With Thanksgiving upon us, it’s an appropriate time to take a few moments, reflect on the advantages we enjoy as citizens of our great country, and give thanks.

Our Founders bequeathed us a democratic system that has provided Americans with unparalleled prosperity and political stability. The United States was the first nation whose system of government was based on democratic representation and our constitution has outlived all others.

But our Founders also recognized that their work was never done, that our system would be in a constant state of vulnerability. Continuous efforts would be needed to preserve the principles of democratic representation – to ensure they are alive and progressing.

One story illustrates this awareness. During the Constitutional Convention of 1787, the deliberations were not made public and the people were keen to know what the Founders were developing. As Benjamin Franklin walked out of the convention one day a Mrs. Powel of Philadelphia is said to have asked him, “Well, Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?” In no uncertain terms, Franklin responded, “A republic, if you can keep it.”

So as we gather together with family and friends for the holiday, let’s acknowledge the insight of our Founders and the system of representative government they established, those centuries ago. Our society has benefitted from their wisdom and toil and it is up to all of us to preserve and protect those ideals.

The deadline on negotiations with Iran over its nuclear enrichment program is scheduled for Nov. 24, and at this writing, a deal has yet to be struck.

A policymaking simulation – similar to those that will be utilized by the Citizen Cabinet – was conducted by the Program for Public Consultation, together with the Center for International & Security Studies at Maryland, to discern the public’s attitudes regarding the negotiations.

That simulation is available on our website, so here’s your chance to find out about the debate and make your voice heard. You’ll learn about the options Congress is considering, then be able to send your recommendations to your representatives in Washington.

You can find the “Negotiations With Iran” policymaking simulation by clicking here.

The recommendations of a scientifically selected sample of Americans can be read here.

“We are saddened by the passing of our friend, Bill Frenzel,” said Voice Of the People President Steven Kull. “In Congress, he was a shining example of a legislator committed to bipartisan cooperation for the public good. Bill continued his efforts tirelessly, until his last days. We will miss him. Our hearts go out to his wife Ruthy, their daughters Debby, Pam and Mitty, and their families.”

When you look at how things are going in Congress lately, do you ever wonder: What if we brought together a group of ordinary Americans, gave them the basic facts on an issue, and asked them to try to solve some of the problems Congress keeps kicking down the road?

Wouldn’t it be great if the common sense of the American people had more impact on government, James Madison wrote, “. . . it is the reason alone, of the public, that ought to control and regulate the government.” Isn’t that what the Founders had in mind, that government should be guided by “the sense of the people”?

It turns out, many of us have been asking those kinds of questions, and now an organization — Voice Of the People — is launching a bold new initiative to bring the Founders’ vision for a truly representative democracy to life, starting right here in Virginia. It’s called the Citizen Cabinet, and it is being developed in partnership with the University of Virginia.

Here’s how it will work: In the next few weeks, hundreds of Virginians will be getting letters from the Center for Survey Research, inviting them to be part of the Citizen Cabinet. About every three or four weeks, members of the Cabinet — who are scientifically selected to be a representative sample — will be given a briefing on a key issue. All the information presented is reviewed and agreed upon in advance by leading experts from both major parties and outside experts from a wide range of viewpoints.

Cabinet members are then presented the various policy options Congress is considering, and evaluate the arguments for and against each option. Finally they make their recommendations on what Congress should do. The recommendations are then delivered directly to Virginia’s members of Congress, and released to the media and the public, all in a fully transparent online process.

These same methods have been applied at the national level and the results are encouraging. Most Americans, it turns out, can come together across party lines and find common ground on the issues — when they’re given the basic facts and a chance to think things through. Even on highly complex issues, bipartisan majorities can agree on practical steps that would address the problem. The results from these national samples, and the interactive instruments they used, are posted at www.VOP.org if you’d like to try them yourself.

Thomas Jefferson wrote that he had “great confidence in the common sense of mankind.” And research has shown that citizens are often better at finding common ground than Congress.

Virginians will soon have a chance to see if Jefferson’s confidence is justified. Your household may already have been selected to participate in the Citizen Cabinet. Look for your invitation in the mail. If not, you can also go online and try these new methods for yourself, to learn about the issues and help you engage more effectively with your members of Congress.

Either way, tapping the common sense of the people may be the best idea yet to help break the gridlock in Congress.

–Richard Parsons, executive director


This op-ed originally appreared in the Roanoke Times on November 15, 2014

Photo by Michael Allen Smith via flickr

When the Berlin Wall fell 25 years ago, there was tremendous excitement that the democratic form of government had proven itself as the best form of government.

Today, though, in the United States and in democracies around the world there is widespread disillusionment with democracy. In virtually all developed democracies trust in government is low. Most people see their government as failing to serve the common good.

In the countries of the former Soviet Union, while they initially embraced democracy with enthusiasm, now there is pervasive disillusionment and, in some countries, a creeping reversion to authoritarianism.

Clearly there is fundamental problem with democracy today that needs to be addressed. The problem is not mysterious. Everywhere we see interest groups organizing and gaining disproportionate influence on government, marginalizing the people as a whole. And in democracies around the world, that is exactly how the people perceive it. 

What is needed are new means to give the people a clear and effective voice in government. The electoral process is not enough. The values and priorities of the people need to have a direct effect on the policymaking process itself.

Around the world there are people trying in various ways to give the people a greater voice in democracies. We feel that one of the most promising is the idea of doing in-depth surveys with a Citizen Cabinet—a representative sample of the people that would be first briefed on a current policy issue and then make their recommendations through a process that simulates the process that policymakers go through.

We have received a very positive response to the idea from members of both parties working on the Hill. They know as well as the rest of us, that the system is not working the way it should and they tell us that they think that giving the people a greater voice after they have been informed about the issues, could help make a real difference.

Polls from around the world show that, while people are frustrated with democracy, they still overwhelmingly embrace the democratic vision expressed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – that the will of the people should be the basis for government. Let’s move forward with the effort to more effectively realize this vision.


photo by Daniel Antal via flickr

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