It is a heartening sight to pass the Jefferson County Courthouse and see the lines of people waiting to vote early. While it is likely that only a fraction of the American electorate will exercise their franchise this election season, it’s good to know that many among us will.
Public participation in the process of government is the cornerstone of our democracy. Even so, we have what is often termed a “representative democracy.” This means that a subset of citizens, by virtue of age (and other qualifiers), may cast their votes to elect candidates to represent their interests at various levels of government. We elect city council or quorum court members, legislature and congressional representatives, judges, presidents and so forth.
The assumption undergirding this system is that those who we elect will govern in a manner that directly reflects the majority or consensus views of their constituents. Sometimes this assumption is met. Sometimes not. It is often the burden of wise representatives to discern between strong, but errant public sentiment and the dictates of reasonable government.
There is an alternative form of democracy also practiced in America. It is called participatory democracy. In fact the oldest participatory democracy on Earth is an American institution. The people of this democracy call themselves the Hau de no sau nee (ho dee noe sho nee) meaning People Building a Long House. Most of us know them by their French name, the Iroquois, or people of Six Nations.
Originally the Six Nations were only five. They included the Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayugas and Senecas. The sixth nation, the Tuscaroras, migrated into Iroquois country in the early 18th century.
The idea behind participatory democracy is just that: participation. The citizens directly participate in the decisions of government. There are no intervening representatives. Many think this form of government works best when the collective is small and geographically close.
Interestingly, the two forms of democracy had a remarkable intersection in the early days of the United States. On June 11, 1776, as members of the Continental Congress debated the issue of independence, they received important visitors, a number of Iroquois chiefs.
In welcoming the visitors, speeches were given in which the Iroquois were addressed as “brothers” and assured that the delegates wanted a friendship that would continue as long as the sun shall shine” and the “waters run.” Remarks by delegates also expressed a desire that the two nations would “act as one people and have but one heart.”
Following the speeches, an Onondaga chief requested permission to give the Congressional president, John Hancock, an Indian name. The assembly consented, and so Handcock was renamed “Karanduawn” which means “the Great Tree.”
The impact of the Iroquois visit to the Continental Congress was considerable. The Founding Fathers took inspiration from their neighboring nation and their system of government. Terming it “The Great Council Fire,” delegates wrote extensively about the visit and many subsequent conferences with the Iroquois.
Benjamin Franklin, in particular, took great note in his contrast between indigenous American governments and those found across Europe: “Whoever has traveled through the various parts of Europe, and observed how small is the proportion of the people in affluence or easy circumstances there, compared with those in poverty and misery; the few rich and haughty landlords, the multitude of poor, abject, rack-rented, tythe-paying tenants, and half-paid and half-starved laborers; and view here [in America] the happy mediocrity that so generally prevails throughout these States, where the cultivator works for himself, and supports his family in decent plenty, will, methinks, see the evident and great difference in our favor.”
Nowhere do we see Franklin’s words more manifest than on election day. Each citizen is free to vote as they deem prudent. We have no kings nor feudal order. The government we inherit is amenable to our adaptation, not thrust upon us like the yoke from which our founders fled. While we may think our current slate of candidates is less than our ideal, at least we have our say.