By hugely expanding direct participation in potential legislation without having to change the numbers in the House or Senate, ours would come close to being a direct democracy.
There are a few ideas afoot in this country for improving elections. This essay is not about that, not about how people actually get elected via the casting and counting of ballots.
Technically, the idea in this essay only impacts formally how people would get nominated for national office: House, Senate, president. Yet it would also provide a way for ‘the people’ to participate directly in the process of developing potential laws and policies at the national level.
I must start by giving an acknowledgment to Dave Volek. I’m sure that his idea of “tiered democratic governance” did inspire this idea of mine. I didn’t have an ‘aha’ moment while reading what he had written, but I have no doubt that reading what he wrote about his idea did lead unconsciously to this idea. One difficulty for Volek’s idea is that it refers to replacing the existing system of government. This idea would merely be a tweak to the existing political system, with almost no impact on government itself as an institutional structure.
I did write an earlier essay about this idea, but I didn’t realize at the time how strong of an idea it is. [This is a work in progress — to which anyone reading about it is invited to contribute.] I did put many necessary-but-tedious details in that essay, and the reader can go there to see them, but I failed to see, much less relate, the full potential of this idea to improve our political system. That potential would include, I have come to understand, extending the legislative roots at the national level into the various states as deeply as the Congressional district (at least).
The keyword for this idea is ‘caucus’. In the House and Senate much of the process of arriving at actual laws and policies takes place in caucuses. Those are groups of lawmakers that crystallize around an idea or even an attitude towards governance. An idea might be ‘saving the natural environment’ or ‘promoting economic growth’. Various caucuses are ‘progressive’, or ‘conservative’ or ‘centrist’. Most importantly, caucuses are not (necessarily) restricted by party affiliation. They certainly can be open to membership on the basis of some shared goal or issue or perspective, regardless of the party to which a person belongs (if any — there are a few Independents in our national legislature).
Those legislative caucuses are entirely self-governing. They are free to make their own rules regarding membership and how they function.
So this idea expands on the concept of caucuses. That much is presumably easy enough to accept.
Here’s the harder-to-accept part: in this idea those caucuses would exist within a single national political party. That’s right, there would be one legally recognized fully functional political party at the national level. Let’s call it the US Party.
“Fully functional” refers to a requirement that anyone would have to be a member of the US Party to run for election to a national office. I’m (currently) thinking that other parties could still be allowed to exist at the national level, and a citizen could be a member of one and also be a member of the US Party, but to run for national office that person would have to be a member of the US Party.
Anyone old enough to vote could be a member of it. A person could join it and leave it as many times as one wanted, but no citizen who was old enough to vote could be barred from joining it or be kicked out of it for any reason. Membership would be free.
Within this Party there would be caucuses. A caucus could be formed by any member of the Party based on any ‘seed crystal’ at all. They would be entirely self-governing. Pending the rules any particular caucus might have, any member of the Party could be a member of as many caucuses as a person cared to join.
The only formal purpose of a caucus would be to nominate candidates for election to any national office (details in that other essay). Caucuses would no doubt do other things — the point of this essay — but, again, their only official function would be to nominate candidates for election to a national office.
As I wrote in that other essay, that would make the possibility of running for national office much more accessible for most citizens. I also wrote in it that caucuses would serve other functions politically, such as being foci of support and opposition with regard to various issues. I made the point that in general this idea of caucuses within a single Party would strengthen democracy by expanding the potential for meaningful participation in the political system. (In writing about this idea I’m not trying to lay out the only things caucuses might be permitted to do, but only suggesting some things they could do.)
Here, though, I want to relate an even more important way that occurred to me that this idea would improve our political system. It would actually give all citizens (old enough to vote) the opportunity to participate directly in the process of formulating potential legislation at the national level.
To be taken seriously in that respect a caucus would have to have members who could do the necessary research and then draft laws and policy proposals in a useful form, but there would be no formal restriction on what any caucus might propose. Even in the technical process of formulating potential legislation, though, a caucus could be small enough to allow all voices to be heard. To my mind, that is, most specifically, the most important contribution of this idea to strengthening democracy.
Any member of a caucus who felt ignored or didn’t like some particular outcome within a caucus would be free to start another one. (Anyone who was too much of a pain or there merely for the purpose of being disruptive could be — presumably — voted out of a caucus.) Caucuses could self-limit the maximum number of members they might have, such that when one reached a certain size a portion of the membership would depart to establish a new caucus, with the various branches of the caucus acting as one politically. That way the participatory impetus of caucuses could be maintained while the number of people involved in furthering any cause could be unlimited. In democratic politics the ultimate power is numbers.
If a caucus did not have the expertise of some caucuses, its members could still make their collective voice heard regarding any issue that might be of importance to them. Caucuses could exist for many other reasons than developing actual potential legislation; here I’m emphasizing having that capacity because I think it is the most important contribution of this idea to improving our political process (even if I did fail to see it right away.)
Another strength of this idea is that it does establish a fence between the legislature and the Party. One obvious lesson from both our political system and parliamentary systems around the planet is that mixing party politics with legislating is a formula for increasing the difficulty of governance. (See our Speaker-less House of Representatives at the time of this writing.) So while the caucuses within the Party could debate and develop potential laws and policies, they would not be directly related to any caucus that might exist in the House or Senate. To that end, there should be a rule requiring any person elected to office to withdraw membership from all caucuses to which that person belonged, as well as any other party memberships, for as long as that person held office.
I really think I am onto something here. Political parties do already give people a chance to participate in the political process, but it is limited by the nature of parties.
Parties self-identify at some place along the left-to-right political spectrum and they have a big, overarching issue or two or three that they emphasize in a general way, but they are not as a party much interested in specifics. Even a party’s platform is no more than a list of mostly general, blustering positions on various issues. For most people, to join a party is to endorse its politics and to contribute in very small ways, such as paying dues and perhaps doing some grunt work, but participation for most members of a party does not go anywhere near as far as helping to formulate its political positions.
In addition, the goal of political parties is to become as big as possible. That contributes to their generality and to making meaningful participation in a party difficult to achieve. Most members of even small political parties are nothing more than filler.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, political parties are exclusive. A person can only be a member of one political party. No party anywhere allows its members to be a member of even one other political party at the same time.
All of that discourages people from joining political parties — with good reason. Given that joining a party is about the most a person can do in this country to get involved in the political process, that is not good for our democracy.
As noted, this proposed tweak to the existing system is a work in progress. I am convinced, though, that this idea has the potential to transform our political system in this country for the better, by genuinely empowering the citizenry in a whole new way in the governing of the nation.