Beyond Politics, an Introduction

November 24, 2002, revised January 1, 2003

The American political system is a continuation of a long tradition of winner-take-all elections. If there is an election for a representative to Congress, for example, the candidate with the largest number of votes becomes the representative. But this leaves the minority, and sometimes even a majority, without a representative. Theoretically, the elected person is the representative of all the people, but sometimes it doesn't seem that way!

I suspect that this tradition arose out of an older one, the tradition that a nation would necessarily have a single leader or king, it being believed that the only alternative to this was chaos and civil war. The United States was founded with a different vision in some respects, one where the people elected representatives and leaders, to serve for fixed terms. Knowing that pure democracy was subject to certain evils, such as the tyranny of the majority as well as the vulnerability of the body politic to demagoguery, the Founding Fathers established a republic. The power of the people was moderated through deliberative institutions, in the hope that the people would elect leaders who were wiser than themselves. The President was originally elected, not directly through popular vote, but through the votes of electors themselves selected by the state legislatures.

But the American system still was founded on a winner-take-all premise, that the best candidate for a position was the one who received the largest vote. To this was added the party system, which again concentrated power, tending to effectively disenfranchise minority views. Were it not for certain restraints, among them an endemic distrust of politics and politicians, the American system would have collapsed. Instead it lumbers along, not as the best possible system, but not as the worst either. Plurality rule is better than the rule of something with even less support, certainly. But those are not the only alternatives.

I remember participating in an organization which strongly encouraged decision-making by consensus, not as an absolute value, but with an understanding that conducting business in a way which was supported by the maximum possible number of members brought a grass-roots strength to the organization. Now, this organization had established traditions, and in certain respects society as a whole had moved on; in particular religious differences of a much greater degree than were present in the original society meant that some traditional practices, originally considered to be "non-denominational," had become objectionable to a minority. And it came to pass, at one local group, that a member proposed that the tradition of ending meetings with a certain popular Christian prayer be changed to something else. Immediately, some longstanding members said that they could never support such a thing, the prayer had served them well for many years. Because of the traditions of this group, however, a decision was postponed to a special meeting where the proposal could be discussed in detail. If the group had merely voted, probably the new proposal would have lost by a large margin. But at the special meeting, members spoke about their own experiences and views, and a number of alternative closing words were proposed. After the discussion, instead of voting directly, the group first polled itself to find out what closing was acceptable to the largest number of members. When it became clear that the most inclusive closing was not the traditional one, the meeting then voted unanimously to change the closing to the one which had the greatest support; in fact, the chosen closing was acceptable to everyone. No one was forced to take the position that the organization should follow what might be called the highest common denominator, it could have been argued that the minority who were uncomfortable should simply "get over it." It could have been argued that the group was pandering to a minority, giving up something important. But no one made those claims. The decision was not made on the basis of the poll; there was no explicit tradition or rule that everyone should be pleased; rather the decision was made by an ordinary vote on a specific question. But how that question came to be chosen was crucial, and the organization's unity was not only preserved, it was enhanced.

Alternatives to simple plurality have been proposed and even implemented in some places: proportional representation, for example, or instant run-off, where a voter makes alternate choices in case the preferred candidate is not among the top vote-getters. Instant run-off would tend toward electing candidates with the broadest support rather than ones who are simply the choice of the largest faction. With instant run-off, the problem of winners having less than the support of a majority of voters is solved, but it remains the case that those who do not trust the acceptable choice of the majority are effectively deprived of chosen representation.

I could continue about the problems of present governmental systems, the apparent distrust of politics and politicians by a majority of people, and how this is gradually leading to a breakdown of society, but I'd rather turn at this point toward a solution.

The solution I envision is direct democracy with the addition of representation by delegable proxy. Many organizations allow vote by proxy, it seems to be the standard for corporate governance. Any shareholder can appear at a meeting of the corporation and can vote, but, recognizing that this would be impossible for many or most shareholders, it is provided that a shareholder can designate a proxy, to participate and vote in his or her absence. Now, in large corporations the existing management may have a strong advantage in the suggestion of proxy choices to shareholders, and the democratic potential of the proxy system can fail to be realized, but I mention corporate practice to bring to mind the fact that voting by proxy is not new. Any member of an organization that allows proxy voting can be represented at a meeting, that member is never disenfranchised; and even if he or she has no one to trust, it remains possible to attend the meeting personally and, at least, make dissident views known or cast dissenting votes.

Yet I have never heard of a governmental entity or political party allowing vote by proxy. Perhaps there are exceptions of which I am not yet aware. It is presumed, it seems, that the willingness and ability to personally attend a town meeting, for example, is a necessary qualification for voting at it. It is also presumed that it is better for voters to make personal decisions rather than to delegate those decisions to others, even if the voter is almost completely ignorant of the issues involved, for example, in a state initiative. Politicians conduct themselves to make themselves as popular as possible, even by pandering to ignorance and prejudice, rather than acting as personal representatives of a defined set of people. The vast majority of people who vote for these politicians, at least in large-scale elections, have never met them and certainly do not know them well; they do not know their personal characters, only that which is carefully presented for public view.

So elections may be decided by a majority of people who have only an unclear idea of who or what they are voting for or against. Such an electorate is easily manipulated, it is not only some subset of the electorate which is presumably gullible and ignorant, it is nearly all of us who are vulnerable: the vulnerability is systemic, due to the complexity and scale of modern life. Most of us simply do not have time to become truly informed voters, and, in fact, the investment of time that it would take is large compared to the benefit. We can spend many, many hours, and all we gain is one vote. It is absolutely no mystery to me that most people don't vote.

Now, imagine an organization in which everyone can participate at the base level; perhaps this organization has local, small-scale meetings, with every member welcome to come, to speak, and to vote. But, since most of us have, of necessity, very busy lives, every member can also name a proxy, someone personally trusted to attend and speak and vote on our behalf. Further, that same proxy may be charged with bringing back to us explanations, for example, of why a particular decision was made. So the organization is both top-down and bottom-up.

And then, on a larger scale, these proxies may themselves attend larger-scale meetings or choose a proxy to do so, and the second-level proxies represent those who chose them as well as all those who chose those who chose them. The proxies are passed on, always from hand to trusted hand.

Large meetings become quickly unwieldy, it becomes impossible for everyone to be heard. Large legislative bodies must of necessity delegate much discussion to committees of a manageable scale, or else nothing would get done. So there is a value in keeping meeting sizes down; I'm going to arbitrarily pick ten as an optimum meeting size. So if the average meeting size is ten, and there is a proxy collection system in place, an organization the size of the U.S. population, with one meeting per day, might concentrate itself to a single supervisory body with, say, ten members, in eight days. Almost every member of the organization who found himself or herself able to trust someone would be represented. The members of that top body would likely have unequal voting power, but every sane person could be represented. This was my original vision, more than twenty years ago.

That original vision was still afflicted by the concept of electing proxies from groups of ten, and thus it would suffer to some degree from the termination of representation of those who did not support a chosen proxy, though they could presumably join a different, more congenial, base-level meeting. As I now envision the process, there is no literal base-level meeting; rather there is only a proxy system with a few proposed rules.

  1. Any member may normally attend any meeting, subject to limitations on participation which the meeting may create as needed to keep meeting process tolerably efficient. Such limitations would not restrict the right of any member to vote on any issue, but may restrict the right to speak or otherwise initiate meeting activities.
  2. Members may name a proxy to represent them at meetings, as well as to communicate with them as deemed appropriate with regard to matters before the meetings or decisions recommended or taken. The proxy should be one trusted, if possible, to make binding decisions as necessary in one's absence.
  3. A proxy may exercise any right of a member in the absence of the member, including the right to name a proxy or proxies. A proxy directly designated I'll call a "primary proxy"; other proxies, passed on, are secondary or Nth-level proxies.
  4. A member may ordinarily revoke a proxy at will or transfer it to another.
  5. Because proxies are personal representatives, there might be a limit on the number of primary proxies one could hold. Any member should be able to contact his or her primary proxy with concerns and expect to receive a timely and personal answer. (A primary proxy is one directly given with no intermediary; the holder of a secondary or subsequent proxy is responsible only to the one who transmitted those proxies to him or her.) As a corollary, a member may refuse to accept a primary proxy.

Now, society and its systems are not going to change overnight. However, a political body could form as a parallel system, tasked to organize the political power of its members. Most of us would participate in politics if we thought that we could be effective and if our participation were not too much of a burden. As matters stand, if we feel passionately about an issue, we can throw ourselves into it, devote even a major part of our life to it, and yet come up with little success, because arrayed against us are great powers, organized on a large scale, with the money that comes with such organization. These powers are not as great as the power of the people as a whole, for their money and their authority is drawn, legitimately or otherwise, from the people. But the people, as such, are not organized except through the defective mechanisms of majoritarian democracy.

Beyond Politics is an attempt to set up such a parallel system. It seeks no power over others, it exists only to seed these concepts, to find a way to organize its own members, to concentrate intelligence and knowledge, and to decide upon joint action. It is not about promoting one particular political view, it is not about liberal vs. conservative, Republican vs. Democrat vs Green vs. Libertarian, but about how we can begin to move, as the name suggests, beyond politics. If this helps one agenda or another, so be it, but it is not its purpose to simply become one more faction. Some of the ideas of Beyond Politics are not new, but have been associated in the past with specific political agendas, appealing only to certain classes or groups of people. We see specific political agendas, nearly all of them, as premature, which is not to denigrate them or to discourage people from standing up for what they believe, but rather to distinguish them from our core project: constructing a nervous system for humanity, a means of learning to act coherently and intelligently, whereby our best ideas float easily to the top and where leaders are never disconnected from the people. Many of us know how to do this on a small scale, but we urgently need to learn how to do it when the scale is larger, where direct democracy or other functional alternatives fail.

Beyond Politics will accomplish its task by organizing itself along the lines which have been suggested. As I would have it, we will not take any action as a group, will not make any fixed decision, except by a supermajority of support among its members; even then we will understand that the existence of substantial minority opposition is often a sign that the best course of action has not yet been found, and we will seek, to the extent possible, full consensus. Where we cannot find substantial consensus, we may take no action, or caucuses may form to represent and act upon ideas or proposals not enjoying consensus.

As an example, I'll name a contentious and often intractable issue: abortion. The Right-to-Life supporters among us might caucus and the supporters of Right-to-Choose likewise, and these caucuses might even decide on actions to be taken in support of their positions. However, there would now be a difference from the present situation: everyone could be, essentially, at the table, and it would become possible to negotiate, to find what agreement is possible, and to, at least, ameliorate the social problems which contribute to the controversy, without posturing for the media, since there is no election to lose, or, more accurately, a representative would only need to explain the reasons for his or her decisions to a few people (the primary proxy-givers) in whatever depth is necessary without having to compact it into sound bites.

If you would like to support this effort, please send a piece of email to info@beyondpolitics.org. Doing so will not obligate you in any way, it will only begin the communication process that may lead to something greater. Your address will not be used for any other purpose without your prior explicit consent.

Dennis (Daniel) Lomax

dlomax@beyondpolitics.org