One year ago, on September 17, 2011, the protest that led to the Occupy Wall Street movement began in New York's Zuccotti Park. Inspired by the "Arab Spring" protests, the leaders of the movement proclaimed "America needs its own Tahrir!" They took to the streets to protest the influence of corporations and the super-rich on American democracy.
Protesting is what people do when their government is not responding to their needs or is in some way oppressing them. When people demonstrate, they are in effect saying, "You are not listening to us, so we will make a scene in the streets until you do."
It is understandable why the Egyptians protested in Tahrir Square and why Arabs in other countries in the region protested -- they were suffering under the rule of autocratic regimes and had no say in their government. They protested because they wanted democracy and the freedom that comes with it.
But the United States is a democracy. Why did Americans find it necessary to protest? The First Amendment of our Constitution gives people the right to peaceably assemble, but as a democracy shouldn't people be able to control the government without resorting to such tactics? Shouldn't the people be able to utilize the mechanisms of democracy to compel the government to act according to their will?
The slogan of the Occupy demonstrators was "We are the 99%," implying that our government is being controlled by 1% of the population, with the remaining 99% having little or no control. If this were the case, our government would have to be considered little different from the autocratic regimes of the Arab world. Could this be the case?
Consider the following:
Our government has multiple levels and multiple branches at each level, making it extremely complex. In elections, each citizen is responsible for voting for a wide range of candidates for various offices in primary and general elections, and in some states on initiatives, referendums, and constitutional amendments as well. Surveys have consistently shown that most people are frightfully uninformed about politics, with many able to name only a few of their representatives, and most knowing next to nothing about what any of their representatives have done while in office. Is it realistic to expect average people to stay adequately informed and to make good voting decisions on all of these things? Is it only the act of voting that matters, with good decisions not mattering at all?
Voting is a binary form of communication, and while voting is a terrific way for a group of people to make a decision on a specific issue or to elect a candidate, a vote cannot communicate anything beyond a "yes" or "no." Since our representatives each work on dozens of issues while in office, isn't it ongoing communication and accountability that is important rather than simply casting votes for candidates every few years?
Each of our representatives has many thousands or millions of constituents, which makes it impossible for more than a tiny few to communicate with them directly. How is representation possible when communication is impossible?
We talk of "we the people" and of the "public interest," but the general public is completely unorganized politically, which makes it impossible for any "will of the people" to emerge. How can our representatives work in the public interest when there is no way of knowing what the public interest is?
As one of many millions, each citizen tends to feel overwhelmed and powerless to affect an enormous, distant government. We experience a diffusion of responsibility and assume that someone else will take responsibility for being informed, making good voting decisions, and holding representatives accountable -- so no one does. How can Americans control the government when no one feels responsible for it?
In this environment voters are uninformed, unorganized, disconnected, and apathetic, which makes it very difficult for candidates for political office to turn them into supporters who vote for them.
Special interests, on the other hand, have a strong interest in specific government policies that benefits them. The reason they get involved in politics is because their agendas are likely opposed by the majority of citizens. Those who are successful are well organized, well financed, highly motivated, and they are happy to provide support in the form of money and/or votes from their membership to candidates who will advocate for their cause in government.
The cost for candidates to appeal to the general voting population is very high, while the cost for appealing to special interests groups is very low. The easiest and surest way for candidates to get elected therefore, is to appeal to special interests. Candidates "tend to see their constituents not as individuals, but as groups," wrote political scientist Benjamin Bishin in his book Tyranny of the Minority. Campaigning consists largely of "building electoral coalitions of [special interest] groups who care intensely about an issue and who will support the candidate in elections in exchange for advocating their agenda in government." Once elected, these special interest groups are very good at holding politicians accountable, while the general public is not.
The people involved in these special interest groups consist of far more than 1% of the population. Any group that is intensely interested in an issue, has sufficient resources, and is well organized has a good chance of getting their agenda enacted as government policy. Today, this includes banks, insurance companies, defense contractors, gun owners, anti-abortion advocates, unions, and many, many others, plus a few super-rich individuals. The total number of people who are a supporter of one or more special interest group may amount to the entire U.S. population, but in nearly every case, each group represents a minority, and often a very tiny minority of the population, on their specific issue.
While we do have democratic rituals and ceremonies, "we the people" as a majority have no real say in our government because of the way our "democracy" is structured. Our "democratic" system of government is nearly perfectly designed to thwart the "will of the people" and to cater to special interest groups. We don't suffer from the tyranny of an autocratic dictator, but we do suffer from the tyranny of many thousands of special interest groups.
Since the most fundamental premise of democracy is that government must be "by the people," it is difficult to imagine how government "by special interest groups" could be considered a democracy. And since freedom stems from laws written by the people (or those who truly represent them), it is difficult to imagine how we can be considered free. Thus it is completely understandable why the Occupy protestors would demonstrate when they did, and we should expect many more similar protests for as long as our system of government remains as it is.
The Framers of our Constitution feared allowing the public to directly elect the government. They knew that most people would be uninformed, easily influenced, and liable to make voting decisions that are against their own best interest. They tried to avoid exactly what we are doing now by putting protections in our Constitution, including limiting the voting franchise and indirect elections. Unfortunately, these protections were gradually eroded with well-intentioned reforms, but the problem of an uninformed, disconnected electorate was never taken into account.
Is there a way to solve this problem? Is democracy that is truly of, by, and for the people possible?
All of the problems above point to a single root problem -- the enormous numerical distance between citizens and their representatives. It is impossible for people to stay sufficiently informed and to make good voting decisions because government is so enormous, complex, and distant from them. Two-way communication between citizens and their representatives is impossible for more than a tiny few because there are so many citizens per representative. Citizens don't feel personally responsible for the government because they are lost in a vast sea of voters. There is an enormous gap between citizens and representatives that must be filled in order for democracy to work.
Fortunately, this is a problem for which there is a well-established solution.
Many corporations are very large, with some consisting of millions of people. Yet a single person -- a CEO -- is able to manage everyone in the corporation because it is an organization. The CEO breaks responsibilities into manageable chunks and distributes them to a hierarchy of managers. Everyone in the organization is accountable to a boss, and ultimately to the CEO. This connects the CEO to the millions of employees via a hierarchy of managers and makes it possible for him to manage the entire corporation and achieve business goals.
In addition, employees in corporations always report to a single boss. This creates a clear line of communication and responsibility that makes accountability possible. Similarly, businesses that have ongoing relationships with customers generally assign one person to be the single point of contact for the customer for the same reasons.
It makes sense that, in order for democracy to work, representation must be broken down into chunks that people can realistically work within, the public must be organized, and citizens must have a single representative who serves as their single point of contact in the government.
How might this work?
Citizens would need to be arranged in small election districts, which we will call communities. Members of each community would elect someone from within their community to serve as their community representative, and delegate all political responsibility to that person. This would make it possible for everyone in the community to get to know their representative, tell him their needs and concerns, and hold him accountable.
Representatives would need to be arranged into a hierarchy, with lower level representatives electing, setting the agenda of, and holding accountable higher level representatives. Communication could flow up and down the hierarchy with ease, just as it does in a business. It would be an inverted hierarchy that would connect citizens to all levels of government.
This would organize the public so that the "will of the people" could be known by the government. It would vastly simplify what citizens have to deal with and allow the people to effectively manage the government. People would feel motivated to become engaged in democracy because they would be empowered to really make a difference and they would be part of a community of neighbors with whom they would become friends.
We have though through such a system of democracy, and we call it Local Electors, which is also the name we've given the community representatives. You can learn more about it at www.localelectors.org.
How do you feel about the power of our financial industry and the damage it has done to our economy? Are you concerned about the environmental destruction that has become so common across our country? Does it bother you that so many people have no health insurance, and that many who do still find themselves with large medical bills? Are you upset that we somehow continuously find ourselves in one preemptive war after another?
All of these problems are symptoms of the disconnect that exists between citizens and our government. Patching over our problems with reforms like campaign finance reform simply won't fix our problems. We must have the courage to accept that fundamental change is needed to fix these problems and the myriad of others that now plague us.
The first step toward real change is understanding -- the American people must understand what the root problem with our government is as well as possible solutions such as Local Electors. With your help, this can be achieved. Please open your own mind to real change and email this article to three friends.