As a general rule, democracy does not grow with time. It usually comes into being as the result of some general uprising, and it is supported by the broader and more general popular will. But, with time, and because the larger population docs not usually continually watch for the encroachment of smaller groups, the course is reversed. Special interests find the more general rule to be inconvenient. Decisions by the wider population are feared, and factions scheme day and night to limit the acts of the majority that might threaten their own cause.

And so, from generation to generation, a countermovement sets in. What was the substance of democracy becomes form only. Democratic safeguards become ceremony. Eventually the same evils that provoked the multitude to act to protect their liberties again prevail. What begins as the rule of the many becomes, by the mandate of history, the rule of the few. For this reason the people must, from time to time, renew their rights.

Great changes have taken place since the moment when America committed itself to democracy. Although the United States has continually made adjustments to its institutions, the question remains as to whether our politicians have rendered the constant attention necessary to make democracy not simply a remote and guiding idea, but an actual practice. As one generation passed away and another took over, as foreigners became citizens and became the majority, have we varied our techniques and habits to make certain that the people continue to have a strong voice in decision-making?

Every schoolboy has been taught the ideas that this nation set out to fulfill. But our experience with the United States Constitution as a source of democracy must convince us that such a government cannot come about merely by assuming the form prescribed by the Constitution. Government by the few is not prevented by having courts, a legislature, and a national executive. Political activity on the part of masses of people is not assured by the existence of political parties. In fact, concentrating on the superb form of the government created by the Constitution really obscures how far short we have fallen of the political plan outlined by the Founding Fathers.

If we chose to define democracy after the manner in which Americans deal with public concerns, we would have to define it as a political activity in which neither the people nor any democratic institution makes the initial—and therefore the important—decision as to who will represent a given constituency in the national legislature; one that has no national institution in which the people may participate in the formulation of policy; and one in which special interests, each representing a tiny fraction of the electorate, have a great influence on the national legislature. As a practical matter many of us support special interests, which have replaced the political parties as a means of carrying on our political activity. Anyone, even a small minority, may have a good idea. But these special interests, whether the Sierra Club, the American Medical Association, Texaco, or the National Wildlife Federation, never represent more than a tiny fraction of the population, and they are pressing hard for their own advantage.

Government by special interests is objectionable not simply because it is politics carried on as a purely empirical activity, politics governed by the passion of the moment, but because it is a government of unelected decision-makers who are not accountable to any democratic institutions. It matters little that the majority ultimately acquiesce in or even support these programs (support, that is, as measured by the polls—the people seldom get to vote on them). It is politics in which no one can be sure that the activity is necessarily advancing the priorities of the people.

In the United States there is no popular institution that has the capacity to initiate policy. The fountainhead for initiating policy for the American government is a political entity dominated by one person-the executive branch. Within it there is no mechanism for discovering those matters that are of greatest concern to the people. Most other modern governments reach decisions through collective decision-making and on the basis of committee or collective responsibility. But in the United States it is the President alone who will select what problems will be addressed. In theory the national legislature can initiate policy. In practice, it seldom does.

Great powers had over the years accumulated in the office of the Speaker of the House, but because of the tyrannical fashion in which Speaker Howard Cannon exercised those powers, the House deprived the office of most of them. That act, in effect, deprived the House of its leadership and of any unifying force. Eventually, power accumulated in committee chairmen, who never acted as a group and who, because of their age and conservatism, used that power to thwart legislative initiative. As Congressman Everett Burkhalter said in 1964, upon announcing his retirement after serving one term in the House:

I could see I wasn’t going to get anywhere. Nobody listens to what you have to say until you’ve been in here ten to twelve years. These old men have got everything tied down so you can’t do anything. There are only about 40 out of 435 members who call the shots. They’re all committee chairmen or ranking members, and they’re all around 70 or 80. 

In the 1960’s even the power of committee chairmen was curbed, and with this development, power was further diffused. Thus, during this century, the Congress has lost its capacity to act in most cases as the initiators of policy for the problems that affect the nation.

It would seem that the legislative branch of government would be the most appropriate to propose legislation because it represents the diverse parts of the country. The Constitution agrees, and Article I states: “All legislative Powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States, which shall consist of a Senate and a House of Representatives.” Yet today it is the President who proposes most major legislation, who points out most of the problems to be dealt with and who proposes solutions.

An opportunity for the participation by the people in the formulation of programs and policies that concern them was provided by the institution of the political party. To be such a vehicle for democracy, however, would require that the party represent entire counties and cities in its machinery, and that the party machinery be devoted in part to decision-making. It would mean that the structure of the party organization assure that the masses of people entered into the formulation of policy, either directly or by representation, and that the instrumentality of the party could assure that its elected representatives would adhere to party policy in the affairs of the government.

But, unlike most modern nations, there is no uniform party structure in the United States. And unlike most countries, no national political parties exist in the United States. What are commonly referred to as “national” parties (Democratic and Republican) are composed of 50 state parties each, and these state parties have surrendered no authority or power to the national body. These entities act as a whole only four or five days out of every four years, when their sole task is to choose a candidate for President. There is no chain of command in either direction, no national hierarchy that reaches down to the local level. The powers that matter reside in the state or local parties. Even the platforms reached at the national conventions are binding on no one. Hence political parties in the United States are not a means for the people to enter into decision-making.

Nor do the people have any real influence on what policies the President will eventually propose. In election-eering, promises are given, general attitudes hinted at, and commitments made to certain interests. But once the election is over, the President is bound to no commitment and makes the choices of what he will propose freely, without reference and usually without consultation with any elected body. Although he will have a myriad of (unelected) advisers, all final decisions about what legislation to propose are made by one man.

This is not the manner in which the Framers of the Constitution intended the government to work. James Madison, writing in The Federalist, warned, “It is agreed on all sides that the powers properly belonging to one of the departments ought not to be directly and completely administered by either of the other departments.” And he alludes to Virginia as “a State which, as we have seen, has expressly declared in its Constitution that the three great departments ought not to be intermixed.”

In the early history of our government under the Constitution, for a President to propose legislation was regarded by some as an impeachable offense. President Theodore Roosevelt was the first to propose legislation to the Congress, and during this century this practice grew and flourished, especially under Franklin Roosevelt. Today it is widely accepted-accepted perhaps without the realization that it is a practice that is relatively recent, that it is not the manner in which the creators of the Constitution intended the government should work, and without the clear understanding of the implication of the assumption of these powers by the executive branch of government. As Jefferson wrote in his Notes on the State of Virginia, “An elective despotism was not the government we fought for.” 

Still, there is much virtue in our government. America is a nation in which the people have substantial freedom. But is America governed by the will of the people? Or is ours a society in which every device is invented, every form of hoax is created to make the people believe that democracy exists when it does not? Is it a form of government in which people are mere spectators, where the society itself is just one huge tribal audience gathered around a television set, observing events but not giving rise to them; where individuals who believe they have gained the attention of their legislators are not aware that while we are sleeping, computers are at work typing out “personalized letters” designed to appear to give individual attention; where Presidents are sold like potato chips in two-minute ads, and politics itself has become a science, a technique for the control of the public mind? 

Is democracy even a possibility? It may be a simple matter to conduct communal activity on the part of ten or twenty or even a hundred people; but when the numbers get into hundreds or thousands, is it possible to get that many people to engage in a common undertaking or collective decision making? How can residents of a whole city, county, or state govern themselves? 

Such considerations were ones in which I personally was involved when helping to draft the Economic Opportunity Act in 1964. I worked on the legislative side and later became the general counsel of the subcommittee of the House of Representatives, which drafted and monitored the operation of the legislation. While the act implied self-help for large numbers of people, it did not go far enough in the direction of democracy. It lost faith in its ability to organize large numbers of people, and thus organized only a fraction of the targeted population, crippling the anti-poverty effort and causing it to fall short of its objectives. 

This happened despite the fact that the concept of “self-help” was essential to the success of the anti-poverty effort, for two reasons. First, it is generally recognized that simply giving builds up a dependency on the giver. Secondly, without considerable voluntary efforts on the part of the recipients, comprehensive efforts for an entire community may be prohibitively expensive and ineffective. I realized that in an attempt to eliminate poverty a practical application of democracy was vital, because of the necessity to engage large numbers of people in a voluntary activity of self-help. 

In this my own view to the problem of poverty differed from others that I knew. Most anti-poverty efforts deal with a single aspect of the problem—housing the homeless, acquiring medical facilities, combating drug activities or teenage pregnancy. Yet concentrating upon a single aspect of poverty does not eliminate poverty itself from any given neighborhood. Addressing pieces of the problem is in fact addressing the symptoms, that is, the consequences of poverty, rather than its causes. Such help may case the horror of impoverishment, but in most cases only a small percentage of the poor community is affected. 

In a poor community, so many aspects of the lives of the people require attention that enormous efforts are needed to deal with them all. What is needed is an ongoing and comprehensive anti-poverty activity, dealing with the myriad individual problems that present themselves from day to day, as well as with the major problems that confront an entire community. In poor communities, institutions do not normally exist that can deal with problems. A system that could encourage a large number of volunteers who would carry on these multifaceted activities would greatly reduce the costs of any project, and would also make it more effective. If properly organized, the poor themselves could do much of the volunteering.

But how does one instill a self-help initiative in a large number of people?

Structures of organization must be created, ones that reach extensively into poor communities, and their design must enable large numbers of people to engage in decision making and contribute to self-help efforts voluntarily. With individuals it is different, but with large numbers of people there is no self-help without organization.

In most cities and counties of the United States today the population at large does not have a sense of community. Where those involved are not poor or where they are not confronted with overwhelming problems, the creation of community is less urgent. However, where poverty has caused a need for self-help, there must be some structure through which it may occur.

In attempting to solve the problem of how to organize, I followed the advice Thomas Jefferson gave the Virginia legislators 150 years ago. “Just as Cato ended every speech with ‘Carthage must be destroyed,”‘ he said, “so do I end every opinion with the injunction: divide the counties into wards.” And again, “Among other improvements, I hope they will adopt the subdivision of our counties into Wards. Each Ward could thus be a small Republic within itself, and every man in the state would thus become an acting member of the common government, transacting in person a great portion of its rights and duties, subordinate indeed, but important, and entirely within its competence. The wit of man cannot devise a more solid base for a free, durable, and well administered republic.”

A county or city divided into manageable atomic groups, each of which is represented in a central decision-making body, has established a channel of communication between the leadership and the people to be served so that decisions may be made on matters that affect them. By mere arrangement, by a logical structure of organization, the habits and even the whole way of life of a community can be changed.

In the 1960’s I worked on the staff of Adam Clayton Powell, who was then chairman of the Committee on Education and Labor of the House of Representatives. When the House stripped him of his chairmanship and excluded him from Congress, I left the Congress. I was determined to implement Jefferson’s idea of the ward republics, and my adaptation of that idea is now called the idea of the Assembly. In 1964 a wealthy realtor from Virginia advanced the first funds for the implementation of that idea, and I went to southern Virginia to try it out in several areas. To date it has been implemented in 40 municipalities in Virginia, North Carolina, and Georgia, and it has had an impact on thousands of lives and entire counties and cities.

Twenty years ago in the Virginia county of Surry whites, except for six students, abandoned the school system, which was then allowed to deteriorate. There were no medical or recreational facilities for blacks. Much of their housing was tinned roof shacks, 60 percent of which had no running water, and blacks could not get loans at the local banks.

After the establishment of the Assembly, hundreds of new houses were introduced into the county, and 300 homes were winterized. The local bank was induced to make loans to blacks, and blacks were hired in local businesses. The Assembly raised $1 million in funds for a medical clinic and medical personnel and also established, through the county government, a $450,000 recreation center. A $4.6 million high school was constructed and a $3 million elementary school. The teaching staff was integrated and upgraded, SRA scores rose from the 37th percentile to the 63rd percentile, and those going on to further education rose from 25 percent to 70 percent. Today there is no drug problem in the county, and so little crime that the jail has been closed. Ninety-two percent of the eligible voters have been registered.

These were the accomplishments of the voluntary efforts of the poor themselves. Other counties and cities had similar successes, marshaling millions of dollars of private and public resources for the poor. Individual success stories are no less spectacular. In 1981 we held a music competition in which the Assemblies participated, the prize being a scholarship to the Shenandoah Conservatory of Music. The competition was won by an 18-year-old manual laborer who was unable to raise sufficient funds for college. He made his debut at the Kennedy Center in 1986, and signed with the Metropolitan Opera in last April.

An Assembly is a means of organizing an entire county or city so that the people involved can come to decisions on matters that affect them. Assemblies have been established in the most impoverished areas of the South where, for social and economic reasons and for reasons involving the history of this country, a large black population in 258 counties and several cities exists at a level of deprivation equal to that of some places in the Third World. These people live in a transitional, post-slavery condition. Their poverty is reflected in their housing, their health, their minimal education, and their attitude, one of complete failure.

Assemblies have been created to change these conditions and attitudes. The idea of the Assembly is premised on the principle that all long-term planning is done through institutions. Organization means making a whole of interdependent parts. Our experience has taught us that greater participation is brought about by breaking down the county or city into units of organization and, since the county or city is usually too large for all people to participate directly, by representing those units in a central decision-making body. The units of organization are called Conferences. Since dissimilar units do not cohere, all Conferences are composed of 50 persons each. The ongoing services provided by the Assemblies prevents both they and the Conferences from isolating themselves.

There is a certain relationship that people of a county or city must have in order to do anything collectively. The Assembly creates that relationship, creating a community where before none existed.

Initiative in a community usually takes place when directed by a smaller group of people, called the leadership. But in order for such initiative to be effective, the leadership must have a means of reaching the larger community. Under the Assembly method, the leadership reaches the larger community through the representatives from Conferences.

The efficiency of this channel of communication is best understood by observing the internal structure of a Conference. Each Representative is in touch with his or her 50 members through seven Committeemen, who in turn communicate with the members of the Conference. Thus, the Assembly enables united action by counties and cities, first, by unifying isolated church communities; then, by creating county-wide and city-wide leadership; finally, by authorizing that leadership to act on behalf of the larger community. The Assembly brings together the poor who then begin solving the problems of their own poverty.

The conventional anti-poverty technique is to establish a program, regarded by experts or so-called representatives of the poor as being of priority, and to introduce it to a given community. Such an approach rarely works, and for two reasons. First of all, “representatives” of the poor are representatives in the taxonomic sense only. They have the attributes of the poor but are not necessarily chosen by them. Often, therefore, their views do not reflect the views of the larger community. Secondly, programs alone rarely stimulate common action. Unless there is community involvement in the program design, the programs are not likely to be successful in inducing a response from the community. The chances are high that these programs will not be regarded as relevant to the problems that confront the people they are supposed to serve. Such efforts also actively discourage self-help initiatives because the programs are necessarily conceived of by persons outside of the community. This is because the communities as a whole are not yet structured to give support and direction to such initiatives.

Yet the only programs that will work are those which have community support, those programs that issue from the poor themselves, unmonitored and uninfluenced by others. These programs do not need to be financed by anyone. They are voluntary efforts by the poor, steps taken in their own self-interest.

Under the Assembly program the leadership is divided into functions. There is an officer for housing, an officer for education, an officer for health (among others)—in other words, a person to deal with all of the categories of problems. Thus the voluntary activity is channeled toward the problems, and a great deal is often accomplished without calling upon public or private resources.

Among the many thousands of the most unsophisticated people of the nation, the Assemblies have converted dejection to hope-a hope that is all the more remarkable in a period of American history that has experienced a decay in the institutions of genuine self-government.