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Direct Democracy in the United States

Jean Jacques Rousseau

Is it possible for us to obtain a state of direct democracy here in the United States? If it is possible, would be desirable? In order to answer those questions with any clarity of logic, before we even are capable of deciding whether it is possible or desirable, it is necessary to first place a definition on democracy.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau defines democracy as when the sovereign places the “…government in the hands of the whole people, or of the greater part of the people, so that there are more citizen-magistrates than there are ordinary private citizens (p.110).” This definition of democracy asks more questions than it answers. Or perhaps it asks a bigger question than it answers, namely, who or what is the sovereign? In order to understand Rousseau’s presentment of democracy, that question must be answered.

In Rousseau’s democracy, the people are the sovereign. That’s easy to say, but what exactly does that mean? Does it mean that every citizen’s will is paramount? Can any citizen make the law? The answer to both of those questions is no, of course not. The sovereignty of the people is bound up in the people assembled. In assembly, the people are sovereign, exercising the law making power. When they are not assembled, the citizens are subjects, following the just law that the sovereign has made. What does this tell us about oppressive laws?

In Rousseau’s democracy, there are no oppressive laws. All laws passed by the sovereign will be based on the general will, which is another way of saying the common good. All laws enacted by the sovereign citizens assembled will be what is best for the citizens as subjects. These laws will always be good. These laws will always be in the best interest of the citizens. I do see some problems with this. How does a citizen know whether his desire is a manifestation of his particular will or that of the general will?

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The people are only sovereign when assembled. If, when assembled, a citizen votes his preference, then that preference is a manifestation of the general will, provided that it is, when viewed objectively, in the best interest of all the people. And if, in assembly, the sovereign people should enact laws that a subject citizen does not agree with, then what is to be done? According to Rousseau, and according to class discussions, a citizen in objection to the law must be forced to obey. Only in obeying the laws enacted by the sovereign is the citizen truly virtuous. The citizen should be forced on the path to freedom.

That is an overview, or analysis, of direct democracy as presented by Rousseau. The question we must deal with now is whether Rousseau’s idea and vision of democracy is possible and desirable in today’s society and culture. It is my contention that it would be neither possible nor desirable. In the first place, there is the issue of national boundaries. Our nation encompasses the majority of a single continent. The people are widely dispersed, unable to assemble often. According to Rousseau, this might be overcome by moving the seat of government from place to place, and assembling in each place in turn. This not only sounds problematic, it leads to other problems as well.

The people of the United States are no longer homogeneous. Our ideas of right and wrong have developed differently, according to which region of the country one was raised. An example of this is the difference in political ideology of the US 9th Circuit Court. The difference in peoples has become so distinct that there is a move to break this circuit in two, allowing for appeals from the several states to be heard by judges holding similar ideologies to the people in their circuit. Would laws created by the sovereign people meeting in South Carolina be repealed or honored when the people met in California? Would the laws created by the sovereign people be changed radically at each assembly? This is not the only problem with pursuing direct democracy.

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Our nation has celebrated its 223d birthday. Maybe this is not old in comparison to China, or perhaps to India, but it is old enough that our nation can no longer be considered teachable. Our nation, while not homogeneous is past the point where it could learn new tricks. It is easy to point out that with the advent of the Internet that all people can meet together, or that every one can now cast his vote online. The use of the Internet would free us from moving the seat of government around, but would not enable us to learn new tricks. Our old dog country never learned to use direct democracy, and we’re to old to start now.

There is yet another problem with direct democracy. We have no civil religion. There is no virtue left in the United States. Public service is not taking place. Patriotism is something that is scorned instead of praised. People are no longer interested in the common good, instead looking out for their own interests. According to Rousseau, “As soon as public service ceases to be the main concern of the citizens…the state is already close to ruin (p.140)”. We are certainly at that point here. Although the general will may be indestructible, it is at times unreachable. And of course even were it reachable, we still need to ask if it would be desirable.

According to Rousseau, if the sovereign places the government in the hands of more than half of the people, that would be democracy. Who chooses? Certainly I’m not the only one who sees a problem with that! Would we at some point in time exclude people of color from the assembly and still call it democracy? What about women? Such an outcome is too terrible to risk. For this reason and others listed above, I feel it is time to abandon the idea of direct democracy, for such a democracy in the United states could never be benign.

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