Why We Need a Return to Direct Democracy This Independence Day

by Odysseas Papadimitriou on July 3, 2012

athenian-democracyBy now, I think we’re all a little sick of the stagnate politics in Washington, where politicians on both sides of the isle seem unwilling or unable to compromise and appear more concerned with electability and party reputation than the true good of their constituencies. That’s why we as Americans need to get back to the basics – the basics of democracy, that is – and take back a measure of control over the decisions that are made on our behalf. At the end of the day, inefficient decision making leads to wasted money and resources, which is the last thing our wallets need right now.

I’m sure you would have never guessed it, but I am Greek. In fact, I hail from Athens – the birthplace of Democracy. Democracy looked a bit different back in 507 BC, when a wise man by the name of Cleisthenes first introduced a political system called “demokratia,” which translates to “rule by the people.”

You see, Athenian Democracy was not the representative Democracy that we see today, but rather a system that put the decision-making abilities squarely in the hands of the people (well, actually just the men, but those were the times). The hands-on citizen governance manifested itself in each of the three branches of government, as you’ll see below:

  • The Ekklesia: Also known as the Assembly, the Ekklesia was Greece’s governing body. Any male over the age of 30 was allowed to attend any of the body’s 40 annual meetings and help shape policy.
  • The Boule: The Boule, or Council of Five Hundred, was a group of 500 men – 50 from each of Athens’ 10 tribes. The men who served on the council were chosen by a lottery and helped manage the day-to-day affairs in Athens.
  • The Dikasteria: This was comprised of 500 men over the age of 30 who were chosen on a daily basis and served as the juries in Athens’ courts.

Now, I don’t intend this to be a history lesson, but rather a reminder of what our great American Democracy is based on. At its foundation, Democracy is a form of government meant to serve the needs of the people, not a select few who have attained power via a glorified popularity contest. And while booming populations took government from the hands of the people, the Internet has the potential to return governance to its Democratic roots.

You see, the Internet allows people from across the country to learn about and weigh in on issues in real time. It could therefore be used in the realm of politics to let people vote on issues as well as actually craft legislation. As crazy as that might sound, it’s actually happening already.

It’s known as Project Madison, the legislative crowdsourcing platform launched by Congressman Darrell Issa (R-CA) that allows citizens to share their thoughts on proposed legislation as long as they are willing to make their names and suggestions public. You can think of it as a governmental Wikipedia. The input that people provide isn’t just for show either; citizen suggestions were actually included in Issa’s proposed alternative to the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA).

Issa also recently announced plans to expand the project, launching the OpenGov Foundation, an organization “dedicated to developing and deploying technologies that support every citizen’s ability to participate in their government and hold it accountable.”

Just what are these technologies, you ask?

The Foundation seeks not only to expand the ability of citizens to weigh in on legislation, but also to fund new applications for technology in the political arena. Reports have it that Issa, who has an engineering background, is already experimenting with other applications, including interactive polling and streaming video of government hearings.

Ultimately, while we’ve yet to even scratch the surface of the ways we can bring politics to the people and make government work for them, it’s interesting to consider how this type of technology can even extend beyond the political arena. The Web can also help investors in public companies and donors to non-profits to make key decisions, thereby decreasing the middle-man role played by the antiquated board-of-directors system. The direct application of democracy doesn’t have to be limited to a large scale either, as issues in condominium buildings and communities can be brought to the fingertips of every resident, rather than the local busy-bodies. The possibilities are about as endless as the potential of a strong Democracy, and that’s surely something to think about as you watch the fireworks herald our nation’s birthday this July 4.

Discussion

Celestine Anikwe
In this 21th century democracy has come to mean an important thing in the system of our governance, it is a government which allow the citizens to air their view in the program-mes and policies of government, in view of this, direct democracy should be practiced.
May 6 at 10:19 am
Daryl Lloyd Davis
I heartily agree. Have a look at a revised, direct democracy version of the U.S. Constitution: http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=daryl+lloyd+davis&x=13&y=19
July 4 at 16:02 pm

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