[Hpn] Direct Democracy

Coalition on Homelessness, SF coh@sfo.com
Sun, 30 Jul 2000 21:54:33 -0700


Direct Democracy: An Alternative to Electoral Misrepresentation
by stopday.com 12:00am Tue Nov 30 '99

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 

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.

Coalition on Homelessness, San Francisco
468 Turk St.
San Francisco, CA 94102
vox: (415) 346.3740
Fax: (415) 775.5639