The Co-Intelligence Institute CII home // CI Democracy Home

National Initiative for Democracy


see notes on other forms of Direct Democracy



National Initiative for Democracy -- NI4D -- is an organized effort to augment the existing U.S. political and governmental process with a sophisticated form of direct democracy. The nonprofit organization Philadelphia II advocates a National Initiative for Democracy consisting of a Democracy Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and a Democracy Act, both of which establish a process through which Americans could propose, deliberate on, and directly vote on laws of their own making. This form of direct democracy is viewed as a partnership with the existing representative democracy.

NI4D proposes two stages of direct democracy: 1) citizens directly establish the Amendment and Act mentioned above (i.e., they don't use the existing, relatively corrupted legislative process) and 2) citizens use the procedures thus established to directly consider and vote on any further laws they feel require their direct action, while continuing to delegate to Congress all routine law-making.

In essence, NI4D is proposing a deep, peaceful and powerful reassertion of the sovereignty of The People, in which the citizens of the country, through direct-vote approval of their own Constitutional amendment and direct-democracy law, establish out of thin air their right to directly pass laws -- just as was done by the original framers of the Constitution (at the Constitutional Convention in "Philadelphia I"). This initiative is based on what some political philosophers call First Principles -- the basic assumptions underlying democracy as a political philosophy -- that The People should, can and do govern themselves, and that therefore all political power ultimately lies with The People.

The NI4D proposals offer well-thought-out arrangements that go far beyond
* direct democracy schemes based on polling everyone AND
* the kind of ballot initiative processes available in certain states AND
* the advisory nature of such citizen-deliberation proposals as Plan for a Healthy Democracy.

The National Initiative for Democracy provides a strategy whereby "We, The People" can take back our sovereign legislative power to select issues, make proposals, deliberate on and revise those proposals, and vote them into legitimate law.  In effect, NI4D proposes that We, The People, establish for ourselves a new tool of governance to complement our three branches of government that we established in the US Constitution.  It suggests that, in addition to the Administrative and Judicial functions of government, there should be TWO independent but partnered Legislative functions -- one carried out on an ongoing basis by a representative body (Congress: the House and Senate) and the other carried out by a direct process (the national initiative process), as needed, by The People.

Understanding the NI4D proposals requires us to take certain leaps in our thinking. We need to get outside the box of familiar governmental forms and ways of thinking about government.  In particular, we need to understand that, while Congress is a legislative BODY, the new National Initiative arrangement is a legislative PROCESS -- a tool through which "We, The People" can propose solutions to our collective problems, evaluate and qualify those proposals, collectively reflect on them (using public hearings, randomly selected citizen "deliberative committees", public information campaigns -- and even an advisory vote by Congress!), and then adopt or reject those proposals through a national election. 

Citizens need to understand that the National Initiative process involves no standing body of representatives making decisions.  The only "establishment" is the Electoral Trust, an elected organization mandated by the Constitutional amendment and legislation proposed by NI4D, whose sole purpose is to help "We, The People" exercise our inherent powers of self-governance. 

The whole plan is a truly wild, out-of-the-box conception that represents a higher form of national direct democracy than I've seen elsewhere -- not the least because it includes thorough proposal-review and deliberation processes (which are described further in Section 3-I of the Democracy Act  Through the NI4D direct democratic process, We, The People, would not only be able to enact laws, but also to amend our Constitution, making it into a living document that serves the needs of our changing times. 

Talk of amending the Constitution, of course, makes many people nervous -- and rightly so.  They fear our fundamental principles might well be corrupted by the passing fancies of a fickle public or the manipulations of power-hungry special interests. While it makes sense to avoid frequent changes in the most fundamental document of our democracy, we also need to remember the words of Thomas Jefferson:  "Some men look at constitutions with sanctimonious reverence.... They ascribe to the men of the preceding age a wisdom more than human, and suppose what they did to be beyond amendment.... But...laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind.  As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths disclosed, and manners and opinions change with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the times.... Let us not weakly believe that one generation is not as capable as another of taking care of itself, and of ordering its own affairs."

NI4D is definitely about We, The People, ordering our own affairs.  Interestingly, NI4D was started (and is led) not by an isolated academic or activist, but by Mike Gravel, US Senator from Alaska from 1969-1981 and 2008 Presidential candidate.  While he was instrumental in releasing the Pentagon Papers and stopping the development of nuclear power -- even recruiting Ralph Nader's organization to the anti-nuke cause -- he is no flaming radical.  He's been a successful real estate developer, worked for military intelligence in the 1950s and supported the creation of the Alaska oil pipeline over the objections of environmentalists -- even getting the pipeline project an exemption from environmental judicial review.  In short, he's a very mainstream fellow -- one who happens to know the underside of politics very well.  It is significant that his NI4D proposals allow "only natural persons" to propose or support a nationzl initiative -- that is, no initiating or funding by corporations, Political Action Committees, or other special interest groups (see the Democracy Amendment, Sections 5 and 6).

So I recommend a careful exploration of this project.  As seemingly outrageous as its premise is -- that The People can just declare a new legislative institution into existence, whether the current government likes it or not -- it is based on pretty fundamental democratic assumptions, such as that The People are the source of all legitimate exercises of power.  If "We, The People" make it clear that we want this National Initiative for Democracy, it would be established... Or else it would trigger a revolutionary confrontation between We, the People, and the established power elites who were resisting it -- possibly similar to the one that was triggered by the Declaration of Independence more than two centuries ago. Regardless of what happened, it would bring democracy back to life in some very dramatic ways!


1) The Limitations of Proposals, per se (see "Beyond positions: a politics of civic co-creativity"): I'm not speaking here of NI4D as a proposal, but about the fact that NI4D is totally oriented to deal with proposals, i.e., proposed laws in the form of initiatives. In the NI4D process, each potential law starts out as a proposal, rather than as a formal high-quality deliberation about a problem or issue.  Although there is ample room to change such a proposal during the NI4D deliberative process, grounding everything in whatever proposals happen to be made at the start intrinsically limits the level of creativity being applied to the issue the proposal was designed to address. Proposals often shape our thinking in ways that prevent the discovery of "third way" solutions that may be far better. One way to address this might be to require that anyone with a proposed law name the problem they are trying to solve. Powerful citizen deliberation could then be convened about that problem (see, for example, citizens juries and Danish technology panels, perhaps using dynamic facilitation) after which any resulting proposals would be submitted to a review process such as Plan for a Healthy Democracy which would choose one or more of them to be entered into the NI4D initiative process. Creative, dialogue-derived proposals -- or requests for issue-oriented citizen deliberation -- might also be generated by a Wisdom Council. In short, NI4D seems to me a major piece of a larger pattern. It provides a key link to ensure that good ideas can become actual legislation. But we also need to design political institutions that will dependably produce good ideas that The People think are wise -- even before they're put to a vote. Although this isn't included in the NI4D process, fortunately there is nothing in NI4D's approach that precludes such a citizens movement from coming up with initiatives to put through the NI4D process.

2) Expedience: The NI4D process seems slow -- very appropriately slow, given the profound responsibility it entails. However, social, environmental or technical problems crop up -- or surge into public awareness -- very suddenly, and demand rapid handling. What do we do when such an urgent matter needs immediate attention?  Do we leave it to the elected legislature to handle, or should some streamlined form of NI4D be created to deal with such issues until a full initiative process could be completed on that issue?

3) Overwhelm - Research shows that few people can hold more than about seven items in their minds at one time. Once you start thinking about it, you soon realize that NI4D's proposed initiative process could evoke hundreds of proposed new laws from creative citizens. But the more proposals are on the ballot, the less people would pay attention to the specifics of any one of them, and the more inclined they would be to simply vote against everything (or to vote according to recommendations of their favorite special interest group), rather than exercising real informed citizenship. There may be need for a system for establishing priorities, so that not every popular idea ends up on the ballot in the next election. A mix of opinion polling, on-line priority-voting, and ad hoc, randomly-selected citizen councils may help here (for example, by reviewing 37 proposed initiatives to recommend the ten most important, in the deliberative judgment of the citizenry).

4) Special interest manipulation: While NI4D goes to great lengths to impede special interest manipulation, there are a number of points in the system where moneyed or elite interests might get a foothold. Such "Achilles Heel" points should be actively sought out and dealt with, just as one would actively seek weak points in one's home security system ("How would a burglar try to break into my house, given my current security system?") or as car companies collision-test their new car designs. Here are a few possible problem points:

ELECTORAL TRUST: The Electoral Trust, which oversees the whole process, is an elected body and is thus as subject to special interest pressures as any other elected body. Would it help if Electoral Trust candidates had to submit to evaluation by a citizens deliberative council who personally interviewed them and some of their leading supporters and opponents?

VOLUME OF PROPOSALS - This factor was mentioned above as a problem in its own right. But it also gives a foothold for machinations of vested interests who -- through individual citizen allies -- might try to overcrowd the ballot so that citizens no longer have time to deal with the real issues concerned. If successful, this effort might just confuse citizens about certain proposals in a given election -- or it might disillusion them with the initiative process in general, as is happening in a number of states.

QUALIFYING INITIATIVES: Many initiatives would be qualified through the gathering of signatures. How do we deal with the advantage that initiatives with paid signature gatherers usually have over initiatives with volunteer signature gatherers? Similarly, with the option of qualifying an initiative through public opinion polls, pre-poll advertising or advocacy can be biased by the financial involvement of certain players. Again, this could be ameliorated by having a citizens deliberative council evaluate it and requring any comment about the initiative refer to the CDC evaluation.

ADMINISTRATIVE SABOTAGE: Many laws are passed today which are then poorly implemented or enforced by the administrators (presidents and bureaucracies) and police to whom they are passed by lawmakers. Where is the follow-up to ensure that The People's laws are not neglected by a corporate-controlled national Administration or other jurisdictions?

URGENCY: This, too, was mentioned above as a problem in its own right. If a special process (with less deliberation or participation) is implemented to expedite the handling of urgent matters, it will have to be proofed against efforts by elite interests to frame certain issues as urgent in order to reduce oversight -- particularly where expeditious action commits national resources in situations from which it is difficult to withdraw them. (Presidents often use this kind of initiative to involve the US in questionable wars that Congress then finds itself supporting out of patriotism. Similar actions are also done to get "fast track" approval of questionable global trade agreements.) Again, a citizen deliberative council intervention could reduce this problem.