The Death of Democracy: A Problem of Scale

washingtonBy Steven Saint Thomas

There’s a lot of talk about elections these days and the talk will continue until Nov. 8. From my observations, that’s what elections are – talk. I’d say voting is a convenient way for people to feel like they did something without actually taking any action. You vote with the hope that the president or other politician will go out and solve the world’s problems for you.

My own opinion is that democracy is not what you do on Election Day, it’s what you’re busy doing the other 364 days of the year. Government isn’t going to bring us the change we hope for – we will have to be the change!

Democracy in the United States has failed for a number of reasons, but one fundamental flaw rarely talked about is scale. Big Government has become another large, centralized system right up there with the other Biggies – Big Business, Big Ag, Big Oil, Big Pharma, Big Box. These large, centralized systems created the problems we now face and certainly aren’t the ones we should look to for solutions.

The vision of democracy held by the country’s founders was based on a United States with fewer than 4 million people in 11 states. The first Congress, convened on April 1, 1789, featured a House of Representatives with 59 members. Based on population, Massachusetts had a whopping eight members. Delaware had one. There were only 21 Senators.

There were no political parties then and George Washington won the presidential election unanimously in the Electoral College (he received 43,782 votes in the six states that held popular elections).

In 1789, the United States had the kind of scale that would allow people to dream about democracy. George Washington was undeniably a household name, the most popular man in America. Members of the Senate and House were likewise known to their constituents. Ballots had names that most voters would recognize.

But the scale of things changed quickly. By the end of the Civil War, roughly a century later, the population had reached 38.6 million. The House had 243 members, each representing about 159,000 people. In 1911, Congress set its own limit at 435 seats – each member representing about 212,000 of the country’s 92 million people.

The U.S. population has tripled since then, but the 435-seat limit remains. Currently, every House member represents at least 710,000 people.

I can’t say in what year it happened, but scale killed democracy. We went from a country where voters were familiar with the names on their ballots to one where most of the candidates were absolute strangers. People could no longer cast votes based on firsthand knowledge of candidate character and qualifications. They would cast votes based on secondhand information: the endorsements of political parties or other centralized groups.

Large newspapers and other mass communications brought the rise of mass marketing. Things got so big you had to rely on mass media to make decisions. Mass marketing requires money, and in 1971, Congress began regulating how money could be raised and spent in the pursuit of selling candidates to the American public.

Once money became the dominating factor in elections, democracy died. Access to the ballot and elected officials became limited to those with the money. I witnessed this firsthand during my summer as a congressional intern in Washington, D.C. The word “constituent” took on a whole new meaning. The member of Congress for whom I worked regularly checked in with his constituents – the privileged few who donated faithfully to his campaign.

It didn’t matter how many letters he got from people back home in the district. Only correspondence that included a check really mattered in terms of policy decisions.

The kind of democracy guys like Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton argued about by candlelight in the 1770s is long gone because of scale. The only place it really works is where you can run a campaign without money. Small solutions.

In a place like Manitou Springs, Colorado, for example, you can experience democracy. This town, just west of Colorado Springs, has about 5,000 residents. The city council has seven members. In the recent 2015 election, about 1,750 people voted. Permaculturist Nicole Nicoletta won the mayor’s race with 878 votes. (Click here to listen to an interview with Nicole and her colleague, Councilwoman Becky Elder.)

Unfortunately, mass marketing lures our eyes away from the small places where we could really have impact to the large systems that manipulate us and keep us spectators. I submit that the reason many Americans don’t vote is not apathy, but the growing sense that it won’t make a difference.

Democracy is dead as long as we keep talking about big elections and stop making the difference we seek right in our own homes and neighborhoods.

Consensus and the Collaborative Paradigm


By Steven Saint Thomas

We humans both compete and collaborate with great gusto. It’s typically one or the other, but both are instinctive. At any given moment we are either competing or collaborating, sometimes alternating moment by moment.

Sometimes we do both at the same time. In team sports, for example, two teams compete to score the most points and win the game. At the same time, members of the respective teams are collaborating with each other to advance the team’s position. Collaboration advances team performance – competition sorts out the winners from the losers.

Experts say the instinct for collaboration goes back to the earliest humans. People formed clans and tribes to better survive in a hostile world. Tribalism flourished for thousands of years because banding together made sense.

But in a Competitive Paradigm – where one wins at the other’s expense – tribalism has produced the world’s greatest tragedies. Wars, genocide and slavery all exist to the present day because one tribe puts its interests over another’s.

The need for a Collaborative Paradigm – where everybody wins in the pursuit of the common good – is greater than ever. The time is now!

We have entered a new millennium and a New World. This New World is emerging from the Machine Age, which was marked by hierarchy and competition. The New World is marked by the flattening of pyramidal organizations, decisions being made on the lower rungs of the ladder, teams and groups working together.

The Collaborative Paradigm is rooted in Consensus. Groups that make decisions by consensus must, by design, collaborate. Groups that make decisions by majority-rule can effectively avoid collaboration. They are inherently competitive and still part of a command-and-control hierarchy in which some members are more equal than others.

My journey to Collaboration and Consensus began with Scott Peck’s groundbreaking book The Different Drum. “In and through community lies the salvation of the world,” Peck wrote in 1988. “For the human race today stands at the brink of self-annihilation.”

I soon became involved in community-building experiments guided by Peck’s Foundation for Community Encouragement. I also joined the coordinating committee for the fledgling Green Party of California. I was captivated by the idea of a global political force making decisions by Consensus rather than Majority-Rule.

In 1990, a handful of Greens formed The Consensus Institute, dedicated to advancing the understanding and use of Consensus-based decision-making in the Green Party and in the greater society. In 1994, I was invited by a book publisher to codify what I’d learned into an alternative to Robert’s Rules of Order – so Rules for Reaching Consensus was born and has since sold more than 15,000 copies.

The model has been used, cited and recommended by numerous groups in the public, private and nonprofit sectors, including the Environmental Protection Agency, state of Idaho, University of Michigan, Pacific Rivers Council and International Paper.

Over the past 20 years, I continued to explore community-building methods, rules and tools for reaching consensus, cooperative strategic planning and building collaborative infrastructure. I’ve had the chance to consult many organizations trying to reach consensus, from the Catholic Diocese of Los Angeles to the Pikes Peak American Red Cross to the Botswana Ministry of Education.

Got Collaboration? Let’s work together on making it happen in your organization!