Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Achieving Bottom-Up Democracy

Posted in response to a question on Quora:
Politics: I want to hear an honest idea to get us out of the corrupt and useless political system we live in (US). Any ideas?
The request for "an honest idea to get us out of the corrupt and useless political system we live in (US)" is a tall order.  To be valid, such an idea must show that it addresses the causes of our present condition.  However difficult the task, we must make the effort if we are to avoid the civil disorder Frank Paull thinks necessary.  My greatest fear is that we'll find ourselves in the throes of that disorder before we've done our homework - before we've reasoned our way to a sound political system that is free of the corruption and ineffectiveness that plague us.

Any discussion of the "political system we live in" must include the idea of democracy, and a significant but seldom noted feature of democracy is that it implies a bottom-up organization of the political infrastructure.  In the U. S., that is reversed.  The political system is organized in a top-down fashion.  This allows the political inbreeding that lies at the heart of the corruption and ineffectiveness of our system.

Corruption pervades U. S. politics because the parties control the selection of candidates for public office and because the high cost of election campaigns makes the electoral process susceptible to the influence of money.  Soliciting funds to finance political campaigns is inherently corruptive; it invites demands for laws that favor the financiers.  The result is a circular process that intensifies over time:

  • Candidates for public office cannot mount a viable campaign without party sponsorship, so they obtain sponsorship by agreeing to the party's terms.
  • The party, assured of the loyalty of its candidates, attracts donors because it can promise that its candidates will enact laws that gratify the donors.
  • From the donors, the party obtains the resources it needs to attract appealing candidates and bind them to the party's will.

This cycle makes political parties conduits for corruption.  Vested interests give immense amounts of money and logistical support to political parties to push their agenda and to secure the passage of laws that benefit the donors.  The political parties meet their commitment to the donors by picking politicians who can be relied upon to enact the laws and implement the policies the donors desire.  The politicians so selected are the least principled of our citizens, but are the only choices available to the American people in our "free" elections.

Another cause of our political distress is the campaign-based nature of our electoral process.  Campaigning is the antithesis of open inquiry, it is one-way communication centered on deceit, misdirection and obfuscation.  It is a training course in the art of deception.  Through campaigning, politicians gain expertise in avoiding direct answers to questions and diverting attention from unwelcome topics.  Furthermore, the incessant lionization by their supporters and their repeated proclamations of their own rectitude have a corrosive effect on a candidate's character.  Since morality is a top-down phenomenon, a process that raises manipulative political leaders has a destructive effect on society.

The idea that we can't remove corruption from our political system because people are corruptible is nonsense.  We know that 'the people' is made up of individuals: some good, some bad; some skilled, some unskilled; some with integrity, some deceitful; some brilliant, some dull; some sociable, some unfriendly; some interested in politics, some not.  The problem is not the people; it is a political system that elevates unprincipled individuals by design.  The vast majority of our peers are honest, principled people.  The task of representative democracy is to sift through these many types of individuals and elevate those best suited to represent their peers.

Two of the causes of our present disorder, then, are (1) the top-down organization of our political infrastructure, which creates a political system that renounces virtue and is ruled by cynicism, and (2) a campaign-based electoral process, which favors the candidacy of unscrupulous individuals.  To correct these flaw, we must conceive a bottom-up electoral process that does not rely on political campaigning.

The question asks for "an honest idea to get us out of the corrupt and useless political system we live in (US)."  One such idea is available on Participedia, a site developed by Dr. Archon Fung of Harvard University (and others), that seeks ways to increase public participation in the political process.  The Practical Democracy entry on Participedia describes an electoral process that
  • is bottom-up, sifting through the entire community to identify the concerns of the people and to find the individual(s) best suited to address those concerns.
  • ensures candidates are examined by people with a vital interest in finding any flaws in the candidate.  This makes integrity an important character trait in those who seek public office.
  • makes campaigning unnecessary.
  • encourages the formation of special interest groups, factions and parties, and gives them a way to elevate the best advocates of their perspective.
  • completes in less time than campaign-driven elections.
  • imposes no costs on candidates, except the value of their time.
  • lets every member of the electorate, whether or not they have a party affiliation, participate in the electoral process to the full extent of each individual's desire and ability.

You can find the full Practical Democracy description at:


When we make probity a primary concern of the candidates in our electoral process, we will reduce the corruption in government and the pervasiveness of dishonesty in our society will diminish, as well.

Although the request was for an idea that would improve our national political system, we should note that the Practical Democracy concept can be adopted, and its validity proven, in local communities, before it is adopted nationally.


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