The following is the second installment of Empowering Public Wisdom: A Practical Vision of Citizen-Led Politicsavailable from EVOLVER EDITIONS/North Atlantic Books. You can visit the Empowering Public Wisdom homepage here

CHAPTER 2: Direct Democracy, Representative Democracy, and Their Shadows

So if democracy is about power, why don’t we just go for the power directly? Why not have everyone vote on everything?

As good as this sounds, it has a very dark side to it: given the systems we have, it is too easy to generate more collective stupidity and foolishness than collective intelligence and wisdom.

Think about it. There are too many issues for any given citizen to understand them all in any depth. Furthermore, nowadays every issue has so many hidden dimensions and potential side effects that our off-the cuff opinions about them could be wildly off-base.

Many of us depend on opinion leaders, pundits, friends, or organizations that share our values to tell us what to think about the issues, to help us navigate their complexity. But almost all of them specialize in telling us only what will make us agree with them. Rare is the organization or person who fairly and knowledgeably represents the pros and cons of all sides and helps us think about the issue clearly. If we channel all that ignorance and bias into a mass voting operation, we run the risk of generating exactly the mob rule that the Founders feared when they set up a representative democracy—that is, a republic—to keep our mass ignorance in check. The U.S. Constitution was written in a way that allowed citizens to elect leaders— mostly elite landowners—who would theoretically take the time to deliberate intelligently and figure out what should be done. And if citizens didn’t like what the leaders did, they could pick someone else to replace them. They could “throw the bums out,” as the saying goes.

Well, that sort of works and sort of doesn’t. It turns out that many if not most of these representatives—focused as they are on getting reelected—spend more time in political gamesmanship, public relations, and fundraising (including hobnobbing with the special interests and elites who fund their election campaigns) than they do actually deliberating. And since they want to also make a good impression on the folks back home, their supposed deliberations more often than not involve what’s become known as “pork”—special money or treatment for the people in their district or their supporters, even if it means undermining the common good or tacking a special amendment onto legislation about a totally different subject, just to slip it through.

As time passes, it costs more and more to get elected, and the science of political public relations more precisely targets the unconscious urges and responses of smaller and smaller “swing voter” subsets of the population. So it becomes increasingly unlikely that a politician will articulate a coherent and meaningful viewpoint that they really believe in and that actually serves the deep longings of the vast majority of their constituents. Rather, they speak in Direct Democracy, Representative Democracy, and Their Shadows sound bites designed to trigger certain reactions in targeted voters—anger, fear, disgust—rather than promoting thoughtful opinions. And of course such reactions usually manifest as enthusiastic support for policies that favor the rich and powerful players who fund the politician’s campaigns. All too often, voters end up supporting candidates and platforms that run quite counter to their own self-interest and ideals, without even realizing it.

Thus the representative democracy of our republic often generates as much “mob rule” as direct democracy does. And if simplistic forms of direct democracy were broadly instituted, the kind of degraded political public relations we see influencing voters during ballot initiatives and referendum campaigns would become the new form of co-stupidity that turns thoughtful citizens away from politics. More and more, we end up with our democracy being shaped by “the usual suspects”—the polarized partisans who show up wherever there is a chance to speak or vote—rather than by the broader wisdom that is available through the informed, collaborative engagement of the full diversity of perspectives and voices.

For those seeking a healthier, wiser democracy, the question is no longer: Which is better: direct democracy or representative democracy? The more useful questions are: What are the gifts and limitations of both direct and representative democracy? How can the gifts be strengthened and the limitations ameliorated? What is the best role they could play together? What else is needed that neither one of them gives us enough of?

One interesting variation on direct democracy, made possible by online electronic systems, is to allow citizens to assign someone else (a proxy) to vote for them on specific issues or under certain circumstances; they would be able withdraw their permission at any time. While open to abuse (both through hacking and by partisans collecting proxy rights like they collect petition signatures today, from people influenced by manipulative public relations campaigns), there may be secure versions that remain useful, especially locally, where answerability is tighter. But this is a footnote, for the issue of deliberation and wisdom remains.

It is clear that money and public relations have largely pushed aside real deliberation and collaboration in politics. So anything that limits the power of money and public relations in politics would help (see chapter 14). We can even get creative. Imagine, just for example, a substantial tax on campaign advertisements, which is then used to fund highly visible conversations where groups of ordinary citizens publicly interview politicians, no holds barred. Or imagine a rule whereby a legislator who was given more than a thousand dollars by an organization could not vote on any legislation concerning that organization because it would be a conflict of interest. Once we identify and prioritize the problem, there are many ways we could approach solving it.

What is the proper role of representative democracy? Let us imagine for a moment a time when our public dialogue and public choices are not being unduly manipulated by special interests. At that point it would be clearly useful to have some full-time elected officials researching, deliberating, and participating with us in making decisions on complex issues. It would be especially useful to have them bring to our attention how various issues and decisions impact each other. These important contributions could greatly enhance the people’s wisdom as communities and countries wrestle with their collective affairs.

But in order to have that benefit, we need to have checks on the powerful role of representatives. We don’t want our elected officials making decisions that are clearly bad for us. We don’t want them ignoring us. And we don’t want them neglecting or suppressing decisions that would be good for us. To prevent bad representation, it is good not only to have presidential and legislative elections (through which we can replace politicians we don’t like), but also to have the more targeted instrument called direct democracy, in which We the People can control or bypass our representatives when we need to. But remember what I noted earlier: for direct democracy to work well, it requires that public dialogue and public choices are not unduly manipulated by special interests. This is the same requirement for representative democracy to work well.

Finally, we come to the question of what else is needed to make our democratic system work wisely enough to successfully tackle the complex problems, emerging crises, looming catastrophes, and unprecedented opportunities of our new century. My answer is empowered public wisdom—and you’ll find out how to generate it in the rest of this book.


From Empowering Public Wisdom by Tom Atlee, published by Evolver Editions, an imprint of North Atlantic Books in collaboration with Evolver LLC, copyright © 2012 by Tom Atlee. Reprinted by permission of publisher.