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Modernizing American Democracy for the 21st Century, Part II

This is part II of a four-part series.

By Dr. Gary Deel
Faculty Director, School of Business, American Military University

In part I of this series, we examined why the Founding Fathers designed the American government as a representative democracy, and why there is virtually no chance of changing that design today, short of violent revolution. In this second part, we will discuss what the United States might look like as a pure democracy.

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Try to imagine our country as a direct democracy without representatives to speak for us. A president might still be necessary to represent our nation in international affairs. And other executives such as governors and mayors might be useful for representing our states and cities in large-scale discussions and conferences. But in terms of decision-making on foreign and domestic issues, all deliberations would be left to a popular vote. No more Congress. No more state legislatures.

As discussed previously, modern technology could facilitate this kind of self-government, eliminating the need for long lines at the ballot box, such as we see during our presidential elections.

A Safe and Efficient Voting System: All Citizens Receive an Alert by Instant Message or Text

I can imagine a safe and efficient system whereby all citizens receive an alert by instant message (IM) or text on their smartphone whenever a proposal that requires a vote is published. We would log on to a secure government website, using our Social Security number (SSN) and perhaps some type of biometric verification (e.g. thumbprint or optical scanning) to prevent identity theft and fraud.

We could either cast a vote or not. Just as our current representatives may choose to abstain from a vote, we too could decide whether or not we wish to participate in voting on each individual issue. Once the voting deadline passed and the results were published, the job of our government work force would be to simply carry out the will of the people.

Now try to imagine the consequences of such a change. The advantage of this shift should be pretty obvious: An end to lobbying and corruption in our state and federal legislative bodies. Instead, if some dubious power brokers wished to control decisions in the country, they would need to persuade hundreds of millions of people to their cause, a much larger and more difficult task than influencing a few representatives or senators.

Biggest Threat to Pure Democracy System Would Likely Be an Uninformed Electorate

But what about the negative? Interestingly, the biggest threat to our pure democracy system would likely be an uninformed electorate. In other words, the general public might very well be too ignorant for its own good.

Thomas Jefferson famously said, “An educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people.” What Jefferson meant was, in order for our society to make informed decisions, the people must first understand the issues. If we can’t grasp what we’re voting on, how can we expect to steer the country in a positive direction?

Unfortunately, this problem has been exacerbated of late because national policy problems are becoming increasingly complicated, with many moving parts and lots of potential consequences to consider.

Generations ago we wrestled with what appear today to be embarrassingly simple moral questions, such as whether freedom of speech should be protected, whether slavery should be permitted and whether women should be allowed to vote. In hindsight, it’s astonishing that these were ever questions at all. But those days are gone. Today’s issues are much more complex.

Consider the Serious Threat of Climate Change

As an example, consider the serious threat of climate change. Today, despite an overwhelming consensus from 99 percent of the scientific community, only about 62 percent of Americans believe that climate change is happening and that it is human-caused.

But truly understanding the data and the science underpinning the threat of global warming requires extensive education and experience in climatology, geology, meteorology, and other related disciplines. As such, the vast majority of Americans simply cannot interpret the evidence in a meaningful or scientific way and make an educated judgment on this issue.

Another example: What should we do about the human rights crisis and warmongering in North Korea? Those who know nothing about the circumstances on the Korean peninsula might be quick to suggest a nuclear strike or a surprise military offensive.

But only those experts who intimately study the situation recognize the perils in such proposals. Seoul, the capital of our ally South Korea, is a city of more than 10 million people. North Korea has artillery amassed in such a way that any act of aggression — no matter how brutal or unexpected — could result in the complete destruction of Seoul. As such, only military tacticians and experts on this decades-long conflict are truly qualified to weigh in on this issue.

A knee-jerk reaction to this problem might be to suggest education as a simple solution. If people don’t understand the issues, why don’t we just teach them? It’s a nice thought, but it’s also impractical for four reasons.

First, education is and likely always will be a choice. So unless we’re planning to march the electorate into classrooms at gunpoint, there is no way to make voters learn if they don’t want to learn.

Second, even if voters did want to learn, there is the obstacle of cost—in terms of time and money. As expensive as college degrees and professional training are today, formal education would remain out of reach for many Americans.

Third, if all eligible voters somehow scraped together the money for an education, this would put an untenable strain on higher education institutions. Our colleges and universities simply couldn’t handle the load of educating 300 million people.

Fourth, even if every American possessed the desire to learn and the means to pay for an education, and even if schools were capable of handling the large volume of students, voters still couldn’t possibly develop an expertise in every conceivable area where voting acumen would be needed.

Show me the most educated and intelligent person in the country, and I will show you someone who is still ignorant in many more disciplines than they know. Such is the enormous breadth and depth of the body of human knowledge today. No one person can ever hope to know it all. Consequently, the number of areas in which an individual is genuinely equipped to deliberate and make informed decisions will always be fewer than the number of areas in which he has no knowledge.

To be fair, most of our representatives today also lack the requisite knowledge to appropriately handle many of our complex issues. The demographic breakdown of the 115th Congress is a reflection of the most predominant professions today — politics/public service, business, law and education. There are also 26 farmers, nine social workers, and one screenwriter among the legislators. There are just three scientists, in the fields of microbiology, physics, and chemistry.

However, it’s worth noting that 99 percent of Congress has a college degree and 63 percent of them hold graduate degrees. Contrast that with the American public at large, where according to the U.S. Census Bureau, only 42 percent possess a college degree, and just 12 percent possess a graduate degree. Our representatives might not be experts in all of the specific fields of policy that come before them, but they are at least well-educated in a general sense. Therefore, they are ostensibly capable of exercising critical thinking and making informed decisions.

With a direct democracy, however, there is no such expectation of expertise, nor could there be. In a direct democracy, each person, regardless of differences in intellect, education or training, would get a vote on all issues no matter how important or insignificant. We could see how the U.S. could easily be driven off a cliff by an electorate that is disastrously unprepared for self-government.

So how might we fix this? In the third and fourth parts of this series, we’ll examine ways that a pure democracy might leverage its informed constituents to help lead the way on issues for which they are qualified to do so.

About the Author

Dr. Gary Deel is a Faculty Director with the School of Business at American Military University. He holds a JD in Law and a Ph.D. in Hospitality/Business Management. He teaches human resources and employment law classes for American Military University, the University of Central Florida, Colorado State University and others.

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