Top of This issue Current issue
Engines of a New Democratic Republic or…?
Citizens’ Assemblies [hereafter, abbreviated CA] are a powerful approach to direct democracy whereby groups of citizens meet together as lawmakers who make decisions that affect people’s lives. By contrast, the U.S. Congress is a representative democratic institution in which only citizens’ representatives are empowered to make law. CA have surfaced in many countries over many years. Nearly all have been formed in order to draft new constitutions or amend existing constitutions for countries in question. Many have been elected; some not. Most have been initiated by an existing government. Some of them, like that formed in 1917 in the midst of the Russian Revolution, have been marked as remarkable failures. Others, like that formed after the financial failure of Iceland in 2008, are examples of inspiring success. Like truth in human affairs, most lie somewhere in between.
The historical context of CA is important in understanding their initiation, gestation and potential to influence debate and resolution on the key issues of their time. What is issue #1? – to reduce, if not eliminate the corrupting influence of big money on politics and government. Campaign finance reform has failed. Why? – Because, ironically, reformers fighting money in politics have focused solely upon money in their reforms. They have ignored “We the People” – the importance of people volunteering their time so that they occupy and recover as their own a politics now beholden to big money. So here we see CA in context, as ways of people taking back what should be their politics and government. The aim of this essay, therefore, is to assess the potential and efficacy of CA as one means towards achievement of two goals:
Political: Building a people- rather than a big money-based politics, and
Governmental: Enabling people to play a role in lawmaking and other forms of government decision-making.
Initiative and/or Referendum (I&R) procedures exist in many U.S. states as means of the latter (2.), but they do not rely on citizen assemblies. They proceed by way of petitions (initiative) to get a resolution on a ballot, followed by voting (referendum) on the resolution.
At the national level, the CA concept, though hardly a topic of popular discussion, is alive in four ways, in the form of:
The central programmatic and deliberative focus of The Peoples Congress (PC),1
The General Assembly (GA), the main deliberative and decision-making body of the Occupy Movement;
Former Alaska U.S. Senator Mike Gravel’s National Democratic Initiative (NDI),2 and
Local “Townhall” Meetings.
All envisage CA to be the engine of a substantially revived democratic republic. The PC and GA versions are more revolutionary. Their version of CA would be the catalyst of a new American revolution in which CA would replace the Congress. They seek to govern on the basis of “direct” democracy”-- by people assembled together, with no representation called for. The PC sees Iceland as a model, but the CA form there served to assist a newly elected government to create a new constitution, not to replace the government structure (see more on the Iceland case further on).
The NDI views CA as an aide and supplement to the Congress – to enable “We the People” to become lawmakers along with elected Members of Congress by way of the power of national initiative and referendum (I&R) – nationwide voting on issues that brings “direct democracy” into the Congress. Adoption of this by Americans voting over the Internet was to be energized by CA convening in Philadelphia, not blessed by the Congress in Washington. Senator Gravel sees Article VII of the U.S. Constitution rather than Article V as providing the basis of his NDI, but this is highly questionable.3 Thus, a common denominator among PC, GA, and NDI approaches is that all would proceed outside of the existing constitutional framework to some extent. See more on the PC further on.
Occupy’s GA, however, is revolutionary only in the hubris of its naivete. It is a leaderless model with cumbersome procedures. It may appear to be applicable to the governance of small, homogeneous groups but, in fact, it is not, for three main reasons:
The decision-making process may be interrupted by objections -- from as few as a minority of one.
Occupy is not a membership organization. Participants in any GA are not a homo-geneous group. There are diverse characteristics and opinions under the Occupy umbrella.
Occupy fails to recognize the lessons to be learned from a historic, fundamental model of American democracy – the Town Meeting (TM). Each TM has a moderator managing an agenda comprised of propositions or questions to be decided that arise from two sources: The local governing body and the public-at-large.
The TM model, however, has been corrupted by declining public participation. So, too, has the GA model. Occupy has largely failed to reach out to the public at-large in order to engage the participation of other than those who are already Occupy believers. In both types of assembly, therefore, decisions often fall to a limited subset of participants that dominate – interests that have something definite to gain or lose by the deliberations of the assembled -- the so-called “special” interests. In the case of the TM, these are usually employees and adherents of local schools, police and fire departments. In the case of the GA, they are Occupy sub-groups or co-religionists.
Townhall meetings are an adaptation of the TM model but they are not CA. They are speechifying, question and answer sessions designed to give the impression that elected officials are consulting their constituents. They neither deliberate nor make decisions on outstanding public issues.
The way Iceland’s people dealt with the failures of both its economy and government arising from the Great Recession should be an inspiration to us all. So let us take a look at the Icelandic CA model. The “Kitchenware Revolution” was the impetus behind this and other major changes. Constant banging of pots and pans by thousands of demonstrators outside the Parliament sufficed to bring down a conservative government, replace it with a more liberal one, and focus attention on the need for a revised constitution. A CA called a National Forum was constituted to include a representative random sample of citizens drawn from the National Register.
Meanwhile, grassroots groups affiliated in a loose collaborative called The Anthill Group were already meeting to discuss ideas for taking back both government and economy from a small oligarchy of plutocrats that had run the countries and the whole economy into the ground. One of the key organizations in the Anthill was a business incubator called “The House of Ideas” sponsored by the Icelandic Academy of the Arts and University of Reykjavik. The head of this enterprise for gestating innovative enterprises, a successful entrepreneur named Gudjon Mar Gudjonsson, initiated a social enterprise labeled “The Ministry of Ideas.” The group’s mission is to pursue how Icelanders can break down hierarchies.
Mr. Gudjonsson explained: “I am a big fan of an active democracy and a participatory economy, and have been looking into open source governance for some time,” This attitude sparked the proceedings of the National Forum, which produced a document of over 700 pages of insights and ideas for consideration by the Constitutional Assembly to follow.
The Icelandic CA may be considered relevant, timely and perhaps “best-in-class.” What are the key features of this model that might be replicated elsewhere? –
Leaders dedicated to participatory democracy and people’s empowerment;
Ongoing pressure from a populist movement;
A government that encourages CA formation and that is prepared to accept CA suggestions and recommendations;
Assemblies either democratically elected or selected at random from a complete list of citizens and accepted by government leaders;
Formation and work of “sub-commissions” on specific issues (e.g., see below); and
Forums that are:
Facilitated, to enable all participants to contribute insights and suggestions; and
Organized into working groups to prepare recommendation for constitutional and other changes in political processes, government structure(s) and government operations.
Keep in mind that the success of the Icelandic CA model may have a lot to do with the nation’s small (300,000) and homogeneous population. Most other countries with CA experience are much larger and inhomogeneous. This has led to serious problems in the election or formation and operation of CA, as in Egypt trying to implement the “Arab Spring” revolution there.4 Though some countries have sought to use proportional representation election systems, inter-group conflicts are thereby not necessarily alleviated or ameliorated.
The U.S. CONSTITUTION
One of the major reasons for the rise of CA in many countries has been either the lack of a constitution in some or the failure of existing constitutions to enable a democratic process to effect constitutional changes in others. This is not a failing of the U.S. Constitution which, in Article V, provides explicit ways for the Constitution to be amended. As a result, there have been 27 Amendments during 1787-2012, the 225 year life of the Constitution. This is an average of less than one amendment per decade. Even though Thomas Jefferson, the Declaration of Independence and some state constitutions clearly recognize a “right of revolution,” we have a very conservative Constitution, difficult to change.5
According to Article V, there are two ways that amendments can be proposed for ratification, by:
2/3 vote of both parts of the Congress [both House and Senate], or by
A Constitutional Convention called for by the legislatures of 2/3 of the States.
Proposed amendments can then be ratified, also in one of two ways that can be “proposed by the Congress” – by either Legislatures or Conventions in ¾ of the States.
The CA concept could be applied with respect to “Conventions”, either national or state. The main problem with such application, however, is readily apparent: Nothing is said in the Constitution about how delegates to conventions might or should be selected. We saw two ways in Iceland: election and random selection. If the former, election of who by whom?
One can imagine several alternatives. One would be the conventional, first-past-the-post, “winner take all” election. A second would involve selection of state legislators and/or other notables without any genuine attempt to make an assembly representative of the overall population of states or nation. Another would be “Instant Run-off Voting” (IRV). A fourth would employ proportional representation. The latter two ways, though arguably better than the conventional, would require changes in election laws in most states. Use of random selection is unlikely in the U.S. except, perhaps, by a few small (in population), relatively homogeneous states. A Convention would be a CA only if it could be adjudged reasonably representative of the adult citizens of states or the nation as a whole.
Another major problem is the selection of amendments to be considered by conventions. This is likely to be a more serious problem. A chronic objection to the idea of a national Constitutional Convention is that it might turn into a free-for-all that could undermine some of the best features of the U.S. Constitution. This reflects on the role assigned to the states in U.S. constitutional modification. Only one of the 27 Amendments thusfar ratified has arisen from a national Constitutional Convention – the 17th Amendment, which made election to the U.S. Senate subject to popular vote rather than selection by state legislatures. This Amendment was accomplished in 11 months, the 2nd quickest approval of any Amendment (fastest was repeal of Prohibition).
Amendments have arisen around specific concerns, such as the approval and disapproval of Prohibition. An open-ended Constitutional Convention, CA-type or not, is unlikely. The reactions to proposals for such a convention reflect fears not unlike those that afflicted many of our nation’s founders – of “mobism.” Note, for example, that of the late Alan Karcher, Democratic leader of the NJ Assembly, to a resolution urging a Constitutional Convention (ACR-54), introduced by Republican Assemblyman Richard Zimmer in 1987:
“The nation would be opening the door to drastic changes in our Constitution and the basic framework under which our government has operated for two centuries.”
1987 was the year of our Constitution’s Bicentennial celebration. By that time, 32 states had already approved measures calling for a Constitutional Convention. The approval of only two more states was required. ACR-54 was defeated by the NJ legislature.
The fear factor could be overcome, however, if a Constitutional Convention was directed to focus on a package of amendments that had been pre-debated and prioritized by CA.6 Support for a Convention could also rise if there is a strong reaction to the huge increase in the role of big money in electoral politics in this year’s presidential and congressional elections attributable to the Supreme Court’s infamous, pro-corporate “Citizens United” decision.
Recall the populist pressures driving the formation and application of CA in the case of Iceland. For all the domestic political rhetoric of the U.S.A. being a model democracy (e.g., the apocryphal “City on a Hill”), there is far too little in the way of participatory democracy or people’s empowerment in the American setting.7 This is partly due to lack of substantial, ongoing pressure from a populist movement. This lack has been apparent for nearly 100 years, and the Occupy movement has not yet filled the gap. Thus, following the 2012 presidential election, one is not likely to see a government that encourages CA formation or that is prepared to accept CA suggestions and recommendations. This likelihood can be deemed a great loss for our nation, no matter who wins the highest office in the land.
The first priority for advocates of change in our Constitution, therefore, should be an amendment that would get big money out of politics so that “We the People” can reenter as key agents of change. There is already a “Move to Amend” organization that recognizes this priority.8 There are two requisites for a Constitutional Amendment in this area. One part would restrict campaign contributions to “natural persons” only – no corporate, union or other organizational money donations! Another could be legislation that does not require an Amendment – one that recognizes and facilitates the value of the contributions of people’s time.9 Both may be needed. For the only sure antidote to the big money takeover of the political process is to bring people back in. This goal requires a strategic approach to have any chance of success.
The major elements of a strategy to increase the role of people in politics and significantly diminish the role of big money fall out from our discussion thus far. We can see how potential roles for CA fit within a strategic context. The elements are:
A two-pronged strategy at both Supreme Court and legislative (Congressional) levels -- featuring Constitutional Amendment(s) and reform the “reform” of campaign finance initiatives through new legislation in Congress;
CA as precursors for constitutional conventions – to discuss the nature of the problems involved, debate potential solutions and set a limited, well-defined agenda for a national Constitutional Convention; and
A 2-sided program to reform the U.S. Congress begin to transform it into a true people’s Congress.
The common denominator of these three is that they are devoted to creating a people-based politics that drives a high-energy democracy and creates an empowered electorate. Each element reinforces the other towards realization of these ends.
Consider the CA ingredient first. We have found reasons to believe that a CA is not a suitable venue for a constitutional convention unless it is representative of the electorate and would find a receptive government in receipt of its recommendations. Given the crucial role of states in the process of proposing and ratifying Constitutional Amendments under Article V, the CA modality should be encouraged at the state level. They could prove to be suitable in some states but not all. CA would be unmanageable at the national level. At that level as well as the state level, CA are best employed, along with voting via the Internet, to generate and rank a number of alternatives for consideration by a properly constituted Conventional Convention. A number of members of state CA should be considered for inclusion in such a Convention.
Reliance upon CA could prove to be a dangerous path if great care is not taken by CA leadership. If leadership is self-, sect- or clique rather than people-empowering, and the terms of reference of CA work do not provide a firm and feasible basis for accomplishment; then CA may well discredit direct democracy in the guise of attempting to establish it. People need venues that enable them to feel that they are “making a difference.” Poor leadership and pie-in-the-sky objectives enable only failures.
In order to increase the odds of getting Congressional approval for legislation to reduce the role of big money in politics, aggressive steps must be taken to reform the ways Congress does (mainly does not do) “We the Peoples’” business. Congress has often demonstrated that it is incapable of reforming itself. Reform efforts need to proceed from outside Congress as well as in – a two-sided program. There is a role here, too, for CA mobilized to discuss and propose what needs to be done, with an emphasis on one of the ‘C’s: an empowered citizen.
A fully specified strategy that works in and out has been prepared to guide “Building a Peoples’ Congress.”10 Outside of Washington, state-based CA can be established to deliberate on the great issues of the day. Alternative congressional offices can be set up to show how Congress can better help real people in real places solve real problems. To push for change from the inside of Congress, candidates can be identified, supported and elected who demonstrate true leadership: empowering others more than oneself and helping people help themselves. Once elected, new Members must be prepared to “buck the system” and seek to change the “rules of the game.” Former Member of the House from Oklahoma, Mickey Edwards, has set forth a 10 point program to guide both voters and Members who seek real, substantial changes in the rules that hamstring our democratic Republic.11
Finally, a two-pronged strategy is also needed to effect changes in laws that govern campaign finance. One prong is to seek one or two Constitutional Amendments. One Amendment would permit contributions to be made only by “natural” persons – human individuals -- not by corporations, unions or other organizations. Such an amendment would effectively undercut the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United. Another amendment would place an upper limit on campaign expenses. This would allow indexing only for inflation as represented by the Consumer Price Index, not for the much higher historic rate of inflation in the costs of campaigns.
The second prong would be a bill to reform the failed, so-called “reform” of campaign finance as represented by the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (a.k.a. BCRA or “McCain-Feingold”). Highlights of such a bill can be found in one or the other of the references cited in footnote # 9 at the bottom of the previous page.
Let us hope that rage of the American people rises off the scale once the role of big money in politics is highlighted by the 2012 elections. Is this too much to hope for, given the fact that neither of the major party candidates for the presidency tried to make an issue of how the American system had been corrupted by big money? -- Nor would either dare to report that each had been bought and paid for by big donors and the new “Super-PACs” enabled by the Supreme Court.12 It is only a slim shred of a hope if, post-election, the American people fall back into political apathy, thinking that they can let Barack or Mitt “do it” assisted by a dysfunctional Congress. If, instead, each looks into the mirror and says ‘I am an American citizen; saving our precious republic is my responsibility; voting is not enough; I’ve got to get involved and OCCUPY POLITICS’, then we have a chance to renew the American Dream. Otherwise, all bets are off.
The tools for the great American majority to “take back” what should be their politics and their government are now available to them to use, strategically. CA and complementary political means have been identified in this essay. Technologically, other tools are readily available via the Internet and smart phone, as activists, protesters and change agents have demonstrated in Egypt, Iceland, Greece and other countries worldwide.13
Campaigns to effect real change need not cost a lot of money. People are now in position to count much more than big money and institutions resistant to change. It has often said that, via elections, people get the government they want by voting in elections for people they don’t really like. Now, if they want to get off their butts and couches, turn off their TVs, get out of their houses, gather together in CAs and public places, and press for changes with others, “We the People” can get the government we really need – for the sake of ourselves, our children, future generations and our country.
PETER BEARSE, Ph.D.,International Consulting Economist and author; and
CARMINE GORGA, Ph.D., President, Somist Institute, 11/1/2012.
Comments welcomed via firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.
3 Recall that Article V is the one that provides explicit instructions on how our Constitution is to be amended. Article VII recounts the process by which the Constitution was first brought into being in 1787. See our “Constitution” discussion further on.
4 See discussion of “Egypt Independent” in WIKIPEDIA, for example.
5 Jefferson wrote: “I hold it, that a little rebellion, now and then, is a good thing…” The NH state constitution contains an explicit “Right to Revolution” in Article III.
6 For more on this, see Bearse, Peter J. (1987), “Let’s Be Unconventional in Support of a Constitutional Convention,” (NJ) HUNTERDON DEMOCRAT (April ?).
7 For more, see Bearse, Peter (2004), WE THE PEOPLE: A Conservative Populism. Lafayette, LA: Alpha Publishing, and A NEW AMERICAN REVOLUTION: How “We the People” can truly “take back” our government (an Amazon e-book).
8 And many other, similar ballot initiatives as well. See Voters Take Charge with Ballot Measures [in Amend 2012 online: “More than seven million voters will have a chance to weigh in directly with their views regarding Citizens United in Common Cause-backed ballot measures.” Also see Rick Staggenborg’s website, MoveToAmend.org, and follow up with him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-217-8044. And note Peter Shurman’s “Free speech for people” amendment, recently endorsed by the NEW YORK TIMES [email@example.com].
11 See Edwards, Mickey (2012), THE PARTIES vs. THE PEOPLE.
12 See THE NATION’s October, 2012, issue for a section entitled “The 1% Court,” on how the Supreme Court has represented big financial and corporate interests for over 100 years.
13 But don’t forget ordinary “tools” like pots and pans, as employed in Ireland’s “Kitchenware” Revolution!