Democratic Strategic Initiatives

The most powerful form of thinking is strategic.
It is not just a matter of thinking ahead. . . .
It is a matter of setting many things in motion by
setting one thing in motion. It is a matter of
reconfiguring the future by doing one thing in the present.

George Lakoff


NOTE TO ONLINE READERS: Clicking on a reference note number will take you directly to the note. Once at the notes page, clicking on the note number will return you to that position in the text. Also, notes that are underlined (like this xx) provide additional information or comment. All other notes merely cite sources.


As long as the Elite control our political/electoral and governmental systems, reform efforts will be largely confined to protests and appeals—with marginal results.2 We need to change the structure and nature of this contest. We need to alter our governmental and political/electoral systems in ways that encourage public participation and democratic self-rule. Strategic Initiatives can help us achieve these changes.

A Strategic Initiative is a single action that produces many results. President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal was a Strategic Initiative that altered the nation’s entire socioeconomic condition, creating the Social Security and Works Progress Administrations, and other progressive innovations. This chapter proposes some Strategic Initiatives to strengthen our democratic processes and amplify the electorate’s voice in political/governmental affairs.


One promising example of a progressive Strategic Initiative is Deliberation Day, a concept developed by Yale law professor Bruce Ackerman and Stanford communications professor James Fishkin.3 On a national holiday held during presidential election years, millions of randomly selected voters would participate in community discussions about the upcoming elections (and be financially compensated for their time). These meetings would bring voters together to discuss candidates’ positions on issues and also pose questions and raise issues that candidates might rather ignore. A consolidated report of voter input would be supplied to candidates and the mass media. The candidates’ responses to the People’s questions and issues would inform voters’ ballot decisions.

As an important national event, the media would presumably cover Deliberation Day’s proceedings and conclusions. This would enable the voice of the People to shape the national discourse, forcing candidates to address the People’s high priority issues. This information landscape would help prevent paid advertising and propaganda from dominating the political/electoral process.

Years of research and experiments convinced Ackerman and Fishkin that ordinary citizens can think through complex public issues and discuss them productively with each other.4 In The Wisdom of Crowds (2004), James Surowiecki reached a similar conclusion. As individuals, we all have our limitations of knowledge, foresight, and reasoning ability. But Surowiecki found that when all our imperfect judgments are aggregated in the right way, we are collectively capable of excellent decisions. And as it turns out, all of Surowiecki’s requirements for effective group decision-making are satisfied in Ackerman and Fishkin’s concept of Deliberation Day.5

Deliberation Day is a Strategic Initiative; it could shift the entire political/electoral landscape and re-engage tens of millions of citizens who now do not even vote.6 Ackerman and Fishkin estimate the total expense of a Deliberation Day event with 70 million participants at $2.5 billion—roughly a day-and-a-half of US military spending, one-fifth of US automakers’ annual advertising budgets—a small price to pay for the reinvigoration of our democracy. 7


Every Deliberation Day could produce a Legislative Agenda—a list of national priorities and actions the electorate favors. Issued to our elected representatives, the collective wisdom of the People could direct the actions and priorities of our government.

The electorate could, for example, instruct Congress to dismantle the CIA or facilitate the termination of corporate personhood by constitutional amendment. Other directives could change the mandate of the Commerce Department from promoting unlimited growth to developing community-supported agriculture and sustainable local economies.

An elected representative failing to support a Legislative Agenda could be ejected in the next election and replaced with one who did. As a routine outcome of every Deliberation Day, Legislative Agendas could help put the electorate in charge of our government.


The official actions of congressional representatives too often disagree with the opinions and desires of the majority in their constituencies. For example, a majority of the electorate favors a public option for health care; the two major political parties won’t even discuss it. Meanwhile, the Rascal is spreading $3 billion a year around the capitol to ensure that our legislators respond to its voice (chapter 7). We need to fix this.

From city councils to the Oval Office, the voice of the People needs to be heard more clearly by elected representatives. Moreover, it should be routinely evident whether or not our elected representa-tives are responsive to their constituencies. Applying current communications tools to the electorate-representative relationship could make this happen. Just how might this work?

Voter registration rolls could be used to compose a program we will call Direct Democracy. Choosing between telephone, Internet, and US mail options, all voters could set up secure accounts in a Direct Democracy network. Through this network, voters could receive reports similar to the voter information guides that most states now provide, and routinely inform their representatives of their wishes regarding pending legislation. The record of representatives’ adherence to their constituents’ wishes would be available to voters at every election. Those representatives not responding to the majority of their constituents could be voted out of office.

With a few days’ Pentagon spending, a Direct Democracy pilot network could be designed and installed in one state. A nationwide expansion of this network would provide an inexpensive means to ensure that elected representatives are responsive to their constituencies.

No doubt, others could devise a Direct Democracy system far beyond these musings. (The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation seems the perfect steward for such an endeavor.) Some might envision a Network that would enable the entire electorate to vote on certain bills of national importance. But whatever its eventual design, a Direct Democracy system could enable the People to more effectively supervise their elected representatives, and have a stronger voice in legislation that affects their lives and our collective future.


Currently, electoral campaigns of the executive branch are inordinately focused on the race for the presidency. But Cabinet Secretaries can exert an equal or even greater force on the fate of our nation than the occupant of the Oval Office.8 As Defense Secretaries, for example, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld had enormous impact on the course of world history and the lives of millions. Cheney’s Defense term precipitated the wholesale privatization of the US armed forces (chapter 6), and Rumsfeld’s Pentagon led our nation to war under false pretenses (chapter 11).

The heads of Cabinet-level agencies wield similar influence. Recall FDA Commissioner Arthur Hayes’ unilateral action approving the public release of aspartame (endnote 165 from chapter 6). Perhaps the CIA’s covert operations need no further mention. Clearly, the leadership of Cabinet-level entities can affect vital aspects of our society, including foreign policy, public health, and ecological safeguards. And yet, these top-level executive branch offices are appointed without the electorate’s comment or participation. Cabinet nominations and agency appointments are frequently predicated on corporate backgrounds or personal financial wealth, rather than public service backgrounds or relevant expertise.9

Broadening the scope of presidential campaigns could strengthen the electorate’s oversight of the executive branch. Imagine a presidential election not obsessed with the presidential horserace, but focused instead on a broader evaluation of the executive branch each presidential candidate would bring into office. Beyond choosing a vice-presidential running mate (the only pre-election choice now routinely announced), a presidential candidate’s Values and leadership direction would become evident through his or her Cabinet and agency nominations. This would provide a more adequate understanding of the overall direction that any presidential administration would lead the nation. (In cases where nominations have not been announced, presidential candidates could publish the criteria they would use to select their nominees.)


A presidential campaign setting forth an executive branch slate could pioneer the political/electoral changes described in the prior section. Nominations for Cabinet and agency heads could stress accomplishments over titles, emphasizing the Values that have guided each nominee’s working life. These accomplishments could then be contrasted with the deeds and endeavors of past officials, those currently in office, or other nominees in the upcoming election.

For example, Andrew Bacevich, retired US Army Colonel and Boston University professor of international relations, could be the slate’s defense secretary nominee. Bacevich, author of several critiques of militaristic US foreign policy, has called the US occupation of Iraq “immoral, illicit, and imprudent.” Placed in a context that included the Office of Special Plans’ deceptions that facilitated the occupation of Iraq, Bacevich’s nomination could be seen by many as a move toward honesty and integrity in US foreign policy.

An executive slate campaign could initiate a discussion of Values in the national discourse. This shift could give the electorate a stronger voice in the Values that would guide the next presidential administration.




Now is the time for America to dramatically
expand the existing public broadcasting system,
re-envisioning it as truly public media.10

Robert W. McChesney and John Nichols

Reliable public information is a fundamental requirement of democratic self-rule. The electorate needs adequate and accurate information about our history, current events, and a broad range of national and global issues. Full funding could enable PBS and NPR to produce adequate and accurate public information. If action has not already been demanded in this arena (chapter 18), a Legislative Agenda could direct Congress to ensure full funding of our public media and sever the “underwriting” agreements that now obligate PBS and NPR to corporations. Funding the US public media at the per capita level of the UK would amount to about $24 billion annually—just eleven days of Pentagon spending.11 We could further demand the dismantling of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, unleashing our public media to address vital local, national, and global issues during prime time.

It is not widely understood that the radio and television frequency spectrum is the public property of the US citizenry. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) was created to regulate broadcast operations in the public interest; broadcasters must pass FCC licensing requirements to begin and maintain operations. But in reality, the FCC has been a casualty of the same political pressure and corporate capture that has compromised other regulatory bodies (chapters 6 and 7).

Legislative Agendas and Direct Democracy could pressure Congress to restore the FCC to its original mandate, including the enforcement of accuracy, civility, and public service programming. A record of distortion, deception, or disregard for the truth on important public issues could result in the revocation of a broadcaster’s license.

Specifically, the FCC could be instructed to revive the Fairness Doctrine, a former FCC policy that required broadcasters to present issues of public importance, and to do so in an honest and evenhanded manner. This policy was attacked during the deregulatory frenzy of the Reagan era and discontinued in 1987. A revival of the Fairness Doctrine could force broadcasters to air topics and voices that the Rascal would rather ignore. Those long-absent from important conversations could elevate public awareness and understanding of issues such as renewable energy and foreign policy.


There are thousands of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), spiritual, religious, and ecological groups, as well as independent media outlets that would all have a stake in a Democracy Movement. Many will benefit from stronger democratic oversight of government policy, for example. Internet campaigns and inter-organizational networking could enlist millions of activists from these organizations, expanding the Movement exponentially. The leaders of these groups could be featured on public media programs, building cohesion between and within their various sectors.

But as a Movement progresses and our government becomes more responsive to the People, these same groups may lose their raison d'être. We would do well to proactively establish options to transition the staffs of these groups into new opportunities. Various programs could provide scholarships for retraining into fields that will be expanding in the new era (sustainable energy and agriculture, etc.), coordinate early retirement options, and government job placement programs. Whatever the details, achieving positive outcomes for those who have done valuable public service work would help keep these workers involved and contributing their knowledge and skills to the new democratic era—and it’s just the right thing to do.

Most likely, none of this will be easy. The Elite will rigorously defend the political/governmental and economic systems that sustain their power and wealth. But we have one advantage that can win the day: we are the majority. When we cross the Tipping Point, we must all join the Movement to make our majority evident. From phone calls to general strikes, we will need all who are able to press for the initial demands of the Movement. Our strength will be in our number. Like a giant but gentle dragon, we can sit down at the Rascal’s table and resolutely announce the dawn of a new democratic era.

1 Thinking Points—Communicating our American Values and Vision George Lakoff (2006 Farrar, Straus and Giroux) 102

2 Millions protested the 2003 plan to invade Iraq; the invasion proceeded. The Occupy Wall Street movement drew attention to Wall Street corruption; there have been no noteworthy investigations, reprimands, or financial reforms.  A majority of the electorate favors a public option for health care; the two dominant political parties won’t even discuss it.

         While not a single conviction has resulted from the corruption that led to the 2008 crash, some of those involved in the perpetration of this debacle have made off with fortunes. Hedge fund manager John Paulson made $3.7 billion in 2007; then approximately doubled his net worth in 2008.

    Mother Jones lists the top ten winners at

3 Ackerman and Fishkin’s Deliberation Day concept evolved from 15 years of experimental and scholarly research. Fishkin conducted Deliberative Polling experiments for over a decade, and collaborated with Ackerman to study Citizen Juries, National Issues Forums, Planning Cells, and other deliberative formats as well.

    Deliberation Day

    Bruce Ackerman and James S. Fishkin (2004 Yale University Press)

4 Ibid., chapter 1: Imagine

5 The four circumstances Surowiecki deems necessary for the wisdom of crowds to be expressed are:

         Diversity: A wide assortment of group members yields differing perspectives and helps avoid what has been labeled groupthink.

         Independence: Circumstances that allow group members to develop and maintain their own opinions can prevent particularly outspoken or charismatic members from influencing others toward a particular opinion.

         Decentralization: A broad-based, non-hierarchical group organization puts the people who are closest to a problem in the best position to propose solutions to those problems.

         Aggregation: Some mechanism is employed to turn private judgments into a collective decision.

         The diversity, independence, and decentralized decision-making of Deliberation Day would be ensured through random selection of participants, transparency in compiling conclusions, and the skill of professional facilitators. The Wisdom of Crowds—Why the many are smarter than the few and how collective wisdom shapes business, economies, societies, and nations James Surowiecki (2004 Doubleday)

6 The EU averages 77 percent voter turnout, compared to US presidential election-year turnouts of around 56 percent—curiously close to the average South and Central American voter turnout of 54 percent since 1945, when US interventions became common. Voter turnout in the 2014 midterm election was about 37 percent.

7 and Deliberation Day

    Bruce Ackerman and James S. Fishkin (2004 Yale University Press) 144

8 Currently, the Cabinet is composed of 15 Departments: State, Treasury, Defense, Justice, Interior, Agriculture, Commerce, Labor, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, Transportation, Energy, Education, Veterans Affairs, and Homeland Security. Additionally, the senior officers of the federal executive branch include the president and vice president, the directors of the Office of Management and Budget and the EPA, the US Trade Representative and Ambassador to the UN, the chair of the Council of Economic Advisors, and the administrator of the Small Business Administration.

9 For example, Robert McNamara was the president of Ford Motor Company but knew virtually nothing about the inner workings of the Pentagon behemoth. Nevertheless, President Kennedy recruited McNamara as his secretary of defense, and McNamara then presided over the full expansion of the Vietnam War.

         Five Cabinet members of the GW Bush administration possessed net financial wealth estimated between $10 million and $200 million, a roster headed by former Alcoa CEO Paul O’Neill. Obama’s Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker’s net worth is estimated at $1.85 billion.

         A better link for this information is now

10 The Death and Life of American Journalism—The Media Revolution That Will Begin the World Again

    Robert W. McChesney and John Nichols (2010 Nation Books) 190

11 Robert McChesney and John Nichols have proposed various mechanisms to give the electorate a voice in public media funding. Anchored in global research and analysis, their proposal includes mechanisms for citizen input and public accountability, and safeguards against special interest domination.

    The Death and Life of American Journalism—The Media Revolution That Will Begin the World Again Robert W. McChesney and John Nichols (2010 Nation Books) Chapter 3 “Why the State,” and Chapter 4 “Subsidizing Democracy” See also “How to Save Journalism” John Nichols and Robert W. McChesney The Nation January 25, 2010