When I first heard, years ago, that the word “Democracy” was nowhere in the Constitution or the Declaration of Independence, I was startled. Surely, this was not true. Our government is a Democracy! But true it is. As it turns out, our Founders actually feared democratic rule. The Founders preferred the word “Republic.” James Madison expressed this attitude in Federalist Paper #10, “instability, injustice, and confusion …have in truth been the mortal disease under which popular governments everywhere perished…” In the late 18th Century, rule by the people was thought to lead to disorder and disruption. At the same time, a democratically based government was seen as superior to the monarchies of Europe.
Democracies did not originate with the founding of the United States. The term “democracy” comes from two Greek words: “demos” (the people) and “kratia” (power or authority). The Greeks are famous for practicing direct democracies, a system in which citizens meet to discuss all policy, and then make decisions by majority rule.
I must also give recognition to those indigenous societies around the world who have been practicing democracy gathering in villages and under “discussion” trees since time immemorial. One example comes to mind. Not only did ancient African societies have a democratic structure, they also recognized major sets of human rights and civil liberties. The Kurukan Fuga charter (1236) also known as the Manden Charter, was the constitution of the Mali Empire. Since it is older than the Bill of Rights (1689), the Declaration of Right of Man and of the Citizen (1789) and almost the Magna Carta (1215-1297), it is considered by some to be the first declaration of Human Rights in history. In 2009 UNESCO included it in their Representative Lists of intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
But how could direct democracy work in a large, diverse population spread over a geographical distance? Generally, the answer has been that it can’t. In its place, the American Founders put “indirect” or “representative” democracy. In this system, representatives are chosen by the people to make decisions for them. The Founders preferred the term “Republic” to “Democracy” because it described a system they generally preferred: the interests of the people were represented by more knowledgeable or wealthier and white citizens who were responsible to those that elected them.
Today we tend to use the terms “republic” and “democracy” as if they are one and the same. They are not. One widespread criticism of representative democracy is that the representatives become the “elites” that seldom consult ordinary citizens, so even though they are elected, a truly representative government doesn’t really exist. This is where, I believe, in the United States, we find ourselves today. Democracy for me, through my eyes, remains a dream deferred.
The dream has turned into a nightmare and is exploding before our very eyes. Our politics is broken, but I believe it can be fixed. A real democracy is not only possible—it is an urgent necessity. We must think and act out of the box.
Our government now is controlled by monied interest and leaders who seem to be held in place by the plaster and mortar of incumbency. I believe that we can fix democracy by eliminating politicians and replacing them with a representative network of everyday citizens. There is a wealth of recent evidence that has shown that groups of randomly selected, ordinary people can and do make balanced, informed and trusted decisions. These citizens’ assemblies are legitimate, accountable, competent and, above all, convincing demonstrations that we can govern ourselves.
The future of democracy has arrived. It is time for the end of politicians.