On November 1st, The Boston Globe published an ideas piece called Text ‘aye,’ matey! The Pirate Party’s push for direct democracy. The article outlined some of direct democracy’s potential pitfalls, namely that it’s new, untested, and cannot possibly work. I think there is an element of credibility to these claims, and that’s all the more reason for giving direct democracy a try. At the very least, direct democracy would follow the general trajectory we’ve taken over the past 230 years.
Let’s start back in the good old days of feudal systems. There were monarchs and the monarch’s word was law; none of this nonsense about debates or elections. As any sane noble would tell you, the idea of the masses governing themselves was completely unfathomable.
At the beginning of our own country — despite all the cries for liberty and freedom — there were limits on who could participate in government. The privilege of governing was limited to white males, and in some states, white males who owned property. The prevailing wisdom of the time was that this particular demographic had the only legitimate stake in the governance of the new country.
African-Americans (at the time, slaves) participating in government? Absolutely unthinkable, until 1868 when the Fourteenth Amendment came along and made blacks free citizens. At least until they met Jim Crow.
Direct election of Senators? Also unthinkable, until the Seventeenth Amendment came along, enabling the election of senators by popular vote. Oklahoma was the first state to popularly elect a senator, in 1907.
Women participating in government? Again, completely unthinkable, until the nineteenth amendment came along in 1920, and gave women the right to vote. Think about that for a moment: 100 years ago, if you were a woman living in America, you couldn’t vote.
Blacks (and other minorities) participating in government? Still pretty unthinkable, until the Civil Rights act of 1964. There was real progress there, but the issues of minority discrimination and disenfranchisement are things we still struggle with today.
Popular election of the President of the United States? Not yet, but I’m hopeful that it will happen within my lifetime. Again, it would follow our general trajectory; every few generations, the doors open a little wider, and a new group is welcome inside. Direct democracy is simply a long-range extension of this process.
Here in Massachusetts, there are already well-established and effective forms of direct democracy. Specifically, I’m referring to town meetings, a form of local governance where the ratio of representative to represented is very high. Could technology allow this representative model to scale up? Probably. Is it worth trying? Absolutely! Is a scaled-up town meeting the ultimate goal? Who knows. Times change and circumstances change; we are simply asking the political process to change too. There will surely be mistakes along the way; that’s expected. Like any good inventor, we’ll have to experiment, learn from our mistakes, and improve over time. The important part is that we try.
Traditional “slow” deliberative processes are not immune to bad decision making, nor are they immune to hijacking. The internment of Japanese-Americans in World War II and the Bill of Rights-shredding Patriot Act are but two of many examples. The question isn’t “how do you make a good decision slowly”; rather, it’s “how do you recover from a bad decisions quickly”.
Quite simply, direct democracy is the notion that people should have a say in decisions that affect their lives. I think that is a very modest thing to ask.