Direct Democracy: Political Imperative, Practical Opportunity
New and deliberative forms of direct democracy could, within the next ten years, restore public control over (and support for) governments throughout the United States. They could greatly reduce the significance of the old parties and traditional politicians, as well as the role of big money in campaign finance. Our basic design for such a system involves regular, binding referendums on all major issues, and would be tested via constitutional change in self-selected states before implementation at the national level. These principles are set forth in Part I below, with a brief background provided in Part II. I. Components of a Basic System Direct democracy defined. Direct democracy means direct control by citizens over the body of laws by which they are governed, including both constitutions and statutes. The vehicle for such control is the referendum, meaning the opportunity for all citizens to vote yes or no on the text of a proposed constitutional change, or on a simplified but accurate summary of a proposed statute. This text might be produced by a legislature, by a nonpartisan commission established in the enabling constitutional amendment, or by citizens themselves. The referendum may be binding or advisory only. Issues that must be faced, and our preferred set of answers. (1) Who votes on what matters? All citizens who so desire, on all major issues. Basic concepts or directions might be chosen from a menu of alternatives in one referendum, followed later by yes/no on the proposed text of the chosen alternative. (2) By what means? By the most efficient, least-cost Means that provide universal and secure access. This could be at regular polling places, by mail, or by electronic means, or through some combination of these. (3) Who decides what is-a "major issue"? Either house of the legislature, the nonpartisan commission, or 10% of voters by initiative -- or by petition for a referendum within 60 days after passage of any legislation.. (4) How is the choice of concepts/directions framed, and/or the text of the issue drafted? By the legislature in the form of a joint resolution, by the nonpartisan commission, or by 10% of voters if the initiative method is used. (5) How frequently are referendums held'? Three to four times a year, preferably at the same times as primaries, general elections, municipal or school board elections, other special elections (levies, bond financing), etc. No more than two or three issue referendums should be presented at any one time. (6) Are referendums binding or advisory? The purposes of civic education and involvement, and of reducing the significance of parties, politicians, and big money, will be best served by referendums that are binding. (7) In order to protect minority rights, should a minimum required turnout of voters be required to validate a referendum, or a supermajorily of voters (say 55% or 60%) be required to enact legislation or constitutional changes? Neither of these is desirable, given the goals of civic education and involvement. Neither is required now, under our obsolescent and indirect system, to enact even the most drastic changes -- and there is nothing to be gained by crippling a participating majority from the outset. (8) Can referendums really be "deliberative" instead of based on first reactions or prejudice? Yes, if objective information and adequate time are provided to voters. Once the issue text has been finally established by the originating source and approved by the nonpartisan commission, the commission shall promptly issue a "Voters' Guide" giving the text of the proposal, describing the impacts it would have, and providing arguments pro and con. This can be distributed by mail and/or electronically. No referendum shall be voted on until 60 days after publication of the Voters' Guide. (9) How can all this be accomplished? The direct democracy system can be enacted by a single well-crafted constitutional amendment. To get such an amendment passed by an existing legislature and then ratified by the voters, however, a massive campaign of education and persuasion will have to be mounted by independents and civic groups against the probable opposition of the two political parties, traditional politicians, established big money, most "experts," other cultural "authorities," and the media. (10) How can some of these major obstacles be overcome? (a) The two old political parties cannot be abolished (US Const., 1st Amend.), nor should they be. Their monopoly grip on our politics can be broken, however, by overhauling the election laws to allow multiple parties into the arena on an equal basis, instituting proportional representation in all legislatures, providing for "None of the Above" options in all elections, and curbing their financial role. This could be accomplished statutory, but as a practical matter may have to be done by another well-crafted constitutional amendment. (b) Traditional politicians will simply have to accept change in the role of a legislator to that of an implementing technician with respect to major issues, and discretionary policymaker only with respect to minor issues. Tern limits might help in this transition. Many "experts" and most media will go along. (c) Established big money also enjoys protection for its contributions from the 1st Amendment. Multiple limits must be enacted until the Supreme Court finds some it will accept, and public funding must be provided to all sides. II. Definitions and Trends An enduring tension between a minority of "haves" and the majority of "havenots" has run through American politics from pre-Revolutionary days to the present, occasionally flaring into visible conflict. The haves always defend property rights and a republican form of government, or at least a representative democracy in which they play the dominant role -- often celebrating such a system simply as "democracy." The havenots seek greater equality and expanded democracy, but have usually settled for the same kind of representative democracy -- and been taught to celebrate it as "democracy." Definitions. A republic is a government in which the people are acknowledged as sovereign, but in which some less-than-majority number of the people actually govern, usually by limiting the right to vote and insisting on freedom for elected representatives to "do the right thing." The assumption is that this minority has distinctive talent, or stake in the society, that entitles it to govern in the interest of the whole society. The American constitution of 1787 was widely recognized as establishing a republic, but one that was carefully guarded against popular control through a variety of anti-majoritarian devices. Some of these devices have been changed or eliminated, but the essential limits are still operable and new ones have been added. A democracy originally meant a government in which all the people govern, and directly make all major decisions. In practice, this has always been very difficult to implement, because of the number of citizens and the number and complexity of issues.. In 1787, the prospect was derided by most of the better people as "mob rule." The Town Meetings of New England communities were urged as a model by some have-nots, but their limited geographic scope enabled the haves to deny their relevance to larger units. "Democracy," a concept that became popular together with "equality" after 1787, has therefore been understood chiefly in two ways in the United States -- both of which premise inviolable property rights as limits on the powers of governments. Representative democracy is a system where voters choose representatives to act for them, more or less free of direct accountability. The right to vote may be expanded, but the size of constituencies and the insulation of the party system make it very difficult for voters to get their preferences acted upon. Direct democracy, as we described earlier, means direct voter control over laws governing them, usually exercised through initiatives and referendums. Early trends. In the post-1787 American context, "democracy" was a convenient expression for aspirations to vote, first on the part of men with lesser amounts of property but soon for black men, women, and all excluded groups. In effect, "democracy" became the rallying cry of all the have-nots for greater equality in various forms. But the American system and its primary beneficiaries do not welcome clear lines of conflict, particularly if they seem to be class-based. As industrialization sharpened class-based conflict in the late 19th and early 20th century and radical ideas for change were proposed, some accommodations had to be sought. At this point, the American republic was renamed and celebrated as (representative) "democracy." Another stabilizing result was the development and implementation in several states of new forms of direct democracy -- such as the initiative, referendum, and recall of the Progressive Era, some versions of which are now in effect in 24 states. Current trends. The initiative, in which citizens can by petition place a proposed statute (in some cases, constitutional change as well) either before the legislature or directly on the ballot, was at first the vehicle of substantial reform. But in recent years, it too has been caught up in the apparently intractable problems of the American political system. Although initiatives are now used much more frequently than at any time in the past, sometimes to salutary effect, they have two major flaws. One is that they are often poorly drafted, and end up being redefined by the courts, probably the least democratic of our institutions. The other is more serious: they are increasingly the vehicle of big money and minority special interests who pay to have signatures collected and force their versions of public "issues" onto the ballot. In both cases, the initiative process loses its role as the expression of unheard majority preferences and instead creates a single-issue politics -- usually of the wrong issues -- with campaigns that draw huge sums of money and media attention. The failure of the initiative today is a small mirror of the failures of our obsolescent political system. The two major parties, both of which are owned entirely by big money, promote outdated ideologies and irrelevant slogans and effectively mask policy making in the interest of major corporations and the wealthy. Most politicians are self-interested opportunists who represent their contributors rather than their constituents. Campaigns are dominated and controlled by big money, without which no candidate can hope to get the media time and attention necessary for election. In our economically troubled and culturally fragmenting society, the extreme claims of small special interests prevent the long-term public interest from even being discussed, let alone acted upon. No wonder the people have less confidence in their government than ever before, are withdrawing from voting and civic participation, and view their entire political system with distaste and active resentment! At the heart of our problem is the capture of our (republican) representative democracy by big money. The solution today, as it was in the Progressive Era, is once again a turn to direct democracy -- but this time in a deliberative form that allows citizens to control all major actions, without the onerous burden of constant petitioning. Simple and narrowly targeted constitutional change is all that is required, and it should be seen as a conservative act that is necessary to preserve the essence of our popular sovereignty and self-government principles. The U.S. Constitution's guarantee of a "republican form-n of government" to the states (Article IV, Section 4) is no barrier: it is addressed to conditions of insurrection and forceful change, not a peaceful majority expansion of democracy to fit the needs and technological opportunities of our times. Indeed, direct democracy in various forms is already coming onto the political agenda in the U.S. and around the world. An enabling constitutional amendment has been proposed in California, and the government of Ontario has offered its citizens a menu of alternative forms as a means of initiating discussion leading to implementation of some preferred option. Switzerland has extensive experience with referendums, and a new proposal for a second House of Parliament to act along direct democracy lines has been offered in book form in Denmark. Several organizations and proposals advocating form of direct democracy can be found all over the Internet. These are collected in updated versions by the Teledemocracy Action News + Network. In the U.S. today, the basic tension continues between wealth and privilege and freedom to use property on the one hand, and the goal of equal opportunity and participation on the other. Both sides claim to be the real advocates of democracy and defenders of the real aspirations of the American system. Fundamental public policy choices lie immediately ahead, but we have no clear and direct, let alone democratic, way to make them. In the obsolescent, corrupted politics of our times, it is impossible for the popular will to be either expressed or implemented. In this context, only deliberative direct democracy can restore popular control over, and confidence in, our system. When all else falls, as it is so clearly doing today, we may as well trust the people. Mr. Jefferson would have been glad to do so long ago.