[Hpn] Direct Democracy
Coalition on Homelessness, SF
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
My community is overwhelmingly made up of right wing conservatives.
Wouldn't this form of politics lead to the severe oppression of
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
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