Democracy in America: Problems, Suggestions and Resources

Rich Whitney
Jul 4, 2017 · 14 min read

At many protest demonstrations it has become fashionable to chant: “This is what democracy looks like!”

With all due respect, I dissent. I think that when governments or corporations make decisions that harm the public, and people are reduced to protesting after the fact, that is the opposite of what democracy looks like.

Democracy means “rule by the people.” If we had real democracy, wouldn’t the people, or at least representatives of the people, be making good decisions that served the public interest inside the halls of government, not bad decisions that cause people to protest outside the halls of government? Wouldn’t we be able to prevent harmful economic decisions, not merely protest them?

In America, we are repeatedly told by the media, political leaders and commentators that the USA is a “democracy” that stands up for democracy around the world. But it simply isn’t true. We certainly don’t have direct democracy. There is no mechanism for the people of the United States to directly deliberate and vote on propositions at the national level. Some states allow it but it is usually very difficult to get a proposition on the ballot. A few towns in the U.S. still have “town hall democracy,” but not in Illinois.

Many people say: “The U.S. was never intended to be a democracy. Our country is a republic, with indirect democracy by elected representatives.” The first statement is certainly true, but most Americans would dispute the second one. Few people believe that their interests are being served by those elected to government power. Most Americans understand that those in government are serving either their own interests, the interests of the wealthy few, or both. And they are right!

Consider: A strong majority of Americans favor publicly funded universal health care — but leaders in Congress said that wasn’t “politically feasible,” and we got Obama-care. Most people in Illinois oppose fracking, but our “representatives” in Springfield obeyed the wishes of their campaign donors and voted to allow it. In Jackson County (Illinois, where I am based), hundreds of people went to county government demanding action to prevent fracking and the launching of a “factory farm” near Cedar Lake — only to be told that state law preempted any action by the county. Go down the list of issues — unemployment, poverty, climate change, support for education and public services, issues of war and peace, you name it — the wishes of the majority are ignored, and every category of problem continues to grow worse over time.

When it comes to economic decision-making, the situation is even worse. We don’t even get to vote at all on whether or not we are going to be employed tomorrow, or what kind of income we will receive or what kind of conditions we will be working in. We have no control at all over the most basic economic decisions that control the quality of our lives — who produces goods and services, how and where they are produced, how can people make a decent living, whether we earn enough to pay rent, buy a home, support a family or retire at a decent age.

The following list of core problems, suggested remedies and resources is intended to provide some guidance on ways and means of moving toward real democracy in America.

Problem 1: No avenues for direct democracy.

With modern means of communication, it should be very achievable for the members of a society to propose, deliberate upon and vote upon vital questions of public interest. Some nations, such as Switzerland, make it relatively easy for their people to do this. The signatures of 100,000 voters can place a proposition on the ballot in Switzerland, and the people frequently make use of this avenue of direct democracy.

There is no provision in the Constitution or U.S. law that allows the people to have a direct vote on any public question at the national level. In Illinois, voters can use the initiative power to qualify initiated constitutional amendments, but not state statutes, for the ballot. Moreover, such constitutional amendments can only affect Article IV of the Illinois Constitution, dealing with the structure and procedures of the legislature. The Illinois General Assembly may place constitutional amendments on the ballot with a three-fifths majority vote of each chamber.

The signature requirement for initiated constitutional amendments is 8 percent of the total votes cast for governor in the preceding gubernatorial election. This means, for example, that in 2018, it would take 290,216 petition signatures from registered voters to get a referendum on the ballot. In reality, it would take far more than that, because if someone challenged the petitions, some signatures would be stricken — for example if the voter had changed his or her address but failed to update his or her voter registration. In addition, any technical failure to comply with the limits of the amendment process could result in the referendum being removed from the ballot — as has occurred twice in a row with the proposed “independent maps” redistricting initiative.

Suggested Remedies: To move toward direct democracy at the national level would take a constitutional amendment — or a revolution. To move toward direct democracy in Illinois would require a three-fifths vote of the members elected to each house of the General Assembly to get the proposed amendment on the ballot — then it would have to be approved by either three-fifths of those voting on the question or a majority of those voting in the election. (Ill. Const. art. XIV, § 2.) The other options would be a new constitutional convention in Illinois — or a revolution.

Resources: There is unfortunately, not much of a movement toward direct democracy in the U.S., but movements always have to start somewhere. There are some small groups proposing the idea of a constitutional amendment to allow national propositions and others proposing the idea that voters in a Congressional district should have the power to compel their representative to vote a certain way on a particular bill or resolution. See:

See also resources under the Economic Democracy section, and, generally

Problem 2: Lack of even representative democracy:

The people we elect generally support the agenda of the wealthy donors to their campaigns and the major corporations and banks, not that of the people.

This problem has many dimensions: The obvious influence of big money on political decision-making; the army of lobbyists in Washington; the power of corporations and financial institutions to relocate or otherwise disfavor states or nations that do not do their bidding; lack of options on the ballot due to restrictive ballot access laws; public ignorance about choices other than Democrats or Republicans; lack of media coverage and debate inclusion for other candidates; fears that a vote for a minority party will result in a “greater of two evils” being elected. For each aspect, there are numerous suggestions for establishing more truly representative government.

Suggested Remedies:

1. Amend the Constitution to firmly establish that money is not speech, and that human beings, not corporations, are persons entitled to constitutional rights. This would allow us to enact campaign finance limits on donations and spending that would not be struck down by the courts, and to restrict or ban corporate lobbying and influence-peddling.
2. Corporations are organizations that are allowed to operate businesses without personal liability. They exist only because we allow them to exist. We can amend corporate chartering laws to only license corporations on the condition that they engage in no political activity.
3. Bar campaign contributions from any business, and its officers or employees, that has a contract with a government body that could be affected by the election.
4. Lower ballot access restrictions for minority parties and independent candidates.
5. Restore and enforce the Equal Time Provision of the Federal Communication Act, requiring broadcasters to carry debates including all ballot-qualified candidates, and provide free time for all such candidates, as a license requirement to use our public airwaves. Replace the partisan Commission on Presidential Debates with a non-partisan Citizens Debate Commission. Fight to maintain net neutrality so that all candidates and parties have a level playing field on the internet.
6. Vote for candidates who refuse corporate money as a matter of principle.
7. Ranked Choice Voting a/k/a Instant Runoff Voting: Unlike our current system, which forces voters to reject their preferred candidate in favor of a “lesser evil” who may have a better chance of defeating the candidate they most fear, Ranked Choice Voting allows them to choose both. This eliminates the so-called “spoiler” and “wasted vote” effects and gives voters a more democratic set of choices. Voters simply rank candidates in order of their preference (first, second, etc.). If a candidate wins a majority of first choice votes, that candidate is the winner. If no candidate gets a majority of first choices, the lowest vote-getting candidate is eliminated, and his/her votes are given to the candidates whom the supporters of the eliminated candidate chose as their second option.
8. Proportional Representation: The winner-take-all system unnecessarily restricts choice, polarizes politics and limits political discourse. We must adopt Proportional Representation (PR) for legislative elections to ensure the fair representation of all voters. Millions of Democrats in Republican areas and Republicans in Democratic areas are unrepresented in our system, and the majority of Greens, Libertarians, and other independents are unrepresented at all levels of government. Our system should provide fair representation to all voters, in proportion to their numbers.

Resources: Move to Amend —
Program on Corporations, Law & Democracy:
Public Citizen:
Coalition for Free and Open Elections:
Ballot Access News:
Project Vote Smart:
Electronic Frontier Foundation:
Fair Vote:
No More Stolen Elections:
Center for Responsive Politics:
The Green Party and its candidates do not accept corporate money as a matter of principle: See and

Problem 3: Lack of ballot integrity

A decision-making process cannot be considered democratic if someone or some group has the power to miscount or manipulate the vote. From unreliable electronic voting machines and millions of uncounted ballots, to partisan election officials and 10-hour waits at the polls, it is clear that our electoral system is in dire need of an overhaul. Many election jurisdictions now rely on private, for-profit companies to supply and maintain electronic voting and vote-count machines that have proprietary software. These machines can be hacked or otherwise manipulated. There are many ways to manipulate an election result: flipping votes on electronic voting machines, manipulating votes on the central tabulating computers, purging voters from the voter rolls.

Resources describing the problem:

1) Code Red by Jonathon Simon: “lays out the case that election fraud has been occurring via the targeting and manipulation of computerized voting equipment across America.”

2) Democracy Lost: A Report on the Fatally Flawed 2016 Democratic Primaries, Election Justice USA.

3) Free Press Election Reporting:



Suggested Remedies: Basically, it’s simple — use paper ballots that can be secured, stored and counted by hand! Every voting system in the United States should be equipped to facilitate a permanent, visible record of every vote cast, and to honor the right of the voter to mark their own ballot themselves. The public is the only realistic check on vote counts, because elections determine the composition of government itself; those in power cannot be trusted to count or process — unsupervised — the very ballots by which they came to office. Any system that allows secret and therefore unaccountable vote counting is unacceptable because it denies the right to vote and to “kick the bums out” at precisely the moment when that right is needed the most.

We must replace the current system of partisan election administration, in which partisan secretaries of state, county clerks, election commissioners, and other partisan officials are able to issue rulings that favor their own political parties and themselves, with a non-partisan, independent system of running elections. We must end the practice of contracting out fundamental election functions, such as the maintenance of voter lists, to private corporations. Any machines used should be usable by election officials themselves: they should be able to configure, operate, and maintain the system, create ballots, tabulate votes, and audit the accuracy of the results without relying on external expertise or labor, even in small jurisdictions with limited staff. We must also insure that independent international and domestic election observers are given full access to monitor our elections.

Illinois Ballot Integrity Project:
Election Defense Alliance:

Problem 4: Federal and State Preemption

Federal preemption refers to federal laws — both statutory and court rulings — that prohibits states from enacting or enforcing regulatory or other laws to protect consumers, the environment, workers, public health or other public interests, if the state laws conflict (usually by enacting greater protection) with the federal law. State preemption is essentially the same thing, only instead of the federal government prohibiting states from passing or enforcing more protective laws, the state prohibits local governments from passing or enforcing more protective laws. Globalist “free trade” agreements like NAFTA or the Trans-Pacific Partnership (should that be revived), act much the same way, except in that situation it is transnational corporations that restrict national governments from protecting environmental, consumer or labor rights that go beyond the terms of the “free trade” agreement.

Preemption can be “express” — meaning explicitly written into the law — or implied, meaning that the larger government entity uses regulatory powers that imply that it intended to prohibit smaller units of government from exercising any authority in that area, as interpreted by the courts. Either way, preemption is an attack on the rights of the people to enact and enforce laws that they feel are needed to protect themselves or the natural environment. We have experienced this locally when our efforts to ban fracking and prevent a factory farm from locating in Jackson County could not be acted upon by county government.

Suggested remedies: The most straightforward remedy is to keep preemption language out of proposed legislation, and to remove such provisions from statutes already enacted. To guard against implied preemption, provisions can be added to bills or statutes that expressly allow state and local governments to enact further protections.

The difficulty with this, of course, is that the same corporate interests that favored preemption language in the first place, and the legislators under their influence, cannot easily be persuaded to change their minds or removed from office. More recently, the “community bill of rights” movement supported by the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF) has been trying a different approach — using local movements to pass community bills of rights, asserting community and environmental rights of self-protection, and attempting to assert those rights in the legal system, with the hope of eventually gaining recognition of such rights. It remains to be seen whether this strategy can prevail, but it is an interesting approach worth considering.

Resources: CELDF: The local affiliate is the Southern Illinois Rights Project.

Problem 5: Lack of Economic Democracy

This is a big one: We, the people, have virtually no power to control the most essential part of our lives — whether, and how, we can obtain the necessities of life, and quality of life, itself. Except for the small minority that owns the banks and the facilities of production, most people have no real control over what economic opportunities are available, whether they are employed now or will be employed tomorrow, under what pay and conditions, what they produce or how they produce it.

It’s called capitalism, in which the dominant means of production are privately owned and operated for private profit. Some people believe it can be reformed to operate better, and to some degree that is probably true, but others have come to the conclusion that it must be replaced, and that reforming capitalism keeps in place the true source of the problems afflicting society and the eco-system: Too much wealth and power concentrated into too few hands, and a system of production for profit that is inherently destructive of human and environmental well-being.

As we have already seen, the problem of capitalism, of lack of economic democracy, is connected to the problem of our lack of political democracy, since the wealthy owners of the instruments of production obviously have far greater power to influence, if not outright buy, political results, than do the rest of us. When the top 1 percent own more wealth than the lowest 90 percent combined, and can relocate factories and other workplaces, or shift investment capital to wherever the conditions best suit them, one can hardly expect otherwise.

Suggested Remedies: If one concludes that it is necessary to replace capitalism, at least as the dominant system, what do we replace it with? Some of us say that if the problem lies in economic autocracy by a minority class of owners, then it needs to be replaced with a system of economic democracy, and if the problem lies in production for private profit, then the solution lies in creating a system or production for use and need, under the direction of the actual producers, the workers.

Exactly how this would work can be discussed and debated, but two central ideas are: Production by networks of worker-owned and/or community-owned cooperatives, perhaps supplemented by some larger scale public works and small-scale non-corporate enterprises; or a system of workers’ councils, democratically elected from each branch of socially necessary industry, to an industrial “congress” charged with managing production and distribution, and with each workplace also democratically run by elected and removable managers. These concepts are similar and not mutually exclusive.

The Green Party of the United States emphasizes the former approach. It recently added these provisions about economic democracy to its platform:

“The Green Party seeks to build an alternative economic system based on ecology and decentralization of power, an alternative that rejects both the capitalist system that maintains private ownership over almost all production as well as the state-socialist system that assumes control over industries without democratic, local decision making. We believe the old models of capitalism (private ownership of production) and state socialism (state ownership of production) are not ecologically sound, socially just, or democratic and that both contain built-in structures that advance injustices.

“Instead we will build an economy based on large-scale green public works, municipalization, and workplace and community democracy. Some call this decentralized system ‘ecological socialism,’ ‘communalism,’ or the ‘cooperative commonwealth,’ but whatever the terminology, we believe it will help end labor exploitation, environmental exploitation, and racial, gender, and wealth inequality and bring about economic and social justice due to the positive effects of democratic decision making.

“Production is best for people and planet when democratically owned and operated by those who do the work and those most affected by production decisions. This model of worker and community empowerment will ensure that decisions that greatly affect our lives are made in the interests of our communities, not at the whim of centralized power structures of state administrators or of capitalist CEOs and distant boards of directors. Small, democratically run enterprises, when embedded in and accountable to our communities, will make more ecologically sound decisions in materials sourcing, waste disposal, recycling, reuse, and more. Democratic, diverse ownership of production would decentralize power in the workplace, which would in turn decentralize economic power more broadly.

“There are already many successfully operating worker-owned, cooperatively run enterprises in the world today, and they seem to be a gradually growing force in the economy, though far from overtaking the corporate-run enterprises. Perhaps a larger societal scheme could emerge from this trend. Or perhaps it will require greater social upheaval to replace economic autocracy with economic democracy.”

The “industrial council” or industrial union approach is favored by organizations like the revolutionary union, the Industrial Workers of the World. It actually prepared a visualization of what a future industrial union congress might look like. Although this visualization is a little dated, it still conveys the basic idea of a central administration composed of representatives of workers from all useful fields:

How do we get to these visions of a better future? That remains to be seen but it won’t happen by itself. Real social change requires real human agents demanding it and organizing for it.

Resources: Green Party of the United States:
Illinois Green Party:
Industrial Workers of the World:
Democracy at Work:
The Next System Project:
The Foundation for Economic Democracy:

Rich Whitney is an attorney, actor, disk jockey, humorist, political commentator, environmental activist, peace activist, Illinois Green Party activist and officer, and all around trouble-making under-achiever.

Rich Whitney

Written by

Rich Whitney is an attorney, disk jockey, environmental and peace activist, and co-chair of the Illinois Green Party, residing in Carbondale, Illinois.

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