Democracy — as we understand the term — began in ancient Athens.
Back before the invention of agriculture, when human tribes of hunter/gatherers followed the game herds across the landscape, those tribes had a primitive sort of democracy.
Hunting tribes that still exist in remote parts of the world still show that kind of organization. The male members of the tribe come together in a council to decide issues of importance. One man, one vote.
As hunting tribes turned to agriculture, though, that rough form of democracy disappeared. With agriculture came property rights and a hierarchical society. Decisions were made by leaders who eventually became kings, and even were worshipped as gods.
The ancient Athenians, some five hundred years before Christ, got rid of their tyrants and established a democratic system for ruling their city-state.
It was a direct democracy. The city-state was ruled by an assembly that consisted of every Athenian citizen: which meant every free male born in Athens. Slaves, foreigners and women were not allowed to vote.
The men gathered to discuss each issue, then voted. Direct democracy. The citizens decided each issue for themselves, usually after considerable argument.
Today, in the United States and other nations around the world, democracies are not direct. We have a representative democracy. We elect people to represent us, to ponder the issues of the day and vote on them.
The men who wrote our Constitution worried about mob rule, so they produced our representative democracy. They wanted men of substance and probity to decide the issues of the day, not poor, uneducated workingmen and farmers.
Besides, with a population of several millions, they figured that direct democracy couldn’t work. You might be able to get a few hundred voters together in a town meeting, but it would be impossible to get all the voters across the entire nation together to consider the issues. It just wasn’t practical.
So we have Congress. Many citizens complain about Congress. In nationwide polls, Congress usually comes out very poorly.
People are unhappy with their representatives. They feel that Congress is out of touch with the needs of the common people. Many believe that most members of Congress are more concerned with getting re-elected than with the nation’s real needs, more involved with inside-the-Beltway horse swapping than the vital issues that confront the nation.
Strangely, while most people complain bitterly about Congress, most Representatives and Senators get re-elected, term after term. There’s a disconnect in the system.
Could we do away with Congress altogether? Disregarding the Constitutional problems of disbanding Congress, could we revert to the direct kind of democracy that the ancient Athenians enjoyed?
After all, today we have digital communications. The Internet, Twitter, Facebook and other digital systems carry billions of messages back and forth across the country with the speed of light.
Might it be possible to have every eligible voter consider every issue that comes up, listen to the arguments pro and con, and then vote electronically? Direct democracy in the digital age.
It is certainly possible, technically. But would it work in actual practice?
Abandoning Congress and allowing the nation’s citizens to vote directly on the issues of the day brings up the specter of mob rule. Would the average American citizen have the depth of knowledge and the sober, unbiased attitude to consider the issues and vote wisely?
Well, does Congress?
One effect of direct digital democracy might be to virtually wipe out the influence of lobbyists. It’s one thing to sweet-talk or arm-twist a few hundred Congressmen and Senators into voting the way you want them to. How would a lobbying campaign work when the people who make the decisions are tens of millions of citizens?
Lobbying might evolve into something like commercial advertising campaigns. The money spent today on convincing Congress to vote this way or that would be spent on national advertising campaigns, no doubt.
But there is one major hurdle that will prevent direct digital democracy from becoming a reality: Congress itself. It would take a Constitutional amendment to abolish Congress, and Congress is not about to vote itself out of business.
The technology might be ready, but the politicians are not.