Saturday, December 22, 2007

Direct Democracy

One of the posters asks me my views about "direct democracy," i.e., going straight to the people and skipping what James Madison, among many others, believed was the all-important mediating role of elected representatives. My general preference is for representative democracy, precisely because, at best, elected representatives can take the time to become fully aware of the complexities of issues before voting on them. IF, however, one becomes disillusioned with representative democracy, as is all too possible in a political world dominated by money, then one can see something like the "initiative and referendum" or even "recall elections," which we in this country associate especially with California, as playing an important "safety valve" role. Many countries around the world combine direct with representative democracy. The most frequent user of referenda is Switzerland, which most of us, I presume, view as a sane and stable country (unlike the image that some have of California!).

I can't say I have fully worked out views about the role that direct democracy should play in our system. I'm confident, though, that it would properly become the subject of discussion (and ultimately decision) at a constitutional convention.


Blogger MB said...

I'm curious about the fairness of 600 or so "random" citizens renegotiating the constitution. Considering the size of our population, isn't this number way too small? The reason I ask is because this year Philadelphia experimented with random, citizen engagement for the purpose of creating a clean election for our new mayor (excellent result, see and to create a "citizen's agenda" to focus the efforts of our new mayor (see Overall, this has been an excellent experience and it succeeded in engaging me as a citizen. I liked it very much and learned a lot. But aspects of the "citizens convention" were frustrating because although I feel like I have good sense about taking action for the greater good, I am not an expert on issues related to poverty, education, economic development etc. The Citizens Convention could only accommodate 600 or so Philadelphians and at times I wondered if there was enough diversity in a group that appeared to me as mostly white in a city that is mostly black. So how would a constitutional convention function in a way that would not overwhelm the small number of regular people who would be asked to make lasting decisions about issues that they may not be knowledgable about? Could two years be enough for non-experts to get past essential learning curves? I heard you compare it to selecting a jury but we know that juries don't always make the best decisions. (I'm thinking of the OJ case as well as the number of death row convictions overturned years later by dna evidence.) Having said that, it was better for Philadelphia to host the citizen engagement forums with some limitations rather than go through this election without that foundation at all.

December 22, 2007 3:39 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for responding Dr. Levinson. The book I mentioned describes an equal balance between direct and representative democracy to keep our government from continuing down the path of plutocracy.

Again thanks for responding and I'll be purchasing your book early next year.

December 22, 2007 3:44 PM  
Blogger Sandy Levinson said...

I'm frankly not sure what the optimal number would be. I would look to experts on polling to supply that knowledge. Inevitably there would be tradeoffs between size (the more the merrier) and the ability of assemblies to function effectively as forums for discussion and decisionmaking. One attraction of the Senate over the House is just the fact that the 100 members of the Senate are able to engage in more substantive floor debates than the 435 members of the House.

As for getting up to speed on the issues likely to dominate a convention, I think that we're not really talking about rocket science. Delegates chosen would have tremendous incentive (and opportunites) to play catch-up, including the ability to hold hearings at which recognized experts would testify and to travel around the country (and the world) to observe the ways that other polities handle similar problems.

As I indicate toward the conclusion of the book, I'm a very big fan of the work of Stanford political theorist Jim Fishkin, who has put on "deliberative polls," which involve bringing random samples of citizens together, literally all over the world. Should my ideas ever move from academic proposals/fantasies to any kind of actulaity, then I would certainly hope that Fishkin would play a key role in designing the process.

December 22, 2007 4:27 PM  
Blogger Gene Wine said...

I think a good combination is representative democracy and the direct democracy of initiative, referendum and recall.

December 24, 2007 10:02 AM  
Blogger AbdLomax said...

Direct democracy has well-known problems, including participation bias, difficulty of deliberation on a large scale, manipulability by interest groups with better access to media, etc. However, elected representative democracy disenfranchises those who did not vote for a winner in representative elections. There are two basic solutions to this: one is proportional representation, used in many places around the world. Another, which has not been tried, is *chosen* representation. Two forms have been proposed: Asset Voting and Delegable Proxy. Asset Voting is the proposal that would be most familiar and, turns out, it was actually first proposed by the mathematician, Lutwidge Dodgson, better known as Lewis Carroll, in the 19th century. Asset Voting is really very simple: if an assembly is to be elected, and if you vote for a candidate who does not get a proportional quota of votes, the candidate can re-cast your vote at his or her discretion. In theory, no votes need be wasted.

December 24, 2007 9:34 PM  
Blogger Gene Wine said...

To be fair, direct democracy needs to be done under public campaign financing, alloting the same amount of money to pro and con.

The problem I have with proportional representation and asset voting is that people don't feel connected to the winning candidate.

December 26, 2007 1:17 PM  
Blogger Rocosil said...

At a risk of being considered elitist, I would suggest that, rather than a group of citizens randomly selected from the general population, those who rewrite the Constitution be randomly selected from a permanent, continually renewed, pool of scholars from a broad variety of disciplines, including, but not limited to, lawyers, economist, political scientists, and sociologists.

February 1, 2008 12:00 PM  
Blogger Nikki said...

I like the idea proposed by "rocosil" involving the selection of participants in a Constitutional Convention from a pool of scholars from diverse disciplines. While Dr. Levinson suggests in his response to this post that a randomly selected group of citizen delegates would be able to “play catch-up” on important issues, I don’t think that “cramming” for a Constitutional Convention would allow for the level of deep reflection on these issues that a task like re-writing the Constitution would require.

I also think that it would be even more democratic to offer the people the opportunity to nominate these scholars into the pool… but determining who qualifies as an “intellectual” is not an easy task.

As a kind of creative way of solving this problem, I think that YouTube could easily be utilized in this nomination process to provide a democratic way of nominating people best suited to the job. Any citizen who wishes to be a member of the Convention would be welcome to post a short video summarizing their qualifications and what they would be able to offer to the delegation. The candidates' videos would be broken into groups: lawyers, economists, sociologists, politicians, community leaders, general citizens, etc. and each citizen would be able to nominate 3 people from each group. The 200 or 600 or so candidates (that’s a debate for another day) with the most votes get to attend the convention.

Local schools and libraries would have to publicize free internet access available to all citizens so that everyone could participate.

April 26, 2008 4:24 PM  
Anonymous LW said...

As much as I share Dr. Levinson's frustration with the current version of the Constitution, I do not thing the 600-person convention is the way to go. It seems to me too inefficient, idealistic, and, as "Nikki" wrote, I do not believe that "“cramming” for a Constitutional Convention " is a proper way to fill citizens in on major policy issues that, when addressed in Congress, take months to puzzle out. Nor can we rely on these representatives being elected without bias--even with the use of news outlets and YouTube and other commonly-used outlets, as "Nikki" suggests, portions of the population (those in rural areas or with little access to these resources, those uninformed or living on the fringes) would still not be involved. How many Americans cannot find Iraq on a world map despite all the news coverage on cable tv and online?? And finally, because a small group of citizens would be chosen to attend this conference, they would themselves be "representatives," and this precisely the issue that we have been so divisive about.
The truth is that pure democracy has not existed since...before Roman times? Although many countries will refer to themselves as democracies, they are by definition republics. And yes, the US is flawed in its system, but often the greatest change comes gradually and from within. Why not stick with the representative system but reform it? Campaign finance laws could be implemented to provide such restrictive spending caps as to allow even moderate- to low-income candidates a chance to compete. Congress could design new systems or propose changes to the Constitution and allow the American public to decide through a referendum, which would be more "democratic."
Amendments can be passed, but there would have to be some sort of national movement to push for that kind of change, and I can't envision that happening anytime soon. Therefore, the most realistic way such changes as Dr. Levinson proposes might be brought about would be not because of demands by American citizens, who are too preoccupied with paying for food and fuel and health care to worry about the system, but because of initiatives taken by representatives in Congress.

April 28, 2008 3:32 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great Job Guys !! Thanks.

June 3, 2008 2:22 AM  
Blogger Scott Trimble said...

In selecting delegates for a potential constitutional convention, rather than using an entirely random selection process that would inevitably bring some folks in who would be among those who would need to play catch-up in order to participate meaningfully, or an elitist approach like limiting participation to "scholars," we should combine several different methods of selection.

For instance, we might first ask for volunteers to submit their names to the lottery. This should weed out most folks who are uninterested in the topic or who do not feel knowledgeable enough to engage in the debate. Each state would then select 200 applicants by random lottery. These 200 folks would gather in their home states to hold preliminary conventions. After sufficient deliberation, as determined by the convention assembly, they would elect six delegates to attend the national convention. Each state would have the same number of delegates, but each delegate would have a different number of votes, based on the population of their home state; however, to avoid Californian delegates from dominating the convention, we might say that each delegate would have a number of votes equal to one-fifth of her state's membership in the House of Representatives (rounded down), but no delegate would have less than one vote.

Then, for those of you who believe this entire process would involve too few people, instead of ratifying the amendments or new constitution by simple referendum vote (which is participatory, but not deliberative), I would suggest that each voting precinct hold a ratifying convention, and that we provide multiple avenues whereby the amendments or revised constitution might be ratified, such as:

a 2/3 majority in a majority of precincts AND an overall majority;

a simple majority in 2/3 of precincts AND an overall majority;

a 58% majority in 58% of precincts AND an overall majority; or

a simple majority in a simple majority of precincts AND a 2/3 majority overall.

June 9, 2008 2:46 AM  
Blogger Scott Trimble said...

With regard to the debate between direct and representative democracy, I believe there is an especially good compromise available. Looking at my post above in regard to ratification conventions at the voting precinct level, I suggest that local assemblies at that level, or even smaller could meet, allowing every person the chance to participate directly, but that these local assemblies, after they had discussed and debated the issues, would then elect delegates to a larger area assembly, sending perhaps four delegates each to an assembly of fifty such localities. That assembly would in turn elect delegates to a larger area assembly, and so on, until we have selected our state legislatures and House of Representatives, as well as determined much of the agenda for those bodies. Not only would this method combine direct and representative democracy, but it would eliminate expensive election campaigns dependent on the media and, I believe, offer us much better representation.

June 9, 2008 3:15 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home