O’Connor: It’s time to elevate digital democracy

Disgusted with the news, yet?


Heard enough about the sex-capades of politicians and celebrities?

Mad about bankers, credit card companies, bailouts and the stimulus yet?

Government debt got you down?

You are not alone.

According to a new Rasmussen poll, 75 percent of all Americans are angry about current government policies.

And a whole gang of Tea Party activists are driving both Democrats and Republicans a little crazy just discussing it.

I have an idea. Let’s leapfrog over all of the quicksand dragging us down and try some new ideas.

After all, you have no right to complain if you’re not willing to do something about it.

That is our “new normal.” Each of us must come up with an idea to fix our political system.

Everything else is a do-it-yourself economy. Why not do-it-yourself politics?

According to British philosopher, Edmund Burke, “the only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for a few good men to do nothing.”

A few good men and women, plus one good idea can alter history.

One new “old” idea: more democracy

As British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, Wisconsin Progressive Gov. Robert M. La Follette, and New York Gov. John Dewey each frequently opined: “the cure for whatever ails democracy is more democracy.”

Rather appropriate today.
In the last century, during the upheaval that forced President Richard M. Nixon to resign in disgrace and President Lyndon Johnson to concede his party’s nomination before the primary fights even began, I co-authored an article that espoused picking a name out of a hat – believing that we would be better represented by our local mail carrier than members of the out-of-touch establishment.

Naive and young, I believed that the political corruption surrounding Watergate and the riots surrounding the Vietnam War expanded by Nixon — with the acquiescence of Congress — to include Cambodia and Laos couldn’t get any worse.

And yet, here we are. Sex, lies, and videotape scandals among the leaders in politics, sports, Hollywood, the business and religious communities.

Thus, the popular Northern California bumper sticker. “I never thought I would miss Nixon.”

Anyone with the stomach to watch contemporary news, read the blogs or channel surf the cable networks can easily recognize the near collapse of a civilized — let alone intelligent — discourse about the country’s woes.

People must lead themselves

In real terms, the people must now lead themselves. The press and the politicians will follow.

The people led the dissent on Watergate and Vietnam and most recently, on the stimulus, bank bailouts and the public debt. The people led on women’s rights, civil rights, an end to child labor and campaigns against drunk driving and domestic abuse.

The press and politicians belatedly followed.

The recent Supreme Court decision permitting unlimited corporate contributions to campaigns and the obvious lobbying/moneyed interests controlling all levers of American political power make direct democracy the next evolutionary/revolutionary step.

Or the U.S. may face President John Adams’ unhappy admonition:

“Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy that did not commit suicide.”

Granting women, blacks and 18-year-olds the right to vote helped rejuvenate the American system in the 20th century. The 21st century needs something more.

In this country, approximately half of the eligible voters register. Of that 50 percent, only half again bother to show up; meaning 25 percent of those eligible. That is considered “a good turnout.”

In local and state elections, it is not unusual for a councilmember to be selected by less than 5 percent of the population. Hardly representative.

Hence the need for ideas to educate, train, and move every citizen along at warp speed, so they might better represent themselves.

Tools already exist

The tools for such an imaginative experiment already exist.

Netroots and the multiple new social media Web sites, constitute a viable collective exchange that could permit every interested voter to represent themselves. They are already frequent users of the system.

Look at the numbers:

  • 90 trillion – The number of emails sent on the Internet in 2009.
  • 247 billion – Average number of email messages per day.
  • 1.4 billion – The number of email users worldwide.
  • 100 million – New email users since the year before.

Facebook, alone, just crossed into 400 million users.

Or as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) unintentionally telegraphed a fail-proof strategy for digital democracy’s future, “We’ll go through the gate. If the gate’s closed, we’ll go over the fence. If the fence is too high, we’ll pole vault in. If that doesn’t work, we’ll parachute in…”

The parachutes are already in flight. American science, technology, and the netroots have been operating around the roadblocks for some time. In fact, they designed the parachutes.

In politics, Howard Dean’s early presidential campaign, then Sen. Barack Obama’s, and recently Sen. Scott Brown’s (R-Mass.) Web strategies all demonstrated the early potential of the Web as an organizing and fundraising tool.

Social networking is for more than dating and organizing rave parties.

During the recent Iranian demonstrations, Twitter was there.

In the aftermath of Haiti, the Red Cross and texting were there.

If cell phones are good enough to purchase goods with just a swipe at a bar code; good enough to raise hundreds of millions of dollars for Haiti with a short #90999; and robo computers can fly airplanes, perform surgery, rescue us from rubble, launch satellites to the moon, fly unmanned drones into precise targets, and produce Quant sheets for the financial world; they can surely allow us to vote without representation.

How hard can this be?

Think eBay, email, the Kindle, weathercams, robocalls, GPS, etc.

iPhones are now used as stethoscopes by physicians; as police alerts by neighborhood watch groups, and as snowpack measures to keep ski resorts honest.

Read the suggested legislative bills in PDF format on the Internet. Research, debate online, discuss with friends, converse over Skype, or with Facebook.

Watch YouTube. Download trustworthy learning materials. Teach yourself. Surf the web for more than just a distraction.

Steal this idea and design a killer app

In the spirit of the 1960s, you have my permission to steal this idea. Patent it. Design a “killer app” and make yourself richer than Bill Gates.

Start in California. Oregon won the race to the “mail only” ballot. California has three tech savvy candidates for governor in Jerry Brown, Meg Whitman, and Steve Poizner. Each is capable of grasping and influencing the future.

Perhaps, the next governor can patent this “digital democracy” product for the State of California; then sell it to other states, and countries (instant translation is easy on the Internet) and pay down California’s debt with more than just revenue from pot.

However, this idea needs a great marketing slogan and a catchy URL. Need some talent here.

Think about it.

Imagine it. Perhaps you will or Steve Jobs will.

California needs you. The U.S. needs you. The planet needs you.

Help out here.

Or stay home and wait for the Mother Ship to arrive.

Colleen M. O’Connor is a former college history professor, the director of the “Faces of San Diego 2000″ family photographic history project and co-editor of Eleanor Roosevelt: An American Journey. She is an SDNN political columnist and can be reached at CoConnor15x(a)Yahoo.com



Comment by: Kitty Juniper Posted: February 10, 2010, 3:20 pm


Great ideas! Now let’s look at how our representatives do business. Given the state of our technology, there is no need for elected officials to be in Washington, D.C. or Sacramento for twelve months of the year. Many professionals telecommute; why can’t they? Think of the money we would save if our elected officials stayed in their districts, held video-conferenced hearings and meetings, cast their votes electronically and travelled to Sacramento or Washington for joint, in-person meetings only one month out of the year? No more dollars allocated to year long housing. Most important, it might actually disperse the special interests and lobbyists and make it easier for our representatives to buck their parties. Think of the back-room deals that may be less likely to occur since they could be recorded when not made in person. The electronic legislature — it might even put more power in the hands of the people who elected them.


Comment by: Stephen Verbeek Posted: February 10, 2010, 6:19 pm


Ms. O’Connor,


I simply could not agree with you more. Interestingly enough, our country’s Founding Fathers and Constitutional Framers also agreed with you…over two hundred years ago.

Our Constitution was written and altered specifically to allow for self governance, a vital fact lost to many Americans and those who teach American history. It’s the idea of First Principle: it is the People who are inherently invested with all authority and legislative power to create and alter governments, constitutions, charters, and laws.

The Founding Fathers chose our current form of representative government because there was a lack of technology which would allow every citizen to gather regularly over vast distances to express their opinions on laws and policies. They chose representatives because there was simply no other technological alternative to represent the collective will in eighteenth century America. Therein had lain the problem.

Herein lies the problem now: Americans are looking in the wrong direction for change. We seek change outwardly through representatives as we feel this was what our Founding Fathers intended when they created our current branches of government. Well, it was what they intended. Then. Over two hundred years ago. The truth is that our Founding Fathers wanted us to look inwardly for change whenever possible and by failing to do so, would surely result in misuses of power. Well, eureka!

Most Americans are completely unaware our Constitution was cleverly written to allow change through direct decree in such times as we The People saw fit. The idea that the will of the masses surpasses the authority of any branch of government. The idea that once the citizens of this country feel their representatives are no longer representing, we need only decree our will by majority and it is so.

James Madison supported this when he stated: “The People were, in fact, the fountain of all power, and by resorting to them, all difficulties were got over. They could alter constitutions as they pleased.”

Our relatively low voter turn out is a result of our knowledge and frustration that our representatives are influenced more with special interests and re-election than with the needs of their constituents. So why vote? And besides, I’ve got a busy schedule and mouths to feed and no time to drive to the other side of town to the local elementary school and vote! I know nothin’s gonna change anyway. Same game, different name.

This little theory is supported by a recent survey conducted by the California Voter Foundation (CVF). The survey shed some light on the reasoning of low voter turnout. The number one reason why registered voters didn’t vote (and why qualified voters didn’t register to vote) was because they were “too busy”. Reason number two was “a feeling that candidates don’t really speak to them.”


Furthermore, why is it we have to re-register to vote by just moving from one town to the next? Shouldn’t voter registration be for life no matter where you move? Additionally, why are federal elections held on Tuesdays? Why not Sundays when most people have off from work? Let’s go a step further and ask why not all week to let those who can’t find a babysitter participate on a more convenient day? It’s all intentional, make no mistake about it. Our “democracy” is DESIGNED to be difficult. The fewer voting participants means fewer headaches for the even fewer decision makers. This may be an oversimplification but you can call it an accurate one.

Founding Father James Wilson made a prophetic statement supporting direct democracy through advancements in technology when he stated: “All power is originally in the people and should be exercised by them in person, if that could be done with convenience, or even with little difficulty.”

Hmm. Call me crazy, but I think he just might be indirectly referring to what we call the cell phone and internet. Two “conveniences” which will surely make obsolete the two leading reasons citizens don’t vote as supported by the CVF survey. The whole process need be no more complicated than a call or click. You said it well.

Our current, almost purely representative form of government is a paradox. It is nothing remotely close to being representative of our citizens’ will. As our population grows and diversifies the number of lawmakers remains the same. Our laws and our Constitution must be altered periodically to reflect new growth, new technologies and new injustices as they arise and we must stop being reluctant in altering them ourselves. Peacefully and simply.

Let’s quote George Washington: “The marvel of all history is the patience with which men and women submit to burdens unnecessarily laid upon them by their governments.”

And what a long marvel it has been.

In closing, I’m a bit surprised you made no mention regarding The National Initiative For Democracy in your article. Are you familar with this initiative? It is a proposed Constitutional amendment designed to give law making powers to every registered voter in the country without changing any of our current branches of government. It has none of the drawbacks of existing state initiatives and has formulated an impressive deliberative process in which to accomplish this through current technology. Please review it at http://www.ni4d.us or http://www.vote.org to learn more.

Something tells me that “Mother Ship” you mentioned may just have landed…


Stephen Verbeek