America (2009) Paul Jacob”
The liberal side of the American political spectrum has its own advocates for citizens initiatives as well. One of the most well known is the former U.S. Senator from Alaska, Mike Gravel, who was also a Democratic candidate for the presidency in 2008. He is the founder of a nonprofit called National Initiative for Democracy, or NI4D that is pushing to get citizens initiative at the national level in the United States. Here is a short video of Senator Gravel discussing his views on this at The Commonwealth Club in San Francisco in December of 2007. If the reader is interested in learning more about this, the URL of his organization is www.ni4d.org.
“Mike Gravel: We Need a National Initiative in USA (2007)”
Citizens initiatives at the national level? With Switzerland being the only country in the world that has them as a binding part of the lawmaking system (New Zealand has a non-binding variety), it seems like a very long odds bet. However, it remains the key democratic transformational change for the United States in order to make the U.S. a far more democratic country than it has ever been and to once again show the world how a revitalized American democracy can lead to many other transformational changes.
On the other hand, the growth around the world in using referendums at the national level has been increasing at an amazing rate. In just a couple of decades, the number of countries in the world that feature some form of referendum process has doubled. (IRI, 2008) More than half of all nationwide referendums held since the late 18th century have taken place in the last 25 years. So, the national referendum movement – what we showed to be the purest form of “indirect democracy” in Chapter 7, is obviously building up an enormous head of steam and surging ahead.
There is a long list of the countries that have and use them wisely. We would like to discuss some of the more significant ones in recent years to make it real clear to the reader that this is a serious power that “the people” use judiciously and, more and more frequently, are at odds with their own power elites – and even with powerful elements of the Global Corporate Oligarchy who have significant leverage in their own home nations.
A couple of years ago, after lengthy and arduous negotiations among all the delegations to the EU, the EU produced a lengthy and complex EU Constitution that would have created a far more powerful central European government. The EU allowed its member countries to decide how to “ratify” this constitution, and most of the nations in the EU decided to let their national governments, particularly their Parliaments, handle the chore. There was another provision that was also important. All the member nations had to ratify the EU constitution. Any one member nation could blackball it.
One by one, one and all Parliaments fell in line and ratified the document. But two countries, The Netherlands and France, decided to submit the proposed EU Constitution to the people of their lands via a national referendum process. As we have emphasized throughout this book, that’s called “democracy.” So, the people in both those very important nations to the EU, after long and arduous public discourses on the topic, and with their governmental leaders almost unanimously supportive of this new European central government, rejected them by large majorities. Thus, there is no EU Constitution…because empowered citizens said: “NO!”
In another part of the world, South America, as we have noted earlier in this book, there is a social revolution that has changed the political elite in power from one that supported the century old wealthy landed and industrial oligarchy to one that had a more people-oriented agenda. Whether it is called “The Bolivarian Revolution” or “21st Century Socialism” – it is very different from The Soviet or Cuban or North Korean model, and closer to the EU social democratic model. Quite clearly and quite intentionally, it is a polar opposite to that sold to them as the previously mentioned “The Washington Consensus/IMF/World Bank” model.
As these new leaders have won elections and tossed out the old, corrupt aristocracies who held power for scores of years in country after country, they have called “constitutional conventions” or “constitutional assemblies” to draft new constitutions that were designed to redistribute the wealth to the poorer and usually more “Indian” or “native” and lower class segments of the populations, which were always the large majority of the citizenry. It was a “no-brainer”, then, for these leaders to decide to put these new constitutions up for a popular vote via the referendum process, much as was done initially by Chavez in Venezuela.
Of course, the result was pre-ordained. The large bulk of the citizenry, impoverished and disempowered from the time of the Conquistadores, knew they had nothing to lose and turned out in massive numbers to endorse these new regimes. So, to the firmly entrenched elites in those countries, this was proof of the “tyranny of the majority.” The Federalist Founding Fathers of the U.S. Constitution would probably have agreed with them.
But to the general public in these countries, this was the “glory of democracy.” Did that make all the poor instantaneously rich? No. Did that mean that all the property of the rich was confiscated and given to the poor? No. It will be a long and difficult process to transform the political economy into one that is more productive for even a majority of citizens – with a few gains here and some setbacks there. In the long run, we believe a lot more health, safety and tranquility will win out. But no one can say that it wasn’t a democratic and peaceful revolution (which Marx believed to be impossible); that the people who passed the new constitution didn’t know what they were doing; or that they have tyrannized the old aristocracy as was done after The French Revolution, which was accomplished violently and without any public deliberation and voting whatsoever.
As a final example of an important national referendum, let’s take a look at Iraq after 6 years of war and American military occupation. In December 2008, at the last moment, the new Iraqi central government signed a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with the United States. Without that agreement, the U.N. mandate for American forces in Iraq would have expired and American forces would have been legally forced to evacuate all Iraqi cities and towns and to retreat back to all of its bases. There would have been no internationally recognized for American forces being in Iraq at all.
However, Iraq’s new government, being much more democratic these days than under Saddam Hussein thanks to his overthrow by the United States armed forces, has many ethnic and sectarian factions within the cabinet and Parliament. Before the Sunni minority would agree to the new SOFA which provided legitimacy for American forces to remain in Iraq until December 2011, they insisted upon, and got, a very controversial and potentially inflammable proviso put into the new SOFA. What it did was to insist that in June 2009, the Iraqi people would have the power to approve of or veto this SOFA by national referendum.
As we write this final chapter of the first update and revision of this book, we do not know the result of Iraq’s national referendum on the SOFA with the U.S.A. – first scheduled for the summer of 2009 – and then postponed to January 2010. There are all kinds of reasons it might be postponed again. But if it does come to a vote and the Iraqi public votes it down, the United States and President Obama will be in a pickle, since that would mean that the U.S. forces would have to withdraw completely from Iraq within a year – and none of the new Iraqi oligarchs want that. We doubt either the U.S. government, the Iraqi government, the Iranian government, the Sunnis, the Kurds or the Shiites really know how all of this is going to play out. But that is not our point.
Our point is that the American Corporate Oligarchy has agreed that the Iraqi people can make such a vital and complicated decision involving American foreign policy by a national vote on that issue. Meanwhile, back the U.S.A., the American constitution remains bogged down in 18th century political thought. The American people do not have nearly as much power to control their national destiny as do the people of Iraq!! But that’s just another country with the power of national lawmaking by referendum. For a more complete lesson on how America might transform its national political system into a leading democracy, let’s take a much more in depth look at the real “leader of the democratic world.”
The Best Example of Democracy at the National Level in the World: Switzerland
We talked a bit about Switzerland’s unique brand of national democracy in Chapter 7. One thing we did not mention, though, was that it is also the most prosperous country on earth. Yes, the Swiss have the highest per-capita income anywhere. In terms of quality of life, Switzerland also consistently ranks among the top ten nations in the world on just about every measure of national health, fair distribution of wealth, education, transportation, and public safety. And Switzerland is far and away the most democratic. (Kendall, 2000) Is this a coincidence? We seriously doubt that.
Indeed, Swiss democratic citizen lawmaking has hummed along well over 150 years and – as we indicated in Chapter 9 – was the model followed by visiting American “progressives” over 100 years ago. Too bad there are so few such “progressive Americans” today.
What’s the secret to Switzerland’s good fortune? In some part, it may be due to natural resources…since it is a winter and summer tourism Mecca. It’s surely not its homogenous culture, which is a mixture of German, French, Italian and several small minorities, now including about 4% Muslims. It’s not a strong industrial base with an emphasis on exports, despite the fact it does quite well in that regard with Swiss Army knives and its wonderful chocolates and cheeses.
Size might have something to do with it – since there are only 6.4 million people in the country. But there are many much smaller countries in the world that are beaten down by penury and disease and are, not coincidentally, dictatorships or run by a tiny clique of despots. It can’t be their geography, since there are a number of other landlocked nations in Europe, Asia and Africa that are top heavy oligarchies as well. To our way of thinking, the most likely source of the great Swiss economic and social success is the nation’s political beliefs, attitudes, and institutions, which place ordinary citizens at the hub of public decision-making. Among the foremost of these are (a) its strict foreign policy of neutrality in all wars and (b) its long standing commitment to deep democracy.
These two features have coalesced to keep Switzerland out of being an official member of the European Union. The population is of many minds on this issue and it shows in the very complex relationship the Swiss have with the EU – there being many referenda on various aspects of Swiss-EU relations over the years. The following video is up on YouTube and will give the reader a better idea of how a citizenry can be deeply involved in minute aspects of a country’s political economy and foreign policy, making it exceptionally nuanced.
“Switzerland: A Stone in the EU’s Shoe or Strategic Ally?”
Switzerland is about one quarter the geographical area of Ohio, with a population about 50 percent smaller. It’s made up of 26 areas called cantons. The cantons, in turn, are comprised of about 3,000 communes. There is a central government, but it deals with only those matters that concern all the cantons, such as national defense, foreign policy, immigration and customs, and railroads. All other matters – education, labor, economic policy, health, social welfare, and so on – come under the authority of the cantonal and communal governments. So, it is a federal system, much like that of the United States.
Each canton has its own constitution and parliament, which vary considerably. The communes, which range in size from a few hundred to more than a million people, also have their own legislative and executive councils. The cantonal and communal governments are elected by the citizens who reside within their boundaries.
One reason governmental power in Switzerland is so radically decentralized is this mixture we alluded to before, but it is of four distinct ethnic groups – Germans, French, Italians, and Rhaeto-Romansch – plus two major religious groups – Catholics and Protestants. After many centuries of often-violent conflict, the Swiss decided that the best solution was to let each group govern itself. Over time, people have sorted themselves into the groupings they are most comfortable with. Over time, some cantons have even divided into two “half-cantons.” Or new cantons have formed. And communes along the border between cantons have chosen to join one rather than the other.
Because so many decisions are made at the local level, Swiss citizens have both an incentive and an opportunity to participate in the policy-making process. And because different cantons adopt different policies, people can see for themselves which work best. The result is that good policies tend to drive out bad.
At the national level of government, the legislature consists of two houses. The popular (lower) house, the National Council, is elected by proportional representation under a system of free lists, which allows all shades of political opinion to be expressed (the best advantage of the PR method of the oxymoron “representative democracy”). The upper house, the Council of States, consists of two representatives from each canton (like the U.S. Senate) and one from each half-canton. In most cases, members are elected by a simple majority of the electorate.
Four political parties dominate the central government. None has a clear majority in either house, and they are all represented in the Federal Council (the national executive cabinet). A different Council president is elected by its members every year. So there is no super-executive as in other parliamentary forms.
Once approved by both houses, new legislation may be referred to the people for approval. There is a six-month period during which any individual or group able to obtain 50,000 signatures on a petition may call for a national referendum. Imagine that in the United States of America! Why not? Why can the Swiss public have the power to put up any law that Congress passes, by gaining a few million signatures, and then have the rest of the public vote for or against it? If the law is vetoed by a simple majority vote of the Swiss citizenry, it’s not enacted.
Thus, groups committed to promoting the public interest play an important role at the national level because they’re able to initiate referendums to block legislation. This is one way that ordinary citizens and not politicians control government in Switzerland. The Swiss may also have other aspects of their political economy set up in a way that would be instructive to American citizens as to how the U.S. might better structure its own so as to keep the American Corporate Oligarchy, and the banking elite, from further fouling the American economic nest.
In contrast to the United States and other capitalist countries (Switzerland, don’t forget, is a proudly capitalist country), the federal government has the sole right to coin money, issue bank notes, determine the monetary system, and regulate exchange rates (much like the powers the U.S. Constitution bestows strictly upon Congress – not The Fed). This authority is exercised through the Swiss National Bank, which acts largely independent of government control. It resists financing public deficits, and maintains a slow rate of growth in the money supply. By federal law, bank notes must be backed by gold and short-term securities.
The federal government, cantons, and communes levy their own taxes. Each collects about one-third of total government revenues. Most taxes are direct and low. The average Swiss citizen pays about 16 percent of his income in taxes, and company taxes average about 20 percent of profits. The country’s national debt and inflation rate are low. Since 1946, government spending for all three levels has averaged only 22.6 percent of GNP, yet per capita expenditure on welfare and education is high among all the world’s nations, exceeding the U.S.A.
Switzerland has an efficient, well-equipped army to defend it from foreign invasion (with the help of its natural buttress, the forbidding and unforgiving Alps). National service, whether military or non-military, is universal and compulsory. Defense is financed and controlled by the federal government. But ultimate control of the army rests with the people. Not too long ago, a citizens initiative was launched to dissolve the army. Although the majority voted to keep the army, around 45 percent supported the initiative. Note well: The people of Switzerland had the opportunity and voted on whether to even maintain a military!
The viability of constitutional democracies depends on limits being set on government authority. In the U.S.A., we are told that it is only the judiciary and the Supreme Court who can do that, much like Plato’s “Nocturnal Council” could do with guarding “The Guardians.” Clearly, as we can now see in 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court has actually helped expand the powers of the U.S. federal government into an overwhelmingly dominant force in American society, much like the Anti-Federalists feared and predicted. After all, as we’ve noted earlier, the Supreme Court is a nuclear part of that central government and is a key partner of the ruling oligarchy. This is but another example of what Jefferson warned Americans about back in the 18th century: what happens when the wolves guard the sheep.
In Switzerland, it’s quite a different system of who reins in the central government in a federal system. It is not the courts that are given the power to watch over the government and keep a check and balance on them. It is the Swiss people themselves. Thus, anyone with eyes to see and a mind to think can understand that this is the correct and most efficient way to maintain control of governmental power and governmental spending.
(“Direct”) democracy at the national level serves as the most important and the most efficient check and balance by the general public itself – via citizen lawmaking directly or by veto power – on political ambition, abuse of power, and the degradation of the national economy. The ability of the people to vote on so many propositions keeps elected officials aware of their own limitations and vulnerability, reduces the importance of party politics, focuses broad public attention on crucial national issues, and encourages officials to treat the electorate as senior partners in the policy-making process.
So does that mean that the Swiss democratic system makes everyone there happy? Of course not. Does that mean that the Swiss people would never make a decision that might not trample on some minority rights? Not exactly. In fact, in November 2009, the Swiss people
voted to ban Muslim minarets from being built in Switzerland, even though there were only 4 in the entire country. The Swiss, like other European countries, have anxieties about their culture being threatened by too many, to their liking, Islamic folk immigrating into Switzerland. So, they put this dilemma up for a national vote and it passed with a 57% majority, much to the consternation of its Muslim citizens, visitors, as well as most of the Islamic world beyond.
Jon Stewart, of The Daily Show, and one of his “correspondents”, John Oliver, surely think that this smacked a bit of hypocrisy and authoritarianism. Watch Stewart skewer the Swiss and then Oliver do a bit of a hatchet job on the Swiss Ambassador to the United States in their segment called “The Single Prayer Option” and “Oliver’s Travels”:
“Oliver’s Travels – Switzerland, The Daily Show, December 3, 2009”
Would this law, had it been passed by Congress or any state or local American government, be struck down by the United States Supreme Court as a violation of The Bill of Rights in America? Undoubtedly. So, isn’t this a defect in the democratic system we’ve described above? Yes. This is a tyranny of a supermajority over a small minority to be sure. But there are equally biased laws in other European nations concerning the perceived threat of “Sharia Law” to their national cultures by Islamic immigrants. France, for example, does not allow Muslim girls to wear their veils to public schools. Although passed by Parliament, a representative body, this law undoubtedly enjoys strong support from the French people. So, it is not a flaw in democracy…as much as religious and cultural biases and tastes found in all societies that are mirrored by the “elected oligarchy” as well as by the people themselves..
Perhaps the greatest flaw in modern democratic practices comes in the crucial part of the process that involves the processing of the most relevant information and empathetic listening to opposing views. There has been a very recent and innovative development in how the general public can be involved in large-scale, sophisticated lawmaking that addresses this problem to some degree. Via this technique, a small sample of the general public can serve as excellent lawmakers, while involving the rest of the people in meaningful ways in the legislative process. This is a 21st Century invention. It was first experimented with for real in British Columbia, Canada. And it involves the ancient Greek ideal of selecting the citizen legislators by a lottery and then having a well managed public deliberation on the issue involved.
Towards D3: Direct Deliberative Democracy
The British Columbia Citizens’ Assembly Model
Responding to widespread public criticism of British Columbia’s provincial government for its failure to acknowledge and act on the wishes of the citizenry, the Liberal Party in BC promised during the 2001 provincial election campaign to create a citizens assembly to consider changes to the provincial electoral system. It also agreed that the recommendation of the assembly would be put to the entire British Columbia electorate in the form of a parliamentary sponsored referendum.
Subsequently, the BC Parliament followed through and offered citizens a chance to study and recommend a new system of electing representatives. In 2003, it established the “Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform,” which was composed of 160 citizens selected by lot – i.e., at random – from the voters’ lists. Two citizens (one man and one woman) were to be selected from each of the province’s 79 electoral districts, plus two “at-large.” A pool of 15,800 names was created from the roll of voters. Selection of participants in the Citizens Assembly took several months.
The task of the Citizens Assembly was to evaluate the existing provincial electoral system and, if warranted, propose a new one. It was empowered and well funded to hold public hearings throughout the province. During the first half of 2004, participants went through a “Learning Phase” in which they listened to presentations by experts and held public hearings to get as much input as possible from citizens as well as experts. In addition, many suggestions were sent via the mail and the Internet.
In Canada and all its provinces, voters elect representatives according to the principle of “Proportional Representation,” or “PR” To elaborate a bit more on what we described PR to be in Chapter 7, it is a widely used electoral method that is attempts to achieve a close match between the percentage of votes that groups of candidates (usually the candidates of political parties) obtain in an election and the percentage of seats in the legislature they receive.
PR exists in contrast to “plurality” voting systems, in which representatives are elected from geographically-drawn electoral districts. Plurality systems are also called “winner takes all” or “first past the post” systems – because the winner in an electoral district wins the right to represent all the people in the district, not just the percentage who voted for her or him. The U.S. uses that sort of system.
In PR, if Party A gets 35 percent of the vote, then roughly the top one-third of its slate (list) are elected to Parliament. If Party B gets 30 percent, then about the top three-tenths of its list become members of Parliament. If Party E gets 8 percent, its top 5 percent might win seats. PR thus affords minority parties a say in lawmaking. By necessitating coalition-building (since it is hard for one party to gain 50+% of the vote), it forces parties to modify their more extreme positions and proposals in order to gain broader acceptance within the electorate.
In the autumn of 2004, delegates to the BC Citizens’ Assembly deliberated together “to decide if they believed B.C. should have a new electoral system than the PR system that was in place, or retain the current one.” The Assembly decided it wanted a different kind of proportional representative system than the PR system already had in place. After having public hearings in every legislative district in the province, having thousands of comments online from citizens of BC, and deliberating at length among themselves, The Assembly voted 146 – 7 to recommend changing the existing system.
They came up with a new system of electing members of Parliament by a “single transferrable vote” (STV) system, which lets voters rank candidates within multi-member districts or constituencies (Gastil and Levine, 2005: 277). They have an excellent animation of this online http://www.citizensassembly.bc.ca/public/extra/animations.xml.
According to the Citizens’ Assembly website, the STV form of PR was selected because it best addresses three values: proportionality, local representation, and voter choice. The site notes that PR-STV is used in several countries to elect officials at various levels of government. “In Ireland, where it has been used since 1922, government attempts to change the system have been steadfastly rejected by voters.”
As promised, the recommendation of the Citizens Assembly was to put its proposal to the electorate in a referendum held concurrently with the 2005 provincial election. The referendum required approval by 60 percent of all votes cast, plus simple majorities in 48 (60 percent) of the 79 electoral districts. The referendum failed on the first requirement, with 57.7 percent of votes in favor, though it did obtain majority support in 77 of the 79 electoral districts (over 90%). Despite this enthusiastic and ubiquitous citizen support of what the Citizens Assembly devised, the government stuck to the rigid Parliamentary mandate and declared that the proposal for change was defeated.
The issue did not die with that decision by the BC Parliament. So, in 2009, some of the minor parties of British Columbia decided to put it up for another vote in the Spring elections. The two major parties, including the newly empowered Liberals, were now staunchly opposed, endorsing the ancient “first past the post” system that was still in effect. The minor parties and a number of more democratically inclined citizens put up a concerted TV and Internet battle—exemplified by the two following videos:
“BC-STV: Song With Lyrics”
“BC-STV This Time”
The united forces of the major parties and their backers fought back with a far more sophisticated TV ad campaign whose message was that the new system was much too complicated and too fragmented, so that people would not really know where their votes would be going. Here’s a sample:
It worked. The STV issue, voted on by the citizens of British Columbia, was thoroughly flummoxed by the competing ad campaign…and when people are confused on an issue, they usually vote it down. So, a much more “representative” system was defeated even more decisively and the status quo reigns for now in British Columbia.
However, losing the vote on the results of the Citizens Assembly’s recommendation in no way diminished the success of the Citizens Assembly process and its recommendations being subjected to the vote of the entire citizenry. Some in British Columbia, and around the rest of the world, saw the true promise of genuine democracy being in the deliberative democratic process itself. This short ad on STV by Pedro Mora of the Vancouver Community TV Association makes the point that regular citizen empowerment via this system is pure democracy itself:
What is well worth emphasizing here is that the BC Citizens Assembly mechanism demonstrates with crystal clarity that direct citizen participation and deliberation can fit into an institutional arrangement in a way that affords citizens the opportunity to exercise substantial influence on issues as fundamental as the electoral process itself. With such a large majority of voters supporting the initial proposal to change BC’s electoral system, and with support so widely spread throughout the province, it was clear to the rest of Canada and to the world that the Citizens’ Assembly had done an excellent job on a very complicated subject. That a slightly better system of “representative democracy” was defeated by the people (twice) was of secondary interest to supporters of the transformational power of real democracy.
What is more, the effort brought the idea of randomly selected citizens’ assemblies to people’s attention as a way to have a truly representative legislature free from the influence of big money on either an election campaign (since there was none) or on the decision-making process (since the citizens – being randomly selected – were not favorable to any particular special interests but merely to their own personal value systems.) As we noted above, such a method of choosing citizen legislatures was hardly new, of course. Ancient Athens, during its “Golden Age,” chose its legislative assembly, the Ecclesia, in the same way. But the BC Citizens’ Assembly also added that the entire citizenry be allowed to vote on what their “truly representative” legislative body had proposed as a new law.
All those interested in discussing the citzens’ assembly concept, or keeping abreast of further developments around the world, might wish to go to http://snider.blogs.com/citizensassembly. Jim Snider, formerly the Shorenstein Fellow in Media and Politics at the John F. Kennedy School at Harvard, is one of the leading scholars in the world on citizens assemblies. He points out that the research to date on is only in the beginning stages, and he has a number of recommendations on how to improve research on them. (Snider 2008)
The idea and practice of The Citizen Assembly, having shown how well it worked in a modern context on such a complicated issue as a new form of voting on candidates for office has caused it to enter the realm of extensive use as an excellent way to add a strong dose of democracy to the sclerotic oligarchies that are chalking up such low ratings in almost every country that employs a “representative” Congress or Parliament. Ontario tried one in 2006-07 which was a duplicate in form and substance to its cousin in BC and the Netherlands tried one in 2006, which did not result in a referendum, but a report to Parliament. Thus, the Dutch used this method as a citizens advisory board which would only result in law if Parliament agreed. There are many countries and states within America who are aware of the importance of this new form of democracy with various groups pushing for uses other than electoral reform.
The success of the Citizens Assembly of British Columbia also materializes and reinvigorates an idea that has been perking for a long time and been the subject of great interest to many who grasp the inherent “un-representativeness” of all elected legislatures…in both houses. These legislative bodies are truly the tool of ruling classes and political elites and/or counter-elites. They are always arenas in which competing factions of elites and interests clash. There are always either whiffs of or full blown scandals over the influence on elections of bribes, bullying, fraud or errors. And there are always serious doubts whether such unrepresentative bodies can ever produce laws that are in “the public interest.”
Thus, there have been many proposals in recent years that one of the elected houses in any or every state legislature, or Congress, or a national or provincial province, be scrapped in favor of having it be truly “representative” of the entire public by having it selected, much like a jury in court cases, randomly. The citizens chosen would serve, if they agreed, for a period of time and be paid as much as though they were elected legislators. This way, women, minorities, all classes, many occupations, would be represented much like their proportion to their size in the overall citizenry. They wouldn’t be compromised by campaigns and parties and they, like juries, would be doing their public duty along with their peers. (Becker, 1976: 467-510)
In the American context today, the middle class (not counting the “upper middle class,” the 12-13 percent of households whose incomes exceed, in 2010, approximately $100,000) and the working class – together, the 70 to 80 percent of the population whose household incomes range from $20,000 to $99,000, and whose education, skills, energy, drive, and hard work are the essential ingredients for producing the vast bulk of the wealth American society creates – would see their values, their interests, and their priorities translated into laws and policies to a significantly greater degree than is possible in any existing electoral system.
Professor Ethan J. Leib, a political scientist and lawyer from Yale University who now teaches at the University of California, Hastings School of Law, presents a convincing manifesto for just such a system, albeit a bit more complicated. What he thinks is needed is a “fourth branch” of government in the United States, which he calls “the popular branch.” This is the main thrust of his theory in Deliberative Democracy in America. (Leib 2004)
This new arm of our national government would be “composed of stratified random samples of 525 eligible – though not necessarily registered – voters, debating in groups of fifteen…and would take the form of small civic juries occasionally meeting to enact laws…both local and federal questions could be settled by representative samples of citizens.” There would also be “national assemblies” and all this would be fitted into the present system of checks and balances. (Leib 2004, 12-13) Thus, his system of “citizen assemblies” would be permanent, would have lawmaking powers way beyond “electoral reform”, and would substitute for any need for a national citizens’ initiative.
Alvin and Heidi Toffler, two of the world’s most celebrated “futurists,” advocated this notion of random selection for a citizens legislative function back in the early 1980s in their seminal book, The Third Wave (1980). They had the foresight – the Internet wasn’t even imagined yet – to point out that this randomly selected “house” of the Congress need not even move to the District of Columbia to deliberate and vote on various issues:
“By using computers, advanced telecommunications, and polling methods…[it would be possible to] provide…up-to-the-minute information on the issues at hand…But when the time for decision arrived, the elected representatives would cast only 50 percent of the votes, while the current random sample – who are not in the capital but geographically dispersed in their own homes or offices – would electronically cast the remaining 50 percent.” (Toffler and Toffler 1980, 442)
Thus, in the fertile minds of futurists, political scientists, lawyers and other thinkers of how to empower citizens the best in modern democracies, the same idea comes up in books and in actual practice…either in addition to citizens initiatives and referenda, or in place thereof: Citizen lawmakers chosen at random to deliberate over time just like the elected oligarchy does. This is actually an ideal and idea whose time has come (once again), just as the Age of Information is upon us, which makes their decision making all the more enriched by the vastest store of facts and expert opinion ever available to any legislature in human history. Moreover, it is supplemented by the Internet’s capabilities of interactive and lateral communications simultaneously or over time across the entire world. The potential for global citizen lawmaking is there for the thinking…and ultimately, the doing.
Citizen Budgeting at the Local Level: The Porto Alegre Model
Porto Alegre is a subtropical city of 4 million residents on the southern coast of Brazil. The capital of the Brazilian state, Rio Grande do Sul, Porto Alegre has achieved worldwide recognition for its inventive and highly-successful practice of “popular budgeting” (PB), in which a broad range of community groups play a key role in shaping the municipal budget. (Heller, 2000)
In 1989, the Socialist Workers’ Party won control of the mayor’s office. The new mayor, Lula de Silva (who is currently the president of Brazil), decided that he wanted all the citizens of the city to have an opportunity to play a role in the agenda-setting process – in particular, how the city would spend its money on “capital” improvements like streets, sewers, schools, health clinics, public facilities, and the like. De Silva observed that, like all cities in this world, Porto Alegre had many neighborhoods, a few very wealthy…and many that were much bigger and much poorer. As is usually the case globally, the rich enclaves usually get more than their fair share of the capital improvement money available to any municipality. This is done usually by the mayor, in collaboration with an elected or appointed council and with the help of various technocrats employed by the city, town, etc. And so it was in Porto Alegre, until this.
“This” was a participatory budgeting process in which each of 16 city districts, or “regions,” conduct face-to-face assemblies in which any citizen can participate. Each regional assembly is given information about the money that was in the previous year’s capital improvement budget (which historically has been roughly 15 to 20 percent of the total municipal budget) and about the problems or deficiencies in various aspects of the city’s infrastructure.
They are also given a Plan of Investments from the mayor’s office. Then, a regional budget committee proposes spending priorities for the current year. The regional assembly must approve the priorities. They do so through citizens deliberating together and then voting. Finally, each assembly elects the region’s delegate to the Participatory Budgeting Council, which, in turn, is the conduit between the people of the city and its regions and the Mayor.
Citizens and their delegates expect their recommendations to be binding on the mayor. “He is supposed to respect the autonomy of the participatory bodies (regional assemblies and their councils, and the city-wide Participatory Budgeting Council) [and to] accept and execute their wishes.” (Vitale, 2005 www.auburn.edu/ipd) Citizens’ groups in the regions and throughout the city monitor actual expenditures, and then provide this information, along with citizens’ recommendations, to the next year’s assemblies. This makes the process extremely transparent to the citizenry.
So, after several years with this system in place, has it made a difference?
According to Rebecca Abers, a professor at Brazil’s University of Brasilia, over the years the regional budget councils have come to play an increasingly influential role in negotiating both the general aims and the details of the city’s budgetary allocations. (Abers, 1996: 39, emphasis ours) A United Nations report offers some interesting data.
For example, prior to implementation of this system, only 46 percent of the city’s population was served by the municipal sewer system. By 1996, the number had increased to 85 percent. A similar result occurred in the number of households served by the city’s water supply. The increase was so dramatic that, by 1996, 98 percent of the population was connected to the system. (MOST Clearing House Best Practices Database, www.unesco.or/most/shouta13.htm, 1994-2003)
The World Bank concluded in 2004 that increased participation in budgeting can lead to the formulation of and investment in pro-poor policies, greater societal consensus, and support for difficult policy reforms. Experiences with participatory budgeting have shown positive links between participation, sound macroeconomic policies, and more effective government. Participatory budgeting processes have been utilized in a number of different countries including Ireland, Canada, India, Uganda, Brazil and Africa. (The World Bank Group, 2004 www.worldbank.org)
Similarly, in the view of Brown University professor Patrick Heller, popular budgeting has increased citizen participation in public affairs generally. He writes that, before popular budgeting, allocations mostly reflected patronage and were more or less fixed from year to year. The introduction of PB brought with it the principle of community-defined priorities, and in each year since, adjustments have been negotiated to meet redistributive criteria and to expand representation at every level of the budget-making process.
In consequence, the range of services now provided by the city has widened significantly. Heller’s colleague at Brown, Professor Gianpaolo Baiocchi, has shown that, since its inception, the number of civil society organizations in Porto Alegre has increased dramatically. (Baiocchi, 1999) In short, participation in the budgeting process has generated new opportunities and incentives for citizens to participate in public life.
Significantly, Abers notes that the sustained relationship between popularly-chosen council delegates and Porto Alegre administrators has helped bridge the divide between the competing values of technical knowledge and citizen participation. City officials have addressed the relative lack of technical capacity and skills possessed by council representatives and their constituents by aggressively educating them and by assigning them responsibility for learning and understanding budget details. (Abers, 1996: 45) Government officials interviewed by Abers commented on how quickly participants became proficient in mastering the details of the budget. They explained further that constant scrutiny and questioning by citizens had forced officials to improve the budgeting process.
The news of Porto Alegre has spread far and wide. The UN report cited above notes that, in Brazil itself, “there are at least 70 cities who [sic] are establishing the Participative Budget system, based (upon) the past experience (of) Porto Alegre…” Professor Daniel Schugurensky of the University of Toronto, a leading researcher on this process, has since updated the UN report, indicating that, as of 2004, there were “at least 194…” He goes on to say that three cities in Argentina (Buenos Aires, Rio Cuarto, and Rosario) are also presently using a participatory budget system. In addition, replications or modifications of the system have been experimented with in Peru, Ecuador, Mexico, Colombia, El Salvador, and Canada.
Here is a video of the first couple of Participatory Budgeting experiments done in Great Britain, in Bradford/Keighley.in 2004 and 2006 It is obviously a rough translation of the Brazilian version, but as the viewer can see and hear, since it’s all in English, it is true democracy at work right in front of the public’s eye and, wonderfully, something one and all who show up and participate in, can see and enjoy for themselves. What is quite striking about these in particular is the obvious relish that everyone there has for the genuinely democratic process, including all the ethnic minorities who seemed to have shown up in large numbers. Remember: the people there are actually deciding which projects get how much of the money which has been allocated.
“Clearn Green and Safe the Participatory Way in Bradford”
“From Brazil to Keighley – PB in Bradford, Part 1 (2006)”
“From Brazil to Keighley – PB in Bradford, Part 2 (2006)”
It took a bit longer for PB to seep into the United States of America. However, it has now gained a foothold with a major program at the Ivy League’s Brown University and in Barack Obama’s home turf, South Chicago. The new clearinghouse for information and project networking website at Brown is called The Participatory Budgeting Project and is similar to the University of Wisconsin website on economic co-ops. Its website, which will keep the reader updated on all the burgeoning projects around the US and the world is at www.partcipatorybudgeting.org. Its director is Dr. Gianpaolo Baiocchi and his board of academic co-workers are to be found at Fordham University, The New School, and Brooklyn College (all in New York City) and the aforementioned University of Toronto.
One project that is featured on the PBP website is a major one being undertaken in Chicago which began at the end of 2009 and will continue through early 2010. The initiative was taken by a Chicago Alderman named Joe Moore, who decided to use this method to distribute $1 Million of the City’s budget for capital improvements in his Ward. Thus, 9 PB assemblies were held in late 2009 where residents came, like in the Bradford videos above, and presented their proposals for funding. Then they selected 80 “representatives” to prioritize these proposals—which included: “community gardens, street paving, murals,bike paths, street lights, wheelchair ramps” and the like. The plan is that after the representatives make their decisions, they will present them to the entire citizenry in a major assembly where the citizens themselves will vote to allocate the final amounts to the various projects. Democracy has come to Chicago…and soon…it will flourish again throughout the United States. After all, this system is hard to corrupt. It works well. It makes a big difference. It gives voice and sinews to the people, who decide what is in “their public interest.” It’s consistent with Aristotle’s definition of a “republic.” It’s truly democratic but interacts well with the elite in administering the people’s will.
The Global Deliberative Democracy Movement:
The Evolution of Public Deliberation
Implicit in our discussion above is that before citizens – either as part of a Citizens Assembly, a regional assembly, a participatory budgeting process, or in a referendum or citizens initiative – actually make decisions about some political issue or problem, they must (a) know a lot about it; (b) listen to other people’s opinions about it; (c) have time to think about the data, expert and peer opinion, and filter it through their own value systems. This individual…and collective…human exchange is what is known as “dialogue” and “deliberation,” and it is a key part of the democratic process. Two experts in political communications define “public deliberation” as “the process used by juries, councils, legislatures, and other bodies that make decisions after reasoned discussion.” (Gastil and Keith, 2005)
Deliberative Democracy is American as “Americana”:
The Earlier Years
The Chautauqua Movement
This kind of discussion and deliberation among American citizens has really been the quintessence of genuine American democracy since this country began and it has manifested itself in various ways throughout American history. This is the indigenous kind of American “democratic spirit” and “democratic talk” that struck de Tocqueville and his traveling buddy in the early part of the 19th century, something that was among the missing in the European empires of his time. It infused America and was diffused throughout America as the way in which the people managed to think of themselves as having a meaningful say in what went on in the halls of power, whether that be City Hall or the U.S. Congress. It was sort of “the invisible hand” of democracy!
As we saw in Chapter 9, periodically when things got real bad for a great majority of Americans, there were “surges” of political “reformism” that swept the nation. But those reforms didn’t come out of thin air. What made the political machinery actually get into gear and make a lot of changes in the way government worked were a network of public meetings and/or assemblies where politicians, authors, political activists would speak and draw large crowds. Perhaps the most famous of this kind of institution of public talk was the “Chautauqua” movement which lasted through the Populist and Progressive movements from the 1870s right through the 1920s.
“Chautauqua 2007: Upton Sinclair”
So what were Chautauquas? We think they would best be understood by modern Americans as something like “county fairs” or “state fairs”….which were held usually in rural or ex-urban areas mostly in warmer weather. There were buildings and tents and there were a lot of “fun” things to do at them. The first of them was held right on Lake Chautauqua in New York State…and it was widely copied throughout the land. The idea was to bring “culture” and “creativity” together for people who did not have access to it easily in days when there was no electronic communication and public transportation was sparse and difficult.
So, there was music; there was art; there were crafts; there was theatre. But, and this is the key to them, there was also politics. In fact, one might say that the Chautauquas were really social and political at their nub. The other events and opportunities for entertainment drew the large and diverse crowds, but a big part of them would show up for the political debates, lectures and speeches that were at their heart and soul.
Remember that the Populists and the farm granges of the late 19th century represented an outpouring of resentment among farmers and small townspeople and the working class against the graft and price fixing and large industrial ravages that they were experiencing first-hand. This gave opportunities for political leaders, and political parties, and political agitators plenty of opportunity to address large congregations of sympathetic Americans and plenty of time to rant and rage against the “monopolists”. For a well done portrayal of one of the country’s leading novelists and avowed socialists of that time, Upton Sinclair, whose novel The Jungle (Sinclair 1906) – disgustingly detailed the evils of monopoly capitalism and big city (Chicago) corruption. Sinclair and other anti-oligarchy celebrities of the time were regulars on the Chautauqua “circuit.”
So what happened to them? The growth of mass media, particularly the radio at the time, and the growth of the internal combustion engine in cars and busses, and an expanding railroad system, made it much easier for the average American to stay put and listen to “culture” and “entertainment” right at home or go to the bigger cities and towns nearby and see a “movie” or play. Thus, what attracted so many Americans to the central meeting place for public discussion and deliberation slowly disappeared and so did the Chautauqua as a uniquely important part of the American democratic discourse and allure for civic assembly.
Of course, shortly thereafter, another major political economic disaster hit the United States of America: The Great Depression starting in 1929 with the great stock market crash and continuing on for over a decade. This put most Americans high on “The Misery Index” again and made it necessary for them to get involved in political discussion on a massive scale.
The Forum Movement and the Federal Forum Project
As the Chautauqua movement was winding down and the mass market of modern electronic communications was gearing up, the American intellectual class, tired of all the political commotion caused for decades, came to a conclusion that “democracy” really didn’t work well in America. Oligarchy needed to be restored and Americans needed to delegate the business of governance to all the new technical “experts.”
So, by the second and third decades of the century, most Americans had been told repeatedly and in many venues that the country had grown too large, complex, and diverse for democracy of the sort embodied in the New England Town Meeting and even in the Chautauquas. The nation was no longer small enough and demographically homogeneous enough to meet the conditions that both Pericles and Jefferson had assumed were necessary for “pure democracy.”
Kevin Mattson, The Connor Study Professor of History at Ohio University, thinks otherwise…and he bases his views on certain actual events that demonstrate a continuing movement to develop public discourse in America. In his books Creating a Democratic Public (1998) and Reforming the American Political System in the 21st Century (2002) we find that, in fact, various entities across the country were developing ways to open up government to participation by ordinary citizens in the early part of the 20th century. By way of example, settlement houses (which provided assistance to recently-arrived immigrants), community centers, and other “civil society” organizations in large cities were sponsoring debate clubs and forums. In rural areas, granges continued to provide public places where farmers could discuss the issues of the day.
One of the new methods of citizen involvement that appeared early in the 20th century was the “open forum.” The open forum movement (later called “the forum movement”) became rather popular, especially in urban areas. The word “open” meant that discussion was open to the general public. One of the most noteworthy of these early deliberative institutions was Ford Hall, established in Boston in 1908 by George Coleman with a bequest from local philanthropist Daniel Sharp Ford. Coleman carried out Ford’s desire to create a site where a diverse audience could listen to speakers and talk about matters of public interest and mutual concern. Nobody thought of such events as instances of direct democracy, but they were consistent with emerging support for expanded political participation.
In a 1915 article, Rollo Lyman of the University of Chicago recommended that forums be separated from the singing, theater, poetry, and oratory that characterized traditional American Chautauquas. Lyman’s recommendation was well received, and forums spread across the country. In 1920, the League for Political Education opened the Town Hall in New York City, a place where newly enfranchised women could learn about politics and political issues so they could vote in a more-informed manner.
According to Professors Gastil and Keith, many Americans in the early 20th century blamed the poor state of democratic political communication on the way debate was practiced in legislatures and universities. By the 1930s, speech departments at universities had begun to teach “discussion” courses, which emphasized cooperative small-group problem-solving. Such courses were based on the views of one of America’s greatest but lesser celebrated democratic philosophers John Dewey, and were intended to prepare students to participate in democratic settings where the principles of equal participation, mutual respect, and reasoned discourse would be observed.
The high point of the forum movement was the Federal Forum Project, initiated in 1932 when the Carnegie Corporation of New York gave a grant to John Studebaker, superintendent of schools in Des Moines, Iowa, to run a two-year series of forums as an experiment in continuing adult civic education. The forums were so successful that, when Franklin Roosevelt named Studebaker U.S. Commissioner of Education in 1934, he set about replicating their success on a national scale.
Beginning with eight well-funded demonstration forums, the U.S. Office of Education eventually sponsored dozens of forums. By 1938, more than a million people per year were participating in these forums. Although some offered not much more than a chance for the audience to hear a speaker, many allowed for audience discussion amongst themselves as well as with the speakers.
The goal of these forums was sometimes characterized as voter instruction, but Studebaker and others saw them as efforts, not just to educate the public about issues, but also to foster a habit of democratic talk. He argued that deliberation is important for citizens as well as for legislators. He wrote in his book The American Way that:
“If we are to have that trained civic intelligence, that critical open-mindedness upon which the practical operation of a democracy must rest, we must soon take steps to establish throughout the nation a…system of public forums… We should be as thorough in our provision of educational machinery for the development of civic intelligence among adults as we are in our plans for teaching the three R’s to children.” (Studebaker, 1935)
In 1932, educational philosopher and forum advocate Harry Overstreet invented the panel discussion, in which experts or topic authorities discuss issues with one another on the stage before the audience joins the discussion. Overstreet knew most people wouldn’t automatically understand and practice productive democratic communication, but he wanted a format that would allow educators to create models of democratic discourse.
So what happened to these wonderful experiments and incremental progress in American democratic discourse throughout the Progressive era and the Great Depression, when the people were extremely interested in thinking, talking about, arguing about, and collectively solving pressing public problems?
By the early 1940s, the Federal Forum Project had disappeared as federal spending shifted to the priority of fighting World War II. That’s what happened to the movement to teach and practice widespread public democratic discourse and to mobilize informed, collective public support in the United States of America. WWII did more than destroy lives and property. It set back democratic talk and public based political consensus right up to the present time.
Nothing on a national scale has taken its place since. Professors Gastil and Keith (2005) believe various other factors undermined deliberative norms and practices between the 1940s and 1960s. One was the fear and intense passions surrounding the government and mass media driven “danger” to the United States posed by Soviet and Chinese Communism, combined with a suspicion that any public discussion about all this was a threat to the American political system. The Cold War, cast as it was in stark terms of “us” versus “them,” “good” and “evil,” helped reinforce a public mentality that was hostile to the exchange of ideas and to a diversity of perspectives.
Obviously, during the 1930s, there was a lot of talk in the federal forums about Marxist positions…since this was a major political intellectual movement throughout the world because, among other things, there was a worldwide economic depression. But after WWII, the American public clammed up about it particularly with the establishment of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and the “witch hunts” of Senator Joe McCarthy in the early 1950s.
At the same time, mass media and new forms of communication, particularly Television or TV, drew people’s attention away from local-level, face-to-face public discussion and toward celebrated “experts” who addressed a national audience via “The Tube.”. Moreover, impressive strides forward in scientific knowledge and accompanying technological advances diminished ordinary folks’ sense that the experience and wisdom they acquired through living was a valuable source of knowledge relevant to resolving complicated issues of public policy.
The “quiet tradition of the school board meeting” lost ground to the developing emphasis on efficient and rational governance by technocrats. The whole infrastructure of communication of political information and “talk” changed in the 1950s and 1960s through the seductive passivity engendered by America’s enchantment with TV as the major source of their “news” about politics and the world. Americans became isolated in their homes, captive to the American Corporate Oligarchy’s narrow and self-serving range of political and journalistic self-proclaimed “pundits.”
Many Modern Experiments, Projects and Networks in Deliberative Democracy
The reaction against this one-way, hierarchical, downstream flow of information and expertise and against the orthodoxy being spewed out by the Cold Warriors and The Hidden Persuaders (Packard 1957) that froze all non-mainstream political dissent for many years finally inseminated the beginnings of yet another “public deliberation” movement not only in America, but in other parts of the world as well. Not surprisingly, a number of these new methods of both face-to-face public deliberation and “multi-media” ones (called Electronic Town Meetings, or ETMs) began during the highest arc of The Cultural Revolution. After all, one of the major mottos of that democratic surge in American history was “Power to the People.”
“John Lennon – Power to the People”
One of the reasons for this was that the American Corporate Oligarchy, which was besieged at that time by “sit-ins”, mass protests, demonstrations, and the rock and roll rebellion, kept asking the question: Well, if you don’t like the system we have, what would you have take its place?” Of course, at that time, there was no answer. But the question did stimulate a number of people to begin thinking about “Deliberative Democracy” and “Public Deliberation” and how new technologies and techniques could be used to develop a new kind of public space in such a large country, with such a diverse population, at a time when the mass media was totally dominated by the corporate powers that be.
Over the past several years, though, “public deliberation” increasingly has been employed to characterize a particular form of political discourse in models of democracy that emphasize participation by “ordinary” citizens in the political process. Definitions vary, but generally speaking “public deliberation” is widely understood to be a pragmatic, inclusive form of dialogue and thought in which citizens collectively – even cooperatively:
* analyze a “problem”;
* establish criteria by which to evaluate public responses to it;
* identify multiple options that reflect different sets of values or value-priorities held by members of the public;
* weigh arguments for and against each option
* and, through an indefinite period of continuing discussion (that may or may not include voting), approach some measure of agreement that (ideally) most participants can accept as a collective “decision.”
This is much more complex than the Chautauqua, panel discussions and Federal Forum models of yesteryear. One of the first innovations, starting in the early 1970s, was to begin to use one of the new “scientific” techniques of “scientific” public polling and consumer research: “the stratified sample.”
Face-to-Face (F2F) Stratified Samples:
Citizens Juries, Planning Cells (“Planungszelles”) and Other Models
A major problem to be addressed was how to get “the public” in large societies, to come together and go through such a complicated process as defined above. Could it be done? How would you go about it? How long should it last? These questions were at the heart of the first two major F2F experiments in “deliberative democracy” – Dr. Ned Crosby’s “Citizens Juries” conducted by The Jefferson Center in Minneapolis, MN (USA) www.jefferson-center.org and Peter Dienel’s “Planning Cells” (Plannungszelle) at Wuppertal University (Germany).
If you go to The Jefferson Center website, you can read about how and why they choose to utilize a random, stratified method of choosing citizens to “represent” their city or state or even nation in the Citizen Jury process. The Chautauquas and the forum process in earlier American times tried to draw in large crowds for good reasons. This is harder to do these days. Plus, those who came to Chautauquas and Federal Forums were what is called “self selected samples,” those citizens who chose to come to such meetings. They are unlike most citizens who do not normally like to go to large, or any, public meetings.
“The PM and Jacqui Smith Attend a Citizen’s Jury on Crime”
By using random sampling and “stratifying” the sample, the modern organizers of many types of these new public spaces for discussion, deliberation and policy making attract many different types of people that need to be involved. Just like the Citizens Assemblies of British Columbia, there should be 50% women, people from all the main geographic parts of the polity, various ages, various races and ethnic groups, various levels of education, and the like that are in proportion to their numbers in that city or state or country. Thus, the assemblage must be a reasonable facsimile of the population. And the participants must be willing to spend a good deal of time in getting informed and thinking through the issue or problem with the others in a F2F situation.
Dr. Crosby and his organization spent some 30 years in doing over 30 such experiments mainly in Minnesota to see how to improve on the process. His work became world famous, and there have now been hundreds of Citizen Jury projects all around the world, including Denmark, Germany, Spain, Australia, but in particular Great Britain. In fact, Citizen Juries are thriving in The United Kingdom…and handle many tough issues including how to deal with the exploding crime problem there as well as the health care system.
The present Prime Minister of the UK, Gordon Brown, is a big supporter of using local CJs being held in some unison around the country in order to get a substantial national sampling of the people of UK to discuss, deliberate and recommend solutions to these problems to his Cabinet. Go to You Tube and search the following to see just how widespread and popular these are today in the UK.
Dr. Crosby and his wife Pat Benn – herself a lifetime labor organizer – have also decided to try to find a good way to use the Citizen Jury method in the United States, since unlike the British Prime Minister, no president or state governor or even city mayor has so far seen fit to employ any of the new deliberative democratic methods, much less the rather user friendly Citizen Jury, to involve American citizens of our era in the official policy making or planning process…at least not up to this writing.
One of their ideas has been to use Citizen Juries to improve the deliberative process of citizens initiatives that were discussed above. Crosby discusses this in his book Healthy Democracy (2003) where he observes that the information given citizens by state governments by mail prior to their voting on the ballot issues can be fortified greatly by inserting a media friendly Citizens Jury process into each citizens initiative that will appear on the ballot. Citizens could directly watch the jury questioning advocates on each side and then thinking the issue through. There could even be input via the Internet and the report of the Jury would also be put up on the worldwide web. This would provide an important role for the general public in the entire process other than merely voting on the issue submitted by proponents of the issue. (Crosby 2003)
Crosby and Benn tried to get this done in the state of Washington and it nearly passed in an initiative process there and they have worked with a group in the state of Oregon to implement this concept there, although they have slimmed down the role of the Citizen Jury to simply having a report of its findings announced publicly and then the results inserted in the information booklet that the state sends to each voter about the ballot issue. See their website at www.healthydemocracyoregon.org for information about it.
Also, there are several excellent videos on the Washington and Oregon projects, the Washington one (Citizens Initiative Washington, or CIW) and the one below…by Healthy Democracy Oregon in 2009. This is a clear and well produced explanation of how to “put quality citizen deliberation at the heart of the citizens initiative process.” and is clear and convincing demonstration of how advanced this method of citizen dialogue is over the earlier American models.
“The Citizens Initiative Review Process in Oregon (2009)”
Dr. Peter Dienel’s model in Germany was almost an exact replica of the American Citizen Jury, although neither Drs. Dienel nor Crosby knew of the other’s work during the formative and developmental stages of their respective projects. In fact, the greatest difference was not in small details in how citizens were selected, or the exact length of time it took, or in how the information was conveyed, it came in the political philosophy of Dr. Dienel. He would not just experiment. He needed to have the government involved directly from the outset of the process and at the end when the report was presented to the government.
Another difference between the Planning Cells and the Citizens Juries is explicit in their names. Dr. Dienel was not interested in having citizens involved in critical policy decisions or lawmaking. His interest in getting citizens involved in this new method of deliberative democracy was to engage them directly and efficiently in important local planning.
He also was absolutely convinced that there should be no getting citizens to participate unless there was at least a tacit “contract” between the government and the planning cells that the recommendations of the cells would be implemented as the city’s plan, somewhat along the lines of the subsequent Porto Alegre PB process. Although few government planning agencies or officials would actually write that down, the fact that Dr. Dienel’s cells were not just a single event (one cell or jury), but many at the same time in different parts of the city that would (and usually did) attract widespread coverage in the news, put public pressure on them to comply with any consensuses.
This publicity gave their recommendations extra weight, because if the city refused to implement the citizen cells’ plans, it would have a lot of explaining to do. Also, the Dienel method, since it almost assured citizens that they weren’t wasting their time, was effective in getting citizens to give their time to this deliberative democratic decision making process. (Dienel 1998)
There are other modern models of F2F deliberative democracy that have been developed in the United States in the past decades that involve citizens, mostly at the local and occasionally state levels, in thinking through plans for their future or solving pressing policy matters concerning health, safety, race, their economic future and the like. They are not as stringent about getting “representative” samples of citizens but they all work extremely well – much like the old time Chautauquas and the Forum Movement. They all involve citizens in sifting through extensive information and expert opinion; they are all professionally facilitated by experts who know how to engage all participants in the discussion and decision making; the process usually results in a large or total consensus; and the participants are almost always extremely satisfied with the process and their product.
Some of these longest running and most prominent and successful U.S. deliberative democracy or public deliberation projects are:
a. Study Circles, or as it goes by its new name: Everyday Democracy at www.everyday-democracy.org This organization has been around since 1989 and has served over 500 communities in its “dialogue-to-change” process. It handles every kind of issue and problem imaginable with a high rate of citizen and community satisfaction and effect.
b. The Kettering Foundation’s National Issues Forums (NIF) website can be found at www.nifi.org These forums have been held now for over 25 years, and they are a network of local forums of citizens organized by civic associations, churches, universities and libraries that gather self selected groups of citizens to come to their facilitated meetings to discuss several issues of national importance each year. The Kettering Foundation provides the basic information and opinions in sophisticated booklets to stimulate the deliberations, collects and analyzes the results each year and then informs the public and Congress of Americans’ “voice” on these important national matters in a variety of ways.
c. The Public Agenda Foundation can be found online at www.publicagenda.com. Founded in 1975 by nationally known pollster Daniel Yankelovich and former Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, this foundation has been a major player in the development of the national deliberative democracy movement. It has developed unique methods of “public engagement”, some of which are described in Mr. Yankelovich’s book Coming to Public Judgment (1991). The Public Agenda Foundation continually updates its
award winning website that keeps the reader well informed on a multitude of pressing national and local issues including some of their newest projects from its Center for Advances in Public Engagement.
We could go on and on with an extremely long list, but we’d prefer to stop and let the reader actually take a look at these original and enduring efforts to shape the modern version of American public deliberation and citizen dialogue. The reader may well wonder whether any of these people work together. The answer to that is: Yes.
There are two major American-based networks that bring many of these and other similar organizations together at conferences and meetings to share their experiences and occasionally collaborate on projects. Each has an excellent website as well. They are The Deliberative Democracy Consortium (DDC) at www.deliberative-democracy.net headed by Matt Leighninger and the National Coalition of Dialogue and Deliberation (NCDD) at www.thataway.org founded and chaired by Sandy Heierbacher. There is also another global network of professionals and academics who collaborate in the broader field of “public participation,” The International Association of Public Participation, or IAP2. Their homepage is at www.iap2.org. Although it has been headquartered outside the U.S. at times, it is currently housed in Colorado. The other two are originally U.S. based, although each has multi-national partners.
The reader may also question whether American scholars and academics and those from other nations around the world have any interest in developing any theories about this, and are doing any studies about it to show scientifically how well it works or doesn’t work. Again, the answer is absolutely yes.
There is already a sizable library of books published about the work being done in this important democratic transformation, some of which have already been cited above. And there are two professional journals, both online, which will keep the reader current on various scientific theories, experiments, projects, findings and analyses of deliberative democracy projects and experiments mentioned above and the kinds we will mention below that involve the new Information and Communications Technologies, or ICT. These two online publications are The Journal of Public Deliberation at www.services.bepress.com (edited by Becker) and the International Journal of Public Participation at www.ijp2.com (founded by Briand).
Using Information and Communications Technology ICT) in Deliberative Democracy Experiments and Projects
When radio became a national phenomenon in the 1920s and TV in the 1950s, both of these new electronic information technologies were heralded as ushering in a new age of democracy in America. After all, they were just about in every home. They were attractive. They told Americans about what was going on in the world. The evening news became instantaneous and national. You could listen to it and you could watch it. Unfortunately, as we’ve already pointed out, they have had almost the opposite effect. Why?
As we’ve emphasized repeatedly, they are both structurally undemocratic. The people who own the medium control the content. Moreover, it is a one-way system of communication. As for radio, it started out with many different kinds of stations locally owned and operated and staffed…by commercial companies, churches, labor unions, municipalities, etc. But the way it has evolved, it is now almost totally owned by large commercial corporations who use it primarily as tool to make profit through advertising….which is exactly what has happened with American TV….as we described in detail in Chapter 12. The effect on the rather weak form of American “democracy” has been close to disastrous.
But it didn’t have to take that path. Actually, there were and are opportunities within the American system, and other Western democracies, to utilize these new electronic technologies to enhance the kind of dialogue and deliberation that had characterized the American democratic spirit well before The American Revolution and that is alive and well today, just waiting to be reborn and re-energized through these ICTs.
We believe that the first person to exploit this opening was a psychologist named Dr. Vincent Campbell. He convinced the National Science Foundation in the early 1970s, again during The American Cultural Revolution, to let him develop a new method of citizen participation by which gave information to self selected samples of the citizens of San Jose, California via brochures which they received if they registered as participants in what he called “The Televote” process. Once registered, they were given Personal Identification Numbers (or PINs) whereby they could vote by telephone – the most widespread two-way electronic communication technology at the time.
This project, like Peter Dienel’s planning cells, was co-sponsored by a government agency. In this case, it was the San Jose Department of Education. The issues involved the schools of that city. The Board really wanted to get informed opinion from the citizens of San Jose about 9 problems they had to solve and they put forth 9 ballot initiatives on which the registered Televoters were to call in their opinions. Before each, the registered citizen received a packet of information and then they used their PINs to vote and a computer tallied the results which were then forwarded to the Board. It worked like a charm. The Board was happy with it, adopted most of the Televoters recommendations, and so were the citizens who participated. (Campbell 1974)
In 1978, Becker and his partner, Christa Daryl Slaton, saw how this simple system could be improved and used to help guide the delegates to the State of Hawaii Constitutional Convention (ConCon) of 1978. Instead of just allowing a self-selected sample of citizens register for two Televotes on two major issues of importance at the ConCon, Becker and Slaton decided to use standard scientific public opinion polling procedures, whereby the Televoters would be selected at random by telephone.
Those citizens who “won” this lottery were asked by the Televote staff if they would be willing to (a) receive an illustrated brochure in the mail that had undisputed facts about these issues; (b) which also contained a balanced set of arguments pro and con about the issue and then (c) be willing to discuss this matter with their families, friends, neighbors, and co-workers before deciding how they would vote. If they agreed to do this, then the Televote staff obtained their addresses and sent them the pamphlet about their issue and made an appointment, usually a week or so later, so that the Televoters could think about the facts and opinions, talk it over with others, and then deliberate on how they wanted to vote.
This was the birth of the first scientific deliberative poll. Becker and Slaton worked on about a dozen of these experiments over a 6 year period in Hawaii, New Zealand and California and came to realize that citizens of all three polities were extremely excited and gratified to be involved in this kind of decision making process. Through the use of this highly interactive, informed deliberation process that they could do at their homes, they let the staff know that they indeed felt “empowered” just to take part in a truly democratic deliberative process.
Dr. Dienel was a firm believer that in order to entice citizens into any kind of deliberative democracy project, the government had to bind itself to utilize the results. Otherwise, citizens would not participate since all their work would have no effect. This did not prove to be true with citizens who were recruited into the Televote scientific deliberative polling process. All the Televoters needed to know was that they would be involved in a genuine deliberative process and that the results would be made public and sent to various governmental officials, i.e., the ConCon delegates, the state legislature, The New Zealand Commission for the Future, The Southern California Association of Governments.
A full detailing of a large number of revealing and intriguing findings of these experiments can be found in Slaton’s book Televote (1992) and in their joint effort The Future of Teledemocracy. (Becker and Slaton 2000)
Some years later, another political scientist, Dr. James Fishkin of the University of Texas, invented another method of scientific deliberative polling that he calls “The Deliberative Poll.” His poll works quite differently from the Becker and Slaton model. For a full description, go to the website of The Center for Deliberative Democracy at Stanford University, where he is now the Director. It can be found at www.cdd.stanford.edu
What Dr. Fishkin does is to randomly select several hundred people who agree to assemble in person at a large central meeting place (often a university) that runs for several days. All expenses are paid. They are told they are going to deliberate on an important issue and be polled on their opinion before the process begins and after it is over. They also know there will be large assemblies, small “break out” group meetings, that they will get lots of information and hear many different experts, talk with many fellow citizens and that the whole event will be televised.
The point of all this is to demonstrate and measure exactly how much of an impact this kind of deliberative process has on the public opinion of a scientific sample of the city, state or nation. Dr. Fishkin has conducted over 22 of these projects thus far, according to his website, including national ones in Great Britain, Denmark and Australia among others. The results from them all are startlingly similar. In almost every instance, this particular deliberative process makes a stark difference in the minds of many of the citizens who participate in it. In other words, their views and opinions change radically. (Fishkin and Farrar 2005)
Thus, both the Becker and Slaton Televote experiments and those of Professor Fishkin are pretty clear and convincing proof of the efficacy of scientific deliberative polling…and by clear inference…on public opinion through impartial, informative public deliberative processes. One of the key elements is that the citizens in scientific deliberative polling – who are always a much more representative sample of the populace than any of their legislatures – learn a great deal by listening to the stories and the views of their fellow citizens. This has been a slowly developing epiphany in the development of American deliberative democracy over the years. Scientific deliberative polling can also have an impact on getting citizens from different countries together for deliberation on key issues as well. Fishkin managed to get the EU to do one of his deliberative experiments in Brussels in 2007
“Europe in One Room”
The Fishkin experiment is also notable for its employment of TV as an instrument to be used in scientific deliberative processes. Of course, Becker and Slaton had also used TV along with the Televote in New Zealand, California and Hawaii. (Slaton 1992, Becker and Slaton 2000) For Fishkin, however, TV was only part of the “educational” aspect of his process. For others in the Deliberative Democracy Movement, TV is primarily a method of interactive communication that helps empower citizens in their decision making process from the local level to national…and ultimately global.
Of course, personal computers and the Internet are the other ICT that have come on the scene since the 1990s and they both greatly enhance the idea and ideals of modern deliberative democracy. One of the most advanced methods of multi-media deliberative democracy in use today is another American invention, Dr. Carolyn J. Lukensmeyer’s “21st Century Town Hall Meeting” concept that is housed at America Speaks in Washington, D.C.
“Barack Obama TOWN HALL MEETING in Fairless Hills, PA”
Observe what most Americans, and citizens in other “representative democracies” have come to call “town hall meetings.” These are nothing like the New England Town Meetings and nothing like the Athenian Ecclesia. They are usually a one-person show where the politician or political leader comes and gives a talk, presenting her or his point of view, and then s/he fields questions and gives answers. The citizens only pose queries or stand in line at a microphone and make comments. The photo at the left was the “town hall format” used in the 2008 American presidential “debates.” These have become a national joke of late when American Congresspersons went back to their constituencies in the summer of 2009 and gave their views on health care reform. They did not get the respect that the presidential candidates received, as in the above video. Here is an example of what now passes, according to the American mass media, as “town hall meetings” in modern America.
“Town Hall Meeting Erupts in Protest”
See how lame these are compared to the Citizens Juries, Participatory Budgeting, Citizens Assemblies, Deliberative Polls? There is NO deliberation by the citizens at all. They are mere props for the politicians. So, how does Dr. Lukensmeyer’s “21st Century Town Hall Meeting”—which gets very little attention from political leaders and mainstream media actually work?
Well, fortunately for one and all, The AmericaSpeaks process is vividly and visually portrayed in two ways (a) a short, but very well produced video and (b) an excellent slideshow. Both can be accessed by clicking on their homepage at www.americaspeaks.org. Compare this complex interactive process to the ersatz, spurious kind of “Town Hall Meetings” that politicians employ to make their own points to constituents or potential voters in their home states or towns or on the campaign trail. The difference is akin to the difference between night and day.
The idea of using as many electronic tools as possible to get citizens to interact with government officials to discuss policy issues or planning has gone back a long way. The Los Angeles Televote held on KTLA in the early 1980s; the Honolulu Electronic City Council Hearing in 1987; the Alaska Television Town Meeting in 1980; the Reform Party Electronic Town Meeting on the issue of “physician assisted suicide” in Calgary that bound 5 Members of Parliament to vote the way the citizens wanted – these are all tried and true methods of using TV, radio, newspapers, and computers to empower people to think issues through at home or in a public meeting place. AmericaSpeaks put them altogether in its model and has successfully practiced it in the U.S.A. on a variety of issues like rebuilding New Orleans and health care reform in California, both in 2008.
“America Speaks: Engaging Citizens in Governance”
One of Dr. Lukensmeyer’s earlier experiments was also one of national scope. It was called “American Discuss Social Security” and was held in the late 1990s. It demonstrated vividly how the old time Chautauquas and Federal Forums could have much larger meetings – of many hundreds or even thousands of people under one roof in one part of the nation – electronically in touch by closed circuit TV with many thousands of true American “representatives” at the same time all over the country, from Los Angeles to Boston…and Cheyenne to Palm Beach. The dream that America can have informed, thoughtful public citizen deliberations about complex policy issues over a relatively short period of time – hundreds of thousands of citizens just like us talking and thinking together all over this nation – is not a dream. It is a reality.
The problem is not that the American public is unwilling or incapable of doing this…or that it hasn’t been proven repeatedly that it is eminently doable. The reality is not that the American democratic spirit has diminished or disappeared. The reality is that it is stifled and stilled by the way America’s Corporate Oligarchy and their allies in state and local corporate and government elite positions do the public’s business in this nation. They do it behind closed doors. Almost without exception, The American Corporate Oligarch gets “The Closed Door Award” every year. They do not want to share their political and economic power and mass media power with the American people because they know that they are at odds with the good will and common sense of the American public or the people of the states or any county or municipality. They want to make all the critical decisions themselves. They are the epitome of what it means to be a “control freak”. If they were willing to share and if they were willing to relinquish some of their power, America’s future would be very much brighter than it is in 2010.
Who Should Control America’s Future Political Economy: The American Corporate Oligarchy or The American People?
Deliberative participation in democratic governance is much, much more than a means by which public policy can be made more effective and by which citizens can feel more connected with government. Deliberative public participation is the sine qua non of democracy…whether in the family, in the workplace, in our strategic economic decision making, and in our governance in daily life – whether it be a condominium association, a Kiwanis meeting, a political science department, the town council, PTA, Congress, a Parliament, or even a global negotiation, like the Copenhagen Conference on climate change in December of 2009. Authentic democratic processes remain rare.
Democracy, in truth, is an indispensable component of human well-being. Hence the form, extent, and quality of democracy throughout any society are of most fundamental importance to Jefferson’s belief that we all have an inalienable right to pursue our own happiness. Those who live or work in hierarchical or authoritarian systems have a high hurdle to overcome in attaining personal self-esteem and gratification in life.
At stake in the continuing contest between oligarchy and democracy in the United States, as well as around the world, is not just who is at the controls of present day political and economic institutions. What is at stake is who is going to make the most crucial decisions about the future of humankind on planet Earth. As we said at the very start of this book, America will play a key role in the outcome, by what it decides to do or not do, for better or for worse.
As we are living through 2010, it has become quite clear that our globe has become an exceptionally treacherous place. The United States may be in the worst economic mess it’s suffered through in over a half a century, but every nation is feeling its own sense of pain and potential disaster looming over its own mountains, deserts and seas. Yet, the way America goes is pretty much the way the rest will go too. A gigantic volcanic eruption in one small part of the Earth can change climate around the world for decades. The U.S.A is not “one small part” of this world, it is a massive and global presence. It implodes, it will have the gravity of a black hole.
So, there are extremely important political and economic decisions that have to be made and soon, right here on American soil. Many will be made by the present U.S. government and its various and sundry institutions. They must be a lot better than a host of decisions that have been made in recent decades which have helped lead America to the brink of economic decay and political suicide.
In November 2008, the American people entrusted their future to a new Administration, led by a relatively young leader, but one who has surrounded himself with very much the same kind of advisors and officials who advised his predecessors. President Obama has already made it clear that his view of the American political spectrum stops at Republican/Democrat and liberal/conservative. But these are very much the same people who populated American government over the past two or three decades and put Reaganomics and The New World Order into place. At best, then, we can expect “reform” from the top echelons of the power elite…if that.
But what “choice” for “change” did Americans really have? No matter who they elected, only the faces and some of the attitudes of these leaders would have changed. The same philosophy of governance, both at home and abroad, would have been much the same. The military industrial complex, The American Empire, and the American and Global Corporate Oligarchy are still in charge. Thus, from our point of view, the slope of America’s political economic situation might level off some for a while, or even wobble along with some ups and downs. But the long-term arrows on all the charts will continue to plunge most often and generally downward for some time…no matter how many “happy faces” the mass media cosmeticians and economic artists paint on them.
The biggest question is not how much “change” the Obama Administration will bring to America’s troubled political economy. The biggest question is whether or when the American people are going to react in ways that are traditional to the democratic spirit of the United States of America. Having e-conversations with President Obama on his “Organizing for America” is hardly the solution. President Obama’s vows of being “transparent” and “engaging” the public will have about as much success under the present oligarchy’s regime as the “Sunshine Laws” had after the Cultural Revolution. Delightful words will let in little illumination. None of what may be said or promised from the apex will come even close to the American and new global concepts of a democratic public decision making process.
Will the American people finally get fed up with the rule of this greedy, effete and ineffectual political economic oligarchy? How much pain and depression can the mass of the American people take before they rise up en masse in some ways as they have done since before the American Revolution? How much distance must the American public discern between themselves and those of privilege who try to disguise their deep indifference to the public’s plight before they begin to assemble and demand fundamental change? Massive peaceful protests, demonstrations and widespread assembly are as American as “shoo fly pie and apple pan dowdy.” Huge ones are taking place in recent years all around the world. These methods, plus general strikes and economic boycotts have a proven records of undermining entrenched elite rule.
If and when that happens, if American history holds true, and we believe it will…perhaps massive outrage will make itself known before the election of 2012. Perhaps not until then. Perhaps not until after that. No one really knows how bad things are going to get…or how quickly. No one knows how well the Obama “stimulus” package is going to work, or how the “bailout” of failed American financial and industrial goliaths will succeed or fail. No one knows when this unbearable American national debt will become the albatross around America’s neck. No one knows what is in store for America’s doomed empire throughout the world…what new crises will emerge…what new enemies will appear…What we do know is that the longer the Empire continues, the longer the economic wounds will not be sutured.
So what can Americans do right now other than trust the new faces of the American Corporate Oligarchy to palliate the economic and human suffering in the U.S.A. and around the world? They can get to understand the true democratic history of the United States of America and begin to understand that either the American people begin to think and act together regardless of what happens or doesn’t happen in Washington, D.C. As we believe we have shown in this last part of this book, particularly in Chapters 15 and 16, the real solutions start local and small. But they sprout and they grow. Only later do the forms and connections appear.
“Say a Little Prayer for Planet Earth”
As we believe we have amply demonstrated in the last three chapters of this book, pragmatic solutions to America’s domestic and foreign problems abound. They have worked in America. They have worked in other countries. They work at the national level. They work in small communities. They are political. They are economic. They are social. They only need Americans to step up to the plate and act as Americans have historically acted in times of national emergency and dramatic change: together, in solidarity. Moreover, today Americans can use the most effective and sophisticated democratic practices of any time in history aided by the most empowering ICTs in humankind’s residence on Planet Earth.
We have not tried to present an abbreviated encyclopedia of all the ideas, systems, institutes, centers, thinkers, and doers who have paved the way as to how all this can be done. We have only tried to connect some of the larger dots, just enough to make The Big Picture clear. There is no way that America cannot be The Last Empire on the face of the Earth. It already is that.
However, as The Last Empire, it is also presently Lost…wandering somewhat aimlessly in wastelands it has created, running low on oil and water. The way to regain its senses and its ideals and rediscover its destiny of independence, freedom and a good life is for Americans to begin to realize that they are Americans. And that means embracing and reliving The Declaration of Independence and The American Revolution, albeit in peaceful and democratic ways. That means regaining their strength through numbers…in the workplace….in their governance…through the wonders of democracy as defined ever since it was founded in Athens over 2000 years ago and redesigned and redeveloped in the United States ever since its founding.
Once America regains its sense and practice of democracy, as praised by de Tocqueville almost two centuries ago, it may be The Last Empire, but it will no longer having lost its bearings. If the American Corporate Oligarchy remain as the ones to decide America’s political economy for the future, America will surely be the lesser and the biggest loser in Post Imperial Times. If the American people can regain their grasp on power and reshape their own and the world’s political economy into a more democratic, decentralized system, it will regain its rightful place as a world leader in Early Post Imperial Times based on its peaceful, practical, collaborative models and not displaced as a despised, autocratic violent Emperor.
So, it is up to us – all of us – to decide whether the future will bring more oligarchy, and with it more of the distortions, injustices and devastation it creates, or whether it will bring a new stage in the uneven-but-continuing project of improving the conditions of life for all people in the United States and throughout the world. In our conversations and discussions of when, where, and how to admit all citizens into the political and economic decision-making arenas, let us bear in mind that the stakes are of the highest order. Not just democracy, but much more – peace, justice, human solidarity, and even the fates of Mother Earth and of terrestrial life itself – hang in the balance.
We leave you with one of the greatest speeches ever made in human history about the previous sacrifices made by America’s forefathers and mothers in the cause of freedom, justice and democracy: Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address in 1863. There are many dramatizations of this speech on the web, but we’ve chosen this one—for reasons that should be obvious to anyone who has truly understood the contents, ideas and ideals of this book.
“Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address: A Collective Voice of the People of Central Illinois, USA”
Humanity is now engaged on many battlefields, the outcome as uncertain as it was when Abraham Lincoln spoke these cherished words 147 years ago. But his vision as to what we must believe, what we must remember, and how we must proceed in the future remains as true today as when he shared it with us under equally gloomy and cloudy circumstances.
Questions for Discussion
1. Why do Becker and Briand think that “reform” of the American political system will not be good enough to bring about the kind of changes in policy that they think are desirable and necessary?
2. What are the differences between Citizen Perot’s reforms and those in “The Contract with America”?
3. How do Becker and Briand distinguish “reform” from “transformation”? How would they classify electing the president by the majority of a popular vote of the people? How would you classify it?
4. Do you think that President Obama’s “stimulus package” is a reform, a transformation, or neither?
5. Why might “The Clean Election Laws” be considered as a progressive reform of the “representative democracy” oxymoron? How about Oregon’s “vote by mail” program?
6. What features in the Swiss system do Becker and Briand believe make it by far the most democratic nation in the world today?
7. What is the only country in the world that allows citizens to “recall” their president in the middle of his/her term of office? Does this occur at all in the United States? Would you like to see the U.S. Constitution amended to allow for American citizens to recall the president and schedule a new election before her/his term expires?
8. How would you define “deliberative democracy”?
9. Why did the Parliament of British Columbia decide to establish a “Citizens Assembly?” How did they choose the delegates? How did they empower The Citizens Assembly to actually make it a real and powerful democratic experiment?
10. Do you think Citizens Assemblies would work in the United States? If not, why not?
11. What is “participatory budgeting?” Do you think this would work in the United States of America? Do you think it should be used widely? If not, why not?
12. What institutions in American history were the ancestors to the modern American deliberative democracy movement? If they were so successful, why did they end?
13. What is a citizens jury and how does it work? How does it differ from “The Deliberative Poll?” Can you think of any way that they might be used together?
14. Are F2F and electronic deliberations compatible?
15. What are the indicators, according to Becker and Briand, that the deliberative democracy movement is the next generation of democratic transformation for America and around the world?
16. Do you think that a widespread use of deliberative democracy, along with more actual political democracy, would help America and the rest of the world cope with emerging national, regional and global disasters? If not, why not?