It’s election time again, and as Californians we have the opportunity to practice one form of “direct democracy” and thus participate in the noble process of citizen lawmaking.
There are ballot propositions concerning altering the existing “three strikes” law, requiring the labeling of genetically-engineered foods, the redistricting of state Senate districts and repealing the death penalty. Personally, I am thankful for the League of Women Voters’ brochure, which contains nonpartisan explanations of the pros and cons of proposed state propositions.
Direct democracy is a phrase that means many things to many people. To some people it refers to these particular forms of voting allowed within the context of representative democracy (referendums, initiatives and/or recalls). For others it refers to more a radical form of collective self-governance in which citizens deliberate and decide upon laws and policies through popular assemblies.
We live in an age in which there is a crisis in democracy. Our two-party system is but a charade engineered by the corporate state. There are no major institutions in American society that are truly democratic. Instead we have a system in which corporate money bolsters the power of the corporate state.
And this corporate state is ruled by a liberal elite who mouth progressive values while perpetuating inequality. We have come to see their moral posturing as a fraud.
Many of us living in modern nation-states are turned off by the whole political process. Things have been so corrupt and so dysfunctional for so long that we have ceased to care. The democratic system is so anemic that I fear that it may no longer be a realistic mechanism for change.
As I write these words, the 2012 U.S. presidential election is but weeks away, and I just hope for the end of the campaign season. The media spectacle of political participation has replaced any actual engagement with systems of power, leaving us with feelings of apathy, alienation and resignation.
Less than half of the total American populace will actually cast votes within the next election, and many of us who will vote feel as though either our votes do not matter (think of our antiquated electoral college system) or that the bland offerings of corporate-sponsored Tweedledum or Tweedledee make little difference in the workings of our society.
Theorists of democracy identity three core characteristics of an ideal system of direct democracy:
» participation — overwhelming numbers of people must be actively involved in the decision-making processes;
» deliberation — open and informed debate and discussion from multiple points of views with the critical use of evidence;
» equality — all members of a populace must have an equal opportunity to become engaged in political decision-making.
Clearly, the size of the populace shapes the quality of the debate.
For me, the most hopeful sign that all is not lost is Occupy Wall Street, which has infused American politics with a fiery brand of radical democracy. OWS attempted to embody all three of the characteristics of democracy listed above.
Taking to the streets across the United States with new forms of refusal and resistance, this grassroots, decentralized, radically inclusive social movement sparked the flames of protest against politics as usual, the financial scamming of the power elite and the notion that ordinary people are powerless to do anything about the path on which our country is heading.
Occupy Wall Street hoped that the occupation of public spaces as a gesture of collective protest against political and economic elites would prompt the political structures of representative democracy to respond to these requests. This failed.
Instead, the reaction of our government to OWS demonstrated how highly totalitarian and repressive our state apparatus is. Consider how the mayors of 18 OWS cities participated in a conference call discussing when chronological invasions against peacefully assembled citizens would occur. The trainings for the riot police invasions was conducted by the FBI and Homeland Security, who gave tactical and planning advice for the events.
In writing here about political engagement, I invoke a vision of a future society that is just and peaceful, where not only do people live nonviolent lives, deal with conflict in harmonious ways, but treat each other with dignity and respect. This is because violence is not just acts of physical harm or destructive force. Sociologist Parker Palmer suggests that violence exists whenever we violate the integrity of another — “when we demean, marginalize, dismiss, rendering other people irrelevant to our lives or even less that human.” Violence is not caring enough for another.
Central to my vision of a just and peaceful society is imagining a world in which all people are directly engaged in making decisions about laws and policies that affect their lives. To differentiate this form of politics from others, let us call this radical democracy. Citizens fully participate in the political life of the community with a strong sense of personal voice and agency reflecting their sense that we are all in this together.
I want this type of democracy.
Across the globe, citizens are taking to the streets in innumerable forms of refusal and resistance. Arab Spring and OWS are just two examples for the push for people power. Yet, the constitutions of modern nation-states fail us. They reproduce hierarchy and inequality. Professional political representatives govern us rather than serve us. The mechanisms of political decision-making have been dislocated from the populace. Moreover, big money has taken over and even the meager form of direct democracy has been tainted by blood money.
The Constitution and Declaration of Independence say nothing about the United States being a democracy. In fact, the framers of the Constitution were very much opposed to large-scale citizen lawmaking. The rights of property-owning citizens, who made up a “minority,” seem to have been a central motivation of our “founding fathers.”
Despite these auspicious beginnings, the United States uses many forms of direct democracy. Twenty-four states have referendum, initiatives and/or recall processes. Moreover, many New England municipalities decide local affairs through a direct democratic process of the town meeting. The Supreme Court validated citizen lawmaking in 1912 in the ruling Pacific States Telephone and Telegraph Company v. Oregon US 118.
As a progressive activist, I approach the notion of participatory democracy with positive prejudices. What a needed anecdote to American-style political apathy citizen lawmaking could be. I firmly believe that the more ordinary people become engaged in making decisions about laws and policies that impact their lives the better.
Citizens are smart enough and can care enough to make thoughtful decisions based upon careful examination of the facts and using adequate deliberation. Of course, this does not always seem to happen.
As a Californian, I have some experience with “direct democracy,” and they have not all been good in my view. Proposition 13 closed many libraries across the state. The state’s voting on Proposition 8 prohibits some Californians from marrying the ones they love. But on the other hand, Proposition 63 funds mental health consumer education. Of course, some of the bills I like will not pass.
Wealthy interests often prevail. Outsiders with deep pockets can come in and seemingly buy elections. Local media can sway voters. Low turnouts run rampant so that the number of voters it takes to pass an initiative is relatively small.
The more I think about it, the more I am coming to believe that direct democracy is the worst form of government there is. Except for all the others.
Yet Occupy demonstrates the spirit of participatory democracy at its best. Critics complained that the true democracy-in-action we witnessed across the United States as Occupy Wall Street did its thing was reformist, slow, clumsy and cumbersome. Well, whoever thought that getting thousands of people from divergent lives to deliberate on the issues of the day in all their delicious complexity would be quick and easy.
The slow, deliberate process of consensus-building and getting every voice heard takes considerable resources. It works well with groups that are limited in size.
And perhaps we need to reaffirm a positive role for some representative democracy with large populaces. Professional lawmakers can do outstanding work at crafting well-thought-out legislation.
The active engagement of the citizenry in lawmaking is essential to good government. The more the full populace, including formerly excluded groups, such as those marginalized, displaced and silenced by years of historical oppression, engages in deliberation and decision-making, the more robust and thoughtful the laws and policies will be. Ideally, the intermediary role of representatives should be minimalized to consultation and critique, for all citizens have what it takes to make political choices ion the legislation that affects their lives. For radical democracy to flourish, the systemic factors that reproduce inequality must cease to exist.
— Wayne Mellinger, Ph.D., is social worker with a passion for helping those who suffer on the streets move forward productively with their lives. He holds a certificate in alcohol and drug counseling from Santa Barbara City College.