Mini-Republics and True Democracy: A Plan to Make Ours a Government of, by and for the People

Most Americans believe they are being governed without their consent -- just as they were in the days leading up to the American Revolution.

Little wonder: Congress rarely enacts laws that are in lockstep with what "the people" actually want.

Consider: Polls show that the overwhelming majority of Americans across the political spectrum are concerned about the inane way campaigns are financed, giving those with the deepest pockets the edge, by far, in winning. Likewise, they are deeply concerned about the growing and glaring inequalities in wealth and income, and at a time when the economy is on the upswing.

Yet Congress lifts nary a collective finger to address the matter. Sure, some vying for office pay lip service to these issues during campaigns, but once they are ensconced in their elected positions, they can safely forget about it, forget all about the 99 percent (or close to it), and continue a form of governance that is the polar opposite of one that is of, by and for the people.

Why? First and foremost, because they don't have to. They feel little pressure from voters, as concerned as they are, to take on these issues, though they are derailing our constitutional republic. Our representatives are no longer representative, because they don't have to be. They know the odds are vastly in their favor to get reelected, no matter how much people care about campaign finance reform and wealth and income inequality.

Most members of Congress believe it's in their best interests for things to stay just as they are. So do their corporate funders and super PAC sponsors, who would not take kindly to undermining the way they operate, since they profit enormously from the existing system.

Government of, by and for the people, as Madison (not to mention Lincoln) envisioned? Fat chance.

What to do? How can we create a system of "representativeness" in which members of Congress not only are in touch with the pulse of their constituents but genuinely act on their behalf?

There are movements afoot to commence an Amendment convention to address campaign finance reform.

How to Make a Government of the People

But there is a far easier and more effective way. As I've argued in a previous post, "the people" simply need to raise a great-enough hue and cry to insist that Congress "unfreeze" the number of representatives, so that the number of members of Congress increases incrementally as our population increases. That's how it was from our nation's founding until 1911, when Congress froze its membership at 435.

It seems a no-brainer that we insist that Congress change its stripes and reinstitute the right that our Framers gave us in our Constitution in Article I, Section 2, Clause 3 -- namely the right to enjoy one member of Congress for every 30,000 constituents, rather than the unrepresentative system we have now, in which each representative has a veritable fiefdom, with over 700,000 constituents in each congressional district. There are movements seeking to undo the untenable republic that's been created on our watch. Here's one you might join.

All it would take to rescue our republic on a federal scale and put it back in alignment with the original vision of our Framers, and make it one of true "representativeness," is to cajole a bare majority of members of Congress to do the right thing: undo Public Law 62-5, passed over a century ago, and reclaim our constitutional republic of a democratic bent.

Each and every one of us should take it upon ourselves to make this happen.

Bottom-Up Governance

But we can do still more. We can create at local levels a bottom-up kind of government in which those in elective office take their marching orders from those at the lowest rungs.

That was Thomas Jefferson's big idea -- one whose time has arrived. He believed that we all had to be involved in governance -- and that it was in our DNA to want to be a direct and involved part of our experiment.

Ward System: Mini-Republics and True Democracy

Jefferson favored a sort of self-government that would unleash untapped reserves of American ingenuity. He proposed that we create a ward system of government at the local level, each no more than five or six square miles, and so "of such size as that every citizen can attend, when called on, and act in person":

These will be pure and elementary republics, the sum of which taken together composes the State, and will make of the whole a true democracy as to the business of the wards, which is that of nearest and daily concern.

As I point out in Constitution Cafe: Jefferson's Brew for a True Revolution, each of the wards constituted a mini-republic.

Every citizen would be involved in governance, though they would not all be involved in making decisions on the exact same matters. Instead, each citizen would be delegated a specific area of responsibility and charged with representing the interests of all his other fellows to the state. Since all were involved in governing these mini-republics, Jefferson believed that, taken together, this system constituted a true democracy.

It also is trust- or faith-based, in the sense that citizens actually would have to have enough confidence in one another to represent the best interests of "the whole." It would be a kind of system based on the ethos that in looking out for the best interests of everyone, one is also best representing one's own best interests. That's precisely how it was in the halcyon days of Athens of old, when democracy flourished for a while.

The ward system, Jefferson maintained, would see to it that all the citizenry "was thrown with all its momentum into action," with each person "a sharer in the direction of his ward-republic ... a participator in the government of affairs, not merely at an election one day in the year, but every day," with every man "a member of some one of its councils, great or small."

Jefferson further believed that this type of grassroots governmental framework presented a nearly failsafe way of thwarting any one group's efforts to wrest self-government from the hands of the people:

[T]hese representative organs, should they become corrupt and perverted, the division into wards constituting the people, enables them by that organization to crush, regularly and peaceably, the usurpation of their unfaithful agents, and rescues them from the dreadful necessity of doing it insurrectionally. These little republics would be the main strength of the great one.

Rather than relying on three separate but equally powerful branches of government to keep constitutional tabs on one another, the various overlapping levels of government in Jefferson's system would be equally vigilant over one another:

The elementary republics of the wards, the county republics, the States republics, and the republic of the Union, would form a gradation of authorities ... holding every one its delegated share of powers, and constituting truly a system of fundamental balances and checks for the government.

It's Up to the People

For Jefferson, only such a system as the one he envisioned can "save the people from lethargy and inattention to public business."

"We had not yet penetrated to the mother principle, that governments are republican only in proportion as they embody the will of their people, and execute it," Jefferson remarked to Sam Kercheval in 1816. He was referring to the first attempt by the framers of Virginia's constitution -- "novices in the science of government" -- to create a form of government that did justice to realizing the people's will but that, in his view, fell far short of the mark. Jefferson believed that if the ward system -- to him an ideal blend of democracy and republicanism -- became the modus operandi for governance, the will of the people could at long last genuinely be exercised in the public arena.

To Jefferson, the best way to prevent government from wasting people's labors is to create a form in which all people labored in it. His proposal wasn't taken seriously in his time. We should take it very seriously now. It's an idea whose time has come.

Let's each do our part to create a system that would make our founders proud and show them that we are not resting on -- much less undoing -- their laurels.