In general, the term "direct democracy" usually refers
to citizens making policy and law decisions in person,
without going through representatives and legislatures. The
classic example of this is the New England Town Meeting where anyone
from the town who wants to show up to debate and vote on town policy
can do so. Until recently, this worked for scores of communities,
but low attendance at many modern town meetings has raised questions
about whether they are truly democratic.
More recent direct democracy proposals tend to focus on voting
schemes (usually high tech) that would allow widespread,
virtually continual voting by millions of citizens on whatever
proposals surfaced. While useful in building up a buffet of
voting methodologies for possible use in other contexts, the lack
of organized public deliberation about the issues in question makes
such proposals look more like opinion polls than exercises of citizenship.
Wise solutions to public problems won't likely come off the top
of a hundred million heads.
A third approach to direct democracy -- the "initiative
process" adapted by a number of states -- allows anyone
to propose a law which, if they can get enough of their fellow citizens
to co-sponsor it (usually by signing petitions), can be voted on
by the entire electorate in the next election. While apparently
empowering the grassroots, this process has in many instances been
co-opted by special interest groups, especially monied interests
who put initiatives on the ballot to increase their wealth and power
in the guise of public benefit -- or to confuse voters about competing
initiatives that actually come from the grassroots. Since
the monied interests have more resources to hire petition-signature-gatherers
and to run powerful advertising campaigns based on extensive marketing
surveys and expert PR advice (sometimes very devious, last minute
blitzes that can't be answered before the election), there's a real
question about how democratic existing initiative processes are.
Furthermore, such processes offer no more deliberation than the
unproductive media debates that characterize most political campaigns.
So each of these approaches to direct democracy raises questions
about how wise or democratic they actually are, in practice. Democracy
requires participation by the broad citizenry or at least those
affected by the decision. Wisdom requires thoughtful, informed
consideration of the issues and consequences involved with various
DIRECT DEMOCRACY AND DELIBERATIVE DEMOCRACY
So where do we get wisdom? One of the most important -- and probably
indispensible -- sources of collective
wisdom in a democracy is informed deliberation
among people whose diversity approximates the diversity of their
community or country. (Such a group can be large or small, as long
as it meets that criteria. See the deliberation
page on this site for democratic innovations that embody this
understanding). Such deliberation produces public judgment, a far
higher form of collective intelligence than mere public opinion.
(See A Call
to Move Beyond Public Opinion to Public Judgment..)
Broadly recognized citizen deliberation and public
judgment bring public wisdom to the public power that is bestowed
by direct democracy. Such a combination of power and
wisdom begins to approach an ideal democratic form. An example of
an effort to actually practice this level of advanced democracy
is British Columbia's experiment with a Citizens
Assembly on Electoral Reform, in which 160 randomly selected
citizens explored different approaches to electoral reform and the
outcome of their deliberations was submitted to British Columbia's
electorate for a direct vote.
councils, of wihich the above Citizens Assembly is one example,
are a particularly potent source of deliberative wisdom.
Useful definition note: "It
would be helpful for us to use "initiatives" for proposals
by citizens, and "referenda" to mean proposals "referred"
for a citizen vote by legislators, instead of using referendum
generically to mean either." -- Evan Ravitz, http://www.vote.org.
For an intelligent proposal for a national initiative process,
see National Initiative for Democracy.
For an international academic site focused on direct democracy
see C2D - Research and Documentation
Centre on Direct Democracy
For a critique that supports having citizens engage in major public
deliberations to advise legislatures -- but not to pass their own
legislation -- see Referenda.
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