Would anyone still claim today that our representative democracy owes its success to the tradition of sending only our best and our brightest to Congress? Everyone must know a neighbor, a colleague or a family member who exercises sufficient reason and wisdom to understand and perhaps even make inroads against the more divisive issues of the day. Might you in fact be such a person?
Most voters — particularly those who stand to learn the most — gain no wisdom from simply witnessing the mistakes of their elected representatives — should they even learn of these mistakes at all. And yet these same misguided voters, with every new election cycle, threaten all our freedoms precisely because they were never afforded the chance, within their own political “backyards,” to legislatively experiment with an implementation of their misguided beliefs and so discover their failings for themselves.
Even the best among us learn the most through the natural process of trial and error — our own hands-on, personal efforts. This is the healthy way to foster progress for a society as a whole, a path that initially might fork into ten thousand tangents but leads over time back to a more enlightened, growing, stable consensus. Yet such political forays into experimental self-government need not be inflicted upon the nation as a whole, nor even necessarily statewide — and need not be left unguided by the same or even stronger constitutional barriers to majority excesses.
Direct democracy is an ideal polity precisely because — unlike our federal republic, let alone a third world dictatorship — it is so easily subject to continual correction, to constitutional delimitation and to legislative jurisdictional localization. It provides those who need political lessons the freedom to learn for themselves — all while sparing the greatest number of us from suffering unnecessarily again these same political growing pains.
For, if by virtue of the very strength and diversity of our opinions and beliefs, a national issue defies consensus and resolution, it becomes boorish and agitating to enact proscriptive laws either at the federal level or even at the state or the county levels. Such compulsory consensus surely represents both an oxymoron and at best an expedient delay of political fragmentation and national disorder.
Meanwhile must we perpetually bob in successive electoral waves from this partisan reign to the next, forever watching our freedoms imperiled by the latest tide of electoral interpretive overreach? Where in this lies the middle ground?
This is not the nation of the Founding Fathers — the populations of our larger cities dwarf those of the entire Republic at the time of ratification of the Constitution. The powers and preferences then reserved to entire states ought today be exercised and enjoyed by much smaller, more diverse sectors of the populace.
And the limitations on swift travel and communications that then necessitated a government-by-proxy approach to lawmaking no longer impede our high-tech society. The flow of information at our fingertips elevates our capacity for individual and collective decision-making far beyond the levels contemplated, or even imagined, by the distinguished wise men to whom we owe a debt of gratitude.
But here stands the crux of the matter as ever: Was that legendary wisdom of theirs so exceptional, so very rare, that still today the People cannot be entrusted with the power to represent themselves, even under the many protections of a strong federal constitution?
Now take another look, if necessary, at your neighbors, your colleagues, your family members — and at yourself.
But don’t answer just yet.
Naturally, your answer ought to depend not only upon your judgments of fellow citizens and of yourself but equally upon the general character and the specific provisions of the alternative constitution in question.
Is this one then ideal? Truly none could be: For only the perfect citizenry could administer a perfect government — and such an ideal populace would never in fact require a governing authority. Ask yourself instead if this direct democracy document has retained the better elements of our existing constitution, those which with varying degrees of success have stalled the enemies of peace and order, both foreign and domestic.
Furthermore, does this alternative constitution introduce substantive improvements upon those aspects of the original work that have since proven insufficient for our modern society? Could its new provisions turn the course of America’s decline? Indeed could it create an ideal, peaceful society?
What is direct democracy if not a system in which tolerance of diversity allows for a certain fragmentation among and within our communities? Isn’t the truest test of our respect for diversity the autonomy of peaceable peoples separated by whatever their personal beliefs or their traditional cultural differences require?
In order to progress as a society the People must enjoy the freedom to be vastly different, to make even dreadful mistakes — to live and to learn. It’s a matter of trusting life, really.
Only what denies us life itself or what stunts our further learning ought therefore be proscribed by constitutional law. Otherwise, so long as members of one community are free to emigrate to any other, this natural diversity ought to be left to flourish. In such a tolerant society every citizen might advance in one lifetime through membership in a half dozen different communities, developing in each a clearer sense of what is for them the best way of life.
So much the better. Then diversity in society serves as an intellectual and moral training ground for all. And there will always be those within communities and among all communities motivated to protect the rights of all.
It’s time to reconsider the course we’re on. Must we uniformly control most of what other people do or don’t do in the courses of their own lives, apart from us and our own, in order to be wholly moral ourselves? Or within a constitutional framework safeguarding individual liberties, under a scheme of regulation designed to ensure the safety of all, might we give fuller expression to this national diversity of ours and thus establish, ironically, a more circumspect, a stronger and a deeper union?
What is direct democracy? It’s human progress.