The species we must become: On direct democracy, or why its alleged bugs are features

See update for March 23, 2021, at end of post.

In “Federalist no. 10,” a continuation of Alexander Hamilton’s “Federalist no. 9,”[1] James Madison laid out several reasons for opposing a true democracy in favor of a republic:

  1. Scale: It is indeed difficult to imagine how the principle of one person, one vote, sans representation of any kind, in direct elections on everything could scale even to the size of the early republic of the Constitution advocated in the Federalist Papers. However, as complaints about voter apathy, low voter turnouts, various secession movements, and disputes over the Electoral College show, a government too far removed from the people is no answer. Indeed, the dilution of the individual vote, rendering it all but meaningless against the tide of popular opinion, is a principal reason I do not vote and in fact regard the U.S. electoral system as a fraud.[2]
  2. The protection of minority rights: Madison was concerned not for the rights of any subaltern group, but rather the property rights of wealthy white men, largely including slaveholders. That said, human rights are necessary to protect the rights of the unpopular, not the popular. Direct democracy offers no obvious protection for religious, racial, gender, or any other minorities. It has no protection against kangaroo courts to try unpopular individuals. Madison curiously argues that minorities can find greater power in a large republic than in a small one due to a greater diversity of interests.This part, it can safely be said, failed miserably. It has worked only for the rich whom Madison was concerned to protect, against nearly everyone else, whom Madison was concerned to restrain:

    A rage for paper money, for an abolition of debts, for an equal division of property, or for any other improper or wicked project, will be less apt to pervade the whole body of the Union than a particular member of it; in the same proportion as such a malady is more likely to taint a particular county or district, than an entire State.

    Further, the Democratic and Republican Parties have enshrined “faction” in a “bipartisan” system that functions to constrain the range of acceptable opinion (the “Overton window”) to that which does not threaten the rich,[3] reducing the pace of even essential social change to a snail’s pace.[4] Witness, for examples, the lengthy struggles even to abolish slavery and grant women the vote, to achieve equal rights for women and minorities, or the relatively nascent struggles to achieve the same for those who transgress the traditional boundaries of heterosexuality and biologically-determined genders.

    But even with the existential crisis of climate change, this system is structurally incapable of a response: Decision-makers hold their positions in the status quo; to upset the status quo is to unsettle the powerful, and it is very clear that the powerful are very fond of and determined to preserve that status quo.[5]

  3. Madison believed that the rich (the only ones whom, as Hannah Arendt pointed out much later, could free themselves from the need to support themselves, indeed, often by employing others or enslaving them[6]) could be trusted with governance,

    to refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations.

    He and Hamilton sought to restrain popular opinion. They both considered it prone to faction and violence; Madison was alarmed that attempts might be made to redress social inequality—“the various and unequal distribution of property.”

    It turns out, of course, that the rich are as self-interested as anyone else: There is, despite the mythology of “deservingness” that demonizes the poor and valorizes the “successful,”[7] no evidence that the rich are any more moral, any more ethical, any more wise than anyone else, but rather, to the contrary: They act on behalf of their own families, to protect their own power and privilege, and to preserve a distinction between themselves and “ordinary” people.[8]

To show that these “bugs,” for which the republic was advanced as a solution, are in fact features, we might begin by questioning the notion that the the size of a population under the control of a political system confers any sort of advantage. Indeed, its only advantage seems to be in the consolidation of power over others in a contest waged by elites for control over people, territory, and the resources within those territories since the Neolithic and, that one way or another, at least partly explains most, if not all, wars.

Even if we apply an economic association of “efficiency” in scale, we must ask what this efficiency is meant to achieve: Whom does it benefit, and how? Are we really better off with a distant government in Washington, D.C., or our local governments? Which are more responsive to people’s needs, and why?

Further, we cannot argue that a national government serves as any check on local bigotry or corruption. Tammany Hall flourished for decades. The Chicago machine remains legendary. Southern states remain at the forefront of efforts to limit reproductive, labor, and minority rights. These are only examples we know about, because they somehow came to national attention. It is unreasonable to suspect that there are not many more.

Further, when we look at the climate crisis, we find that factions that transcend party lines constrain essential action even against the threat of human (and many other species) extinction.

The solution then is not a powerful, remote government, but one which enhances accountability to the people: Direct democracy accomplishes this in ways that no other system can. And if, as I rather strongly suspect, this does not scale to the size of the U.S., so be it: Break it up into smaller units, the smaller the better.

And when a minority feels oppressed by a majority, let it split off to form its own community. When Tom Perkins feels threatened by a “progressive Kristallnacht,”[9] let him go off with a few of his similarly-entitled buddies and try life without the rest of us who have been supporting his and their lavish lifestyles for a while. (Full disclosure: Perkins is a founder of the venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, now simply Kleiner Perkins, a firm that took over, and ran into the ground, my last real employer for any length of time, Linuxcare.)

Communities need not be tied to specific geography. They may even be ephemeral, forming, disbanding, and re-forming, then disbanding again, as circumstances require. The idea is that where conflicts arise, there can be dialog and cooperation to resolve them. And we should turn to true restorative justice, including an exploration to the root causes of problematic (sociologists use the term ‘deviant,’ but mean to exclude the colloquial negative connotations associated with that term) behavior,[10]—we now often call this crime—that a “law and order” society, holding law passed by the powerful against the powerless cannot address. But fundamentally, the notion that some individuals or certain classes or groups of people, whether by economic, political, or any other means, hold power over others must be understood as anti-democratic.

There are several problems with the construction of human rights. As George Lakoff, explaining conservative objections, notes, human rights require someone to protect them.[11] In the present understanding, this duty falls to political authority.[12] This means that different authorities may be selective about which human rights they may recognize—if the U.S. had joined the very nearly entire rest of the world in ratifying the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights,[13] I might have a defense against my systematic exclusion from the job market for now, over eighteen years. At the same time, it is clear that human rights protection throughout the world is often haphazard: Examples such as Sudan, Burma, and China flood into mind.

Martha Nussbaum argues that the notion of human rights is too constraining, that what are needed are the means for each human and non-human animal to develop to their full potential. Her argument goes beyond telling government to get out the way; rather, in her view, it falls to government to ensure the conditions for this development.[14] Here, communities are important. If “it takes a village to raise a child,”[15] it will just as surely fall to that village to create the conditions for each individual to reach their potential.

This, in turn, is an antidote to the problem of social deviance: In the status quo, much crime can be attributed to social inequality, indeed, economic desperation.[16] In the end, there is no substitute for the Dalai Lama’s dictum that we must not tolerate the suffering of our fellow humans[17] and non-humans. We must care for them and about them. And we have to understand that seeking to dominate them, whether through political, economic, or any other means, is antithetical to that care.

And when we actually care for each other, who knows or even cares what size our societies might achieve?

Update, March 23, 2021: I return to the topic of Federalist No. 10 in “A constitutional oligarchy: Deconstructing Federalist No. 10.”

  1. [1]Kelly Kyuzawa with Robert Brammer, eds., “The Federalist Papers,” Congress, May 3, 2016,
  2. [2]David Benfell, “Why I do not vote,” Not Housebroken, February 23, 2016,
  3. [3]Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States: 1492-Present (New York: HarperPerennial, 2005).
  4. [4]Bill Moyer, with JoAnn McAllister, Mary Lou Finley, and Steven Soifer, Doing Democracy: The MAP Model for Organizing Social Movements (Gabriola Island, British Columbia, Canada: New Society, 2001).
  5. [5]Christopher Hayes, Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy (New York: Crown, 2012); C. Wright Mills, The Power Elite (1956; repr., New York: Oxford University, 2000).
  6. [6]Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1998).
  7. [7]Thomas M. Shapiro, “Introduction,” in Great Divides: Readings in Social Inequality in the United States, ed. Thomas M. Shapiro, 3rd ed. (New York: McGraw Hill, 2005).
  8. [8]Christopher Hayes, Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy (New York: Crown, 2012); C. Wright Mills, The Power Elite (1956; repr., New York: Oxford University, 2000).
  9. [9]Tom Perkins, “Progressive Kristallnacht Coming?” Wall Street Journal, January 24, 2014,
  10. [10]Wanda D. McCaslin and Denise C. Breton, “Justice as Healing: Going Outside the Colonizers’ Cage,” in Handbook of Critical and Indigenous Methodologies, Norman K. Denzin, Yvonna S. Lincoln, and Linda Tuhiwai Smith, eds. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2008), 511-529.
  11. [11]George Lakoff, Whose Freedom? The Battle Over America’s Most Important Idea (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006).
  12. [12]Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights, “What are human rights?” n.d.,
  13. [13]United Nations, “Ratification Status: International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights,” January 15, 2019,
  14. [14]Martha C. Nussbaum, Creating Capabilities: The Human Development Approach (Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 2011).
  15. [15]A Google search suggests this is an African proverb.
  16. [16]Steven E. Barkan, Criminology: A Sociological Understanding, 3rd ed. (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2006).
  17. [17]Bstan-ʼdzin-rgya-mtsho, Ethics for the New Millennium (New York: Riverhead, 1999).

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