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Direct Democracy: An Alternative to Electoral Misrepresentation

by Sunday, Jul. 30, 2000 at 7:13 PM

Frequently Asked Questions

Frequently Asked Questions

How is representative democracy different than direct democracy?

Representative democracy involves electing politicians to make laws for the voters. Direct democracy, also known as "grassroots democracy" or "participatory democracy", refers to people directly making decisions for themselves.

Is direct democracy anarchist?

Advocates of direct democracy share many concerns with anarchists. We do not trust politicians to decide in our best interests. By now it is common knowledge that our elected leaders all too often fail to represent the majority. Rather they are puppets that take their orders from the upper classes since they are the major campaign contributers. The rest of us lack the money to be given anything more than lip service. Further, we want the dignity that comes with self-management as opposed to the paternalism of someone governing us.

However direct democracy does involve majority rule instead of the anarchist preference for consensus making and voluntary cooperation. While many of us practice the latter in the organizations and cooperatives we work with, this form of politics becomes undoable in a situation where there are thousands of people with differing interests, such as the communities we live in. Additionally, rules made by the majority would likely be made for all. If an individual did not agree or want to pay a tax, they would still be obligated to pay it, to avoid the free rider problem.

Yet its undoubtable that every community under direct control of its citizens would differ in some way from the rest, which would provide real choice for people deciding on where to live. Hopefully there would be something for everyone including anarchists desiring a voluntary tax collection system and "Libertarian Party" members wanting to reside where their tax dollars are not allocated to those in need.

My community is overwhelmingly made up of right wing conservatives. Wouldn't this form of politics lead to the severe oppression of unpopular minorities?

By looking at recent history one can see that representative government is no guaranteed safeguard against fascism. For example the Nazis gained power in Germany through elections. In the US we've seen elected officials turn a blind eye to lynchings, police rampages at otherwise peaceful demonstrations, and we've watched them poor our tax dollars into providing loans to brutal dictatorships (search: Suharto IMF USA).

Since the Right has traditionally been an adversary of genuine democracy it's unlikely that they would implement this kind of system. Nor should they be forced to do so. That too would be undemocratic. If for some reason they did have a direct democracy in place, there are checks and balances that could prevent systematic human rights abuses. For example more liberal leaning communities could cut off trade with them. Unlike the sanctions against Iraq, where millions starve while the dictator sits in a plush palace unmoved after a decade, a truly democratic community is run by the general public instead of the wealthiest few. Therefore its more probable that they would feel the weight of sanctions and want to compromise, so as to gain favor from the outside world.

Most people are too ignorant to be trusted with making public decisions. Shouldn't foreign policy, social services and infrastructure questions be left up to people like Harvard graduates, George Bush and Al Gore?

While many politicians have extensive educational training, it is by no means given that once in office they will govern in the public interest. It is true that today many people do not pay attention to politics or vote. However if we are to move away from the current (mis)representative system to one that is more direct, there will need to be massive political pressure on the part of the civil society. Our politicians will never voluntarily give up the power and priveledge they currently have. Further, we believe that in a system that allows for active participation from it citizens, people would stay informed in community matters. Unlike now, where most people realize decisions are out of their control, in a direct democracy everyone can see that the future is up to them. Staying uninvolved could mean that ones interests are not heard or defended when policy is made.

This kind of political system wouldn't allow for efficient decision making. Wouldn't the amount of time and resouces needed to produce, distribute and tally ballot results on a routine basis be much greater than is needed under the current electoral system?

If efficiency in policy making was our only concern it would make sense to advocate for a fascist dictatorship. Yet we have other ideals that motivate us: namely the control of our lives and justice for all. This is not to say that efficiency isn't a consideration. Fortunately there are ways to make direct democracy more responsive to political concerns.

The internet revolution underway could allow public participation in decision making less of a trouble over large geographic areas and has already enhanced community discussion. Many issues can be handled in a more simplified manner. Instead of having a thousand different taxes with a thousand carefully crafted loopholes for the corporate lobby, a handful of taxes could be created that withstand the judgement of fairness and usefullness by voters. Instead of drafting, proposing and voting on endless regulations to curb corporate abuse, residents could simply vote on whether to terminate a firms permit to exist in the community, or put it on corporate probation. The threat of having a permit revoked would be much more serious to a company run by the employees than it would be to a private firm operated by stockholders and executives, since the former is typically less willing to relocate (away from family and friends). In general the democratization of other areas of life would help reduce the amount of social issues that many councils and parliaments currently occupy their time with. This can be seen most significantly in the area of work. A strong labor movement that had succeeded in bringing the industries it creates under workers control would undoubtedly shift the focus from generating profits for a few to meeting the needs of employees. Secure pension funds could be created and child care services provided to parents. Labors historic drive to reduce the workweek could help lower unemployment and provide income to more people needing it. Housing cooperatives could also provide affordable living, day care, and loans to members experiencing financial difficulty.

What are the procedural aspects of direct democracy?

Petition-This is used to assure that the public does not waist its time and resources voting on issues that have no chance of majority support. In order for a legal proposal to be placed on a ballot a certain proportion of citizens first need to sign a petition stating that they want a vote on the issue.

Initiatives-Once the necessary amount of signatures has been obtained from the public the proposal is placed on the ballot.

Referenda-also knows as "refferals", referenda are ballot measures voted on by the public yet proposed by elected officials. While its nice of the elected officials to let us to decide, their framing the issue conflicts with our mission to do away with the puppets of the rich and their power.

What is the history of direct democracy in the United States?

Ballot initiatives and referenda (I&R) have been means of passing laws on the state and local level for almost one hundred years. From their origins in the populist and reformist ferment of the 1880s and 90s, ballot measures have accurately reflected the most pressing popular concerns in their jurisdictions, and their use has been a barometer of popular discontent with elected officials and bipartisan consensus, both local and national.more

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