Direct Democracy vs. Participatory Democracy


The problems of participatory democracy (and super-majority) were best illustrated by Occupy Wall Street.  The movement claimed to represent all the working people of the USA, but in effect the decision-making was controlled only be people who could afford to waste huge amounts of time in unnecessarily long meetings, or even sleep at the camp 24/7.  This immediately ruled out anyone with a job or kids.

Turns out, even if we weren’t choked by the ridiculous constraints of imposing super-majority requirements on ourselves, the model still would have had limits.

In-person meetings are good for hosting political conversations, of the few who might choose to attend.  However, they cannot function as a form of national governance.   As it turns out, getting all Americans to sit in one massive circle and talk is not a practical idea (though social media is weirdly close to such a meeting). 

Direct democracy and participatory democracy are two different things, and direct democracy is (1) neglected, and (2) superior as a formal governing system.  Admittedly participatory democracy has its place; it’s good for local dialogue, possibly useful for local government or workers’ self-management, and it feels nice and homey, because everyone’s physically together and talking.  But popular power doesn’t require the aesthetic of being in the same room.  What it requires is everyone having a vote on government decisions instead of just on government representatives.  If people can do this from the comfort of their own homes, very well.  Silent majorities are a real thing sometimes, and arguably we have a new, progressive silent majority, given the way people feel about taxing the rich, universal healthcare, withdrawing from Afghanistan, legalizing same-sex marriage, legalizing marijuana, and raising the minimum wage.

Direct democracy doesn’t mean no dialogue or in-person conversation, though.  Our country already has a form of national discussion.  Every time a political issue is in the news, it ends up being discussed at dinner tables, among friends, on the Internet, in newspapers, among activists, in churches, and in organizations.  We already have a national dialogue in which everyone has a say, even if it doesn’t match the horizontalist fixation on town hall meetings.  Now we just need a national direct democracy, so that everyone has a vote to match to match their say.

Some may try to bypass the impossibility of national participatory democracy (you can’t get 318 million people into one place to talk) by simply reverting all power to the local level, but this only delays the problem.  You’ve merely created a power vacuum at the national level, not replaced it with local power.  Inter-regional economic integration and infrastructural planning are still required, and localism opens too much room for any arbitrary, even reactionary military force to establish itself as a regional or even national tyranny.

The problem is not that we live in democracy, and it’s not good enough.  The problem is not that we are national, and need to be local.  The problem is that we don’t have real democracy, and we should.

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