Imagine Democracy Without Professional Politicians

(and the special interests that keep them in power)

Imagine Democracy without Professional Politicians


Reduce and Multiply Political Districts Almost Everywhere

George Washington urged congressional districts of 30,000 inhabitants each, a proposal the Founders unanimously put into the Constitution.

But today, US House Districts average 760,000 persons each, and they are forever growing.

To win a political campaign in such large districts, candidates must typically raise millions of dollars, primarily from special interests, including interests that elected officials are supposed to regulate.

With truckloads of cash from these special interests, candidates then sell themselves to the voters they are supposed to represent. It's a system that looks like institutionalized bribery, extortion and marketing more than it does representative democracy.

By reducing all electoral districts to 30,000 inhabitants or less (no more than 20,000 at the state level and no more than10,000 at the local level) we’d vastly reduce the role of money in politics because small districts can be won with yard signs, fliers and shoe leather.

Such community-sized districts are about reputations and relationships instead of money and marketing.

Normal citizens could win elected office without selling their souls to special interests or devoting their lives to politics.

Having many small districts would sometimes mean representatives legislating online from home, and living among their own constituents, the people they are supposed to represent, instead of among lobbyists and other politicians.

In the 21 st Century people regularly work and learn from home. Is there any reason that our elected representatives couldn’t legislative from home?

Political districts on the scale of a neighborhood or a small community should be seen as the essential and foundational building blocks for an updated clean and democratic systems at all levels of American government.


Decentralize Government

Decentralized power helps keep it in the hands of the people.

Decentralized democracy can be realized by reviving the 10 th Amendment to the US Constitution, which is supposed to reserve most government power to the states. Let our states be democratic laboratories of public policy to the greatest extent possible.

Within states, devolve power to counties, cities and towns. Divide big cities into quasi-self-governing boroughs, or districts, like they do some successful foreign cities.

Reimagine our political system as one that serves and empowers actual local communities and the diverse people who live in them.


Make Most Elected Offices Part Time

Professional politicians don’t become experts at solving public policy challenges. They become experts at politics and reelection.

Members of the US House, the lower houses of US States, and most local elected officials, could serve part-time with minimal hourly compensation. In other words, they should keep their day jobs or serve in government during their retirements.

If elected officials no longer rely on their offices for their livelihoods, then they are more likely to be true public servants.


Utilize Indirect Elections Where Appropriate

Because there’s probably some advantage when legislators meet in person, develop collaborative relationships through extended personal contact, and devote all their attention to public policy, state Senates and the US Senate could be relatively small, full time and convene regularly at seats of government. This will give upper houses all the qualities that large, part time, and sometimes decentralized lower houses might lack.

But senators should not be elected from large electoral districts, or state-wide as US Senators are at present, because that would leave one legislative branch still captured by the same selfish interests that plague our existing political systems. Instead, state senators and US Senators can be elected by the lower houses (or by state legislatures in the case of the US Senate) and might serve only a single term, to keep them focused on their tasks as public servants, instead of dreaming about reelection.

Big-city mayors can be elected by their enlarged and citizen-based city councils and be held accountable to them, as is done in some successful foreign cities.

Even Governors and the US President could be appointed by our new lower houses of numerous part-time citizen legislators.

While it may seem less democratic to remove the choice voters currently have of picking their own senators and chief executives directly, that loss of choice is balanced by involving far more everyday citizens in the democratic process through greatly expanded local councils, lower houses and a very large US House of Representatives comprised of normal citizens.

Such a tradeoff might be controversial, but is it a choice worth making in order to base the system on relationships and reputations rather than money and marketing?


Enact Term Limits on the Most Powerful Positions

Senators and Chief Executives should be term limited, perhaps even to a single term, because we’ve learned that it’s not helpful if office holders are thinking about their next reelection when they should be thinking about the next generation.

On the other hand, part-time citizen legislators, representing small communities and neighborhoods. may not need to be term-limited. These citizen representatives will be giving more than they are getting, at least financially. They can safely accrue institutional knowledge without much risk of betraying the public trust. And if they do misbehave, their small districts will make them vulnerable to defeat at election time.


Consider Citizen Juries/Deliberative Democracy

Juries are our most trusted democratic institution. In a jury trial, we rely on the judgement of a representative group of our fellow citizens to adjudicate all manner of crimes, including matters of life and death.

In various parts of the democratic world, citizen juries are starting to make public policy.

The keys to a successful jury decision are that 1) the jury be a fair representation of the community at large and 2) the jury receives all the relevant information needed to fairly decide the matter at hand. These are not small challenges, and it will pay to approach deliberative democracy with caution.

Nevertheless, might deliberative democracy be employed immediately in cases where elected officials have inherent conflicts of interests?

Are elected officials really the best choices when it comes to the power of supervising their own elections, drawing their own electoral districts or establishing their own compensation?

Surely, in these cases, tasking a jury with power over such decisions would be the better option.


Protect Government of the People with Direct Democracy

In the United States, direct democracy is often exercised through a “citizens’ initiative process.” It’s a necessary safety mechanism, like an emergency brake on an out-of-control vehicle.

The people themselves should always have a means to amend or rebuild their own political systems without the approval of elected officials. It’s the ultimate safeguard when representative democracy goes wrong.

Today, that ability of everyday people to successfully engage in a citizens’ initiative process is limited and often compromised. Though the process exists in most cities and certain states, signature requirements for citizen initiative petitions are usually so burdensome that reformers must hire paid signature gatherers. Here, again, is another example of money getting in the way of democracy.

Direct democracy to amend government charters and constitutions should always be available to the people without significant financial cost. If the casual change of government charters and constitutions is a concern, then let reasonable super majorities of public support be required based on votes, not mountains of money.

Realistic Strategy

Realistic Strategy

The need for political reform in the United States is so great, and the challenge so large, that we must approach the task with care, humility, and realism, matched with determination.

Though the precise reform applications are debatable, our mission is clear. We must fundamentally transform our political system from one that primarily serves the professional political class and other special interests to one that serves the broad and long-term needs of the American people.

It will not be easy, but the task is as necessary as it is difficult.

Our path forward begins locally, where we can prove the above concepts at relatively little cost. See our non-profit educational organization, Cities Rising, created to teach city and county reformers best democratic practices.

After success reforming cities and counties, we can begin to focus on state governments as we work our way up to the federal level.

Citizens Rising is a one-of-kind organization aspiring to become a movement. We are not backed by big money, unlike the system we plan to disrupt and reform. If you share our nonpartisan transformative democratic vision, then please join us with a financial donation and sign up to get on our mailing list.

Truly, we can’t do this without you.

Join us, to restore government of, by and for, the people.

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Organizing Committee

Paul Jacob: Paul is president of the Liberty Initiative Fund, a national organization helping citizens place issues on state and local ballots, designed to protect individual liberty and hold government accountable. For more than a decade, Paul was the term limits movement’s leading voice, running U.S. Term Limits, the nation’s largest such group. For his work to bring term limits to Congress, columnist Robert Novak good-naturedly called Jacob “the most hated man in Washington.” Paul won the “Courage Under Fire” award at the 2009 Conservative Political Action Conference. He serves on the boards of Citizens in Charge, Citizens in Charge Foundation, Great Communicators Foundation, and U.S. Term Limits.

Joe Mathews: Joe is a journalist whose work focuses on two subjects: California, and the rule and practice of democracy worldwide. He is co-president of the Global Forum on Modern Direct Democracy, the world’s leading network of people whose work involves direct democracy, and serves on the board of Democracy International, a Germany-based NGO that supports democracy campaigners around the globe. He is California and Innovation editor at Zócalo Public Square, a Los Angeles-based media nonprofit; his weekly syndicated California column appears in more than 30 newspapers. Previously, Joe was Irvine senior fellow at the New America Foundation, and a reporter for the LA Times, Wall Street Journal, and Baltimore Sun. He is author of The People’s Machine: Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Rise of Blockbuster Democracy, and co-author of The California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It.

Executive Director

Stephen Erickson: Stephen has spent much of his adult life working for political reform. He is the author of two books, including What Would Madison Do? The Political Journey Progressives and Conservatives Must Make Together, which, praised by leading voices on the Left and Right, tells the story of his campaign to unite leaders of all political persuasions to fix America’s broken political system. He completed coursework on a doctorate in Early American History, possesses significant political experience, has published various articles, won writing awards, and served as Resident Scholar at US Term Limits. He is the founder of the American Common Ground Alliance, an effort to open a broad dialogue between conservative and liberal leaders focused on America’s failing and dysfunctional institutions. Stephen can be reached at

For more detailed information about the advantages of small districts, visit

For essential information about money in politics, see Open Secrets.

For information on American elections, check out Ballotpedia.

Cities Rising!

Cities Rising is a new nonprofit charitable organization dedicated to public education and conversation about the best democratic practices for municipal government in the United States and beyond.

Did you know that some of the world’s most livable cities are governed by city legislatures consisting of many everyday people?

Did you know, too, that some of these same cities practice decentralized democracy, with representative government functioning near the people, at the borough level?

Parents Rising!

American schools are underperforming. School closures during the covid crisis set students back, and now they struggle to catch up. Meanwhile, political and social ideology is dividing school communities and distracting from the essential mission of educating students. School boards have become politicized, which is a natural outcome of educational systems run by politicians beholden to various interests. It’s time to consider new ideas for school system governance based firmly on parent control. It starts with small, community-sized, school board districts. Learn more at