DIVIDE AND CONQUER OR UNITE AND PREVAIL
Democracy is a word that has taken on numerous meanings. So it's best to begin by defining terms. By democracy I mean decisions, made directly by the people, which are demonstratively supported by the majority of voting age residents in a defined area.
Also, to start with, I want to clearly state the context from which I am speaking. Our country is suffering from a civic malaise. The malaise consists of a widespread feeling that participation is an ineffective waste of time. The lack of participation that is symptomatic of this illness has been greatly documented by Robert Putnam in "Bowling Alone" where he says, "more than a third of America's civic infrastructure simply evaporated between the mid-1970's and the mid-1990's." Though Putnam accurately describes the illness, he's wrong about the causes. Rather than generational change and television, the cause of America's civic malaise is fundamentally political.
There are two chief and interrelated sources of America's civic lethargy. First is the void where democracy should be within the United States' Constitution. Second is a lack of truly democratic structures within America's political culture. To reverse the malaise, we need to fill each of those two voids. If America is to be a democracy, the people must genuinely rule,
I'd like us to travel for a few minutes from Champaign-Urbana in 2004 to Worchester, Massachusetts in 1774.
Shortly after the Boston Tea Party King George appointed General Gage as Governor of Massachusetts and sent him overseas with an army and the intention to subdue the brewing revolt. Among the first acts of Gen. Gage was the abolition of the upper branch of the elected legislature, the General Council, and the appointment of a new one. Via the newly appointed legislature Gage also proceeded to take over the judicial system by naming new Judges. The response of the citizenry is quite relevant to our topic for today.
Coming together in town meetings, committees of correspondence, and county conventions the citizens of Massachusetts choose to exercise their innate, though infrequently applied, power. When the new Judges came to town upeople would surround the Court House and the court would not be allowed to convene. In response Gen. Gage threatened the use of troops to keep the courts open. The people then went, in mass, to the homes of the judges and General Council members whom Gen. Gage
had appointed and "persuaded" them to resign. There was no colonial government because the overwhelming majority of people would not obey it.
Actually, I must stand corrected, there was a government. Though it was so new that it wasn't always recognized as such. It's institutions, paralleling those of the colonial structure, were operating in the town meetings, committees of correspondence, and county conventions scattered across the Massachusetts Commonwealth. As is always the case, the only government that operates is the government that the people agree to obey. In this case, it wasn't Gen. Gage.
The doomed Gen. Gage, sent with troops and guns in order to dominate the countryside, found himself in a surprisingly weak position. He was more of a besieged, than an occupying, force. Indeed, it is noteworthy that the fabled march on Lexington and Concord was conducted in secret, begun under the cover of night, and was intended to be a mad dash out of and then back into the safety of Boston. Boston being, not the most but the least rebellious of the towns in the colony.
Massachusetts, though perhaps the most dramatic example, was not atypical of what was occurring across the American colonies in those years. The people, dissatisfied with the governmental structures they had, were abandoning them and beginning other institutions that paralleled and eventually replaced the existing government. By the time the war had begun the revolution had already occurred. Britain sent troops in order to retake the colonies. The Declaration of Independence was an acknowledgment of what had already taken place. The war was a
counterrevolution that failed.
With the war over, there began a struggle to draw up the permanent forms of government that would preside over the new nation. The vigorous expressions of citizen action that had given birth to the nation were, if anything, increasing. It was difficult for those holding the positions of government to make the decisions they felt were best. From an office holder's perspective, the problem was at its worst when the people overcame their frequent factional competition and formed a super-faction based on agreement of the majority. America's constitution was drafted, in large measure, to respond to this situation.
Understanding how the Constitution is a cause of our nation's civic malaise is best explained via an analysis of Federalist X, authored by James Madison during the contentious ratification debate. The point I'm about to make is sufficiently crucial that it is good to hear Madison's own words:
"By faction I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse ... adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community."
Please note how Madison presumes his audience is able to discern "the permanent and aggregate interests of the community" and that those factions in opposition do not have that ability. He says additionally:
"Complaints are everywhere heard ... that the public good is
disregarded ... and that measures are too often decided ... by the
superior force of an interested and overbearing majority ..."
Madison is saying that one of the central purposes of the constitution is to prevent the majority from ruling. He had other, more admirable goals, just as ably provided for, but it is essential to realize that our Constitution is
drafted with the express purpose of preventing majority rule. Why does he oppose majority rule? Because "the most numerous party, or in other words, the most powerful faction must be expected to prevail". Madison fears the majority because he is frequently not in it and therefore finds himself often on the losing side.
On this point, the United States' Constitution is a classic example of a divide and conquer strategy. Again, Madison's words, "Extend the sphere and ... you make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive."
There were two key elements to Madison's strategy. First he sought to make the authority of government so distant that it was difficult for the people to access it. Second, among the institutions formed by the Constitution only one, the House of Representatives, was elected. There was no provision at all for direct decision making by the people themselves.
So, the reason people have such profound doubts about the efficacy of their political participation, the source of the civic malaise afflicting our nation, is that we are all power-less by design.
The subsequent history of the U.S. Constitution is one of partial, though not insubstantial, remedies to this power grab. First there was the Bill of Rights. It's first amendment preserves the right to think and complain. The seventh and eighth amendments, providing for trial by jury, are the only place, outside of a once every other year election, where the people are actually empowered to make decisions. There was the abolition of slavery in the 13th Amendment; the granting of citizenship rights to all those born or naturalized in the United States by the 14th Amendment; the passage of the 15th Amendment in 1870 extended the right to vote to all males; in 1913 the 27th Amendment finally granted the people authority to elect the Senate; women gained the right to vote in 1920; a two term limit was placed on the presidency in 1951; poll taxes were eliminated in 1964; and eighteen through twenty-one year olds were granted the vote in 1971. It is an impressive record of progress, but it
contains only two narrow provisions for direct governance by the People.
Alone among the founding fathers Thomas Jefferson recognized the
existence and potential impact of this great constitutional void. In his retirement he recommended the creation of an additional constitutional institution, the Ward-Republic. This would be a local unit of government patterned after the New England Town Meeting where people would decide directly. While Madison used the system of representation to restrict the direct decision making power of the citizenry, Jefferson's recommendations sought to achieve the reverse. He would go so far as to empower the Ward-Republics to elect delegates who could change and rewrite the Constitution. Their proposals would then go back to the Wards for an up or down vote. Jefferson recommended that this occur every twenty years.
Jefferson believed that the only way to preserve liberty was to make provision for it in the governing structures of society. He felt that it was only by realizing the benefits of liberty in action that people would defend it. The corollary to this point of view is, if we preclude the people from actually exercising their liberty then they will gradually become ignorant of and disinterested in its practice. Without effective citizen participation Democracy will whither away and society will be run by a new de-facto Aristocracy.
Welcome to 21st Century America.
If we are to displace the contemporary aristocracy we will ultimately need to add a "Democracy Article" to the Constitution. A suggested draft can be found in Appendix Six of my book. However, nothing of this sort will ever be implemented without a widespread recognition of the need and a corresponding movement organized to bring about the reform. Until that time comes we are left to our own devises. So I now want to turn to the creation of local units of democracy at the neighborhood level that will function in accordance with the definition of democracy offered at the beginning of my talk: decisions made directly by the people which are demonstratively supported by the majority of voting age residents.
Before describing what a local democratic organization is, it will be useful to discuss what it is not.
There are two typical methods of creating local organization. The first is for a few people of one opinion to go identify additional people who share that opinion. The second method begins with a select portion of the community, most often church members or dues payers, and asks them about their concerns. A critical attribute shared by both of these methodologies, is that neither is particularly concerned about whether their opinions are shared by the majority of residents. As such they constitute a minority faction of the community. These methods of local organizing may occasionally come to involve and speak for a majority, but they do not deliberately set out to do so. Such groups are non-democratic because they are not concerned with demonstrating majority support. h This is faction-based organizing.
Such organizations are worthy and noble causes because they generate civic involvement. However, by failing to focus their strategies first on identifying majority concerns and on demonstrating majority support they indirectly contribute to the continued division of the people.
As Madison understood, numbers are the chief source of power for the
people. A faction-based organizing strategy leaves other minority factions, with power derived primarily from wealth and position, in charge of governmental decision making. As a result, America's power structure is far more aristocratic than it is democratic.
What we need are organizations whose methods are majority-based. You can start on your own street.
The first thing to do is to design and implement a plan for disciplined and active listening. Define the territory. Maybe it's a city block or combination of blocks; or a dorm floor or a dorm. Whatever it is you'll need a plan to talk to a representative crossection of the people within that territory. Go knock on their doors, explain very briefly what you're doing and ask a few simple and open-ended questions that will enable you to determine what people believe needs to be changed in their portion of the world. As you listen you're hoping to find two things: patterns of concern and good prospects for future volunteers. Where those two things overlap is where you'll start.
After disciplined listening comes the second step: composition. I
mean composition in two senses: first, the initial bringing together or composition of your group and, second, the writing down of your concern and a proposal to resolve it. To complete this step you need to get one of those people you listened to to host a meeting and you need to invite everyone you listened to to attend. Holding the meeting completes the first part of the composition stage. The vote agreeing to a first draft definition of the issue, completes the second part.
The third step is the community proposal. This is when you take the draft of the issue to your community for discussion and possible modification. On a concise one page flyer announce the issue, highlight its importance, and invite people for discussion and vote. You should strive to invite everyone in your target community to this meeting. Each household should get two or three invitations in varying formats. A knock on the door with a flyer, a phone call, a letter, articles in the local newspaper, etc. At this meeting individuals from your composition committee will present their proposal. If you've done your homework properly the proposal will be approved with minor modifications and you'll prepare, before people leave, for the crucial fourth step by asking for volunteers to go door-to-door.
The fourth step is the community decision. It is here that you strive to first demonstrate majority support. Your goal is to get a majority of the households in your target area signed up. Volunteers go door-to-
door explaining the issue and asking people to sign their name. This is at once a community ballot and a petition to the target of your campaign. You are looking for support from a majority of the residents, not just the majority of those voting. Sometimes practicalities will preclude you from attaining such a majority. However, failure to at least come close should bring a redoubling of effort or a halt to the campaign. If you have leaders able to complete step three and sufficient volunteers able to successfully complete step four you will have a base from which to proceed for the
Once the community decision has been made it is time to work
towards the fifth step -- implementation. This phase will begin with the presentation of your petitions to your target and proceed until the issue is won or lost. You will need to hold regular meetings for your issue campaign. These meetings should be open to all residents in your community. Here your leadership base will regularly give progress reports, propose tactical actions for your campaign, and schedule the volunteers to implement the approved plans. Among the things you'll need to provide for are regular printed updates to your entire community, forms of action enabling individuals to further the campaign, and fundraising efforts to cover the costs of your organizational activities.
Assuming you are the person starting this process there is one thing about it that should immediately strike you. You didn't pick the issue. That crucial decision was left up to the people and your role is to support them. You are, in the truest sense of the word, a public servant. This process does not allow for a minority faction of the community to claim to speak for
the common interest. If you can't demonstrate majority support for the issue, you stop the campaign.
In democracy the people must rule. If the people are going to rule then they must set the priorities and the : actual decisions must be based on the majority principle.
To sum up. Their is a civic malaise afflicting our nation. American's have become disinterested in and ignorant of the practice of democracy. The cause of this malaise can be found in the Constitutional void -- the empty hole where democracy should have been. James Madison's balance of powers didn't restrict itself to the various branches of government. His system also pits the people against each other in a never-ending competition among factions. There is a place for that, without it their would be no minority rights. Without minority rights there can be no majority rule as the majority view would become stagnant and, eventually, tyrannical. However, there must also be a place for majorities to come together and decide. Without that, society will ultimately come to
resemble a factional cockfight with most of us sitting on the outside looking in. The democracy at the core of any healthy republic will whither away. In its place a new aristocracy will emerge.
Once again, welcome to 21st Century America. The place where presidents are selected by a court ordered halt to the vote count and governmental and corporate elites make all the key decisions from Main Street, to Wall Street, from the backstreets to "K" St., from City Hall to the White House. The rest of us get to decide what bar to go to tonight or which tv show to watch after dinner.
With no corrective constitutional measures in site, we must struggle and organize to find a cure. A path to democratic health can be found in our own communities. The vehicle to get us down that path is the creation of majority-based community organizations. Such organizations focus their efforts on identifying majority concerns and demonstrating majority support for those concerns.
Today's political culture is a mess. America may have put democracy on the map, but indications are we're preparing to put the map into the shredder.
So whose responsibility is it to fix this broke-down engine? And where is the superman who can get this job done? He's in Worchester, Massachusetts, or maybe she's in Urbana, Illinois.
The Declaration of Independence said governments derive their "powers from the consent of the governed". That statement was not some
wish-we-could-do-that-for-real kind of pie-in-the-sky idealism. Rather it was a pragmatic definition based on the cold, hard, and difficult experience of the years preceding 1776.
Look at what the people of Worchester did. Rather than stand by and watch as their collective ability to determine their own future was stolen they began the difficult and menial labor of activating and organizing the majority of their residents to block the theft. In that process was created a form of parallel government to which the people transferred their obedience. It was hard, time-consuming, and occasionally dangerous work.
The fact of the matter is that all forms of authority depend upon the obedience and compliance of the people over whom they rule. If sufficient
numbers seek change the rulers will need to either repress them or accommodate them. If a majority seeks change sustained repression is difficult. However, as long as the people remain divided into competing factions, the ruling faction will continue to consolidate its power.
The new American aristocracy will remain intact until the majority of
Americans decide to remove it. To get to that day people need to relearn the skills of majority-based, as opposed to factional, organizing. Ultimately America will need to give democracy its rightful place in the Constitution. "Common Sense Democracy" tells you how to do the former and provides a rationale and an outline for the latter. It's not rocket science, but it is hard work. If you want to find the people who can do it just go look in the mirror and then take a walk down your street.
University of Illinois YMCA's "Faculty Forum"
Urbana, IL - March 5, 2004
Robert Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (New York: Simon & Schuster) p.43.
Ray Raphael, The First American Revolution: Before Lexington and Concord (New York: The New Press, 2002)