What Democracy? - Part II by Harry Lonsdale
In Part I (Alternatives, Summer 02 issue), Harry explored the arcane differences between a democracy and a republic. He concluded by asking a good question: What’s the difference between a Democrat and a Republican?
“... I wonder if the difference isn’t simply in their respective names: Republicans believe in a republican form of government where the elected (elites) make the laws. Democrats believe in democracy, where we all make the laws (if by some yet-to-be-defined mechanism).”
Is our republican form of government working for us? Many would say that it is: more Americans are more prosperous than at any time in our history.
But what kind of society do we want to live in?
In answer to the question, why don’t half of Americans even bother to vote?, Newt Gingrich offered this answer: They’re happy with the way things are; they don’t need to vote.
Harry doesn’t agree.
Is democracy the answer? Harry addresses that fundamental question this time around. Read on.
And so the United States is not a democracy, but a republic.
“I pledge allegiance to the flag…and to the republic for which it stands.”
Does this distinction make a difference? Should we care? And if it does make a difference, and if we do care, can we change it?
All good questions. And the answers are:
1. Being a republic instead of a democracy does, indeed, make a difference! Instead of We the People making the laws under which we live, we elect others to make the laws. That concentrates enormous power in the hands of very few people. When our republic was born, less than 100 people made all the federal laws (Congress), interpreted them (the Supreme Court), and executed them (The President). Even now, all of that power is wielded by only 545 people, nine of whom aren’t even elected, and not one of whom can be recalled, no matter how unpopular they might become (think Dick Nixon; think Bob Packwood). True, 536 of them must stand for re-election periodically, but in our money- & television-driven election campaigns, incumbents are very difficult to remove. (Ask me, I know.) Like summer temperatures in eastern Oregon, re-election rates typically hover in the high nineties percentile.
2. Should we care? Absolutely! Think, for a minute, of all the laws Congress has made (or not made) with which We the People have disagreed. Recall some of the really crazy decisions handed down by the Supreme Court, or actions that the President has sanctioned, that go against all that our nation stands for. A glance at US history gives us: the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision (1858) affirming that slaves are personal property and thus never able to be free; the Court’s Plessy vs. Ferguson decision (1896) justifying “separate but equal” schools for black people; the Supreme Court’s Bush vs. Gore decision (2000) affirming that the candidate with the least votes wins. Add to these: no universal healthcare, no gun control, repeal of the inheritance tax, the Vietnam war, CIA activities, and much more. And some decisions, though less well known, are even more damaging to our society: consider the 1886 Supreme Court decision known as Santa Clara County vs. Southern Pacific Railroad, in which full-fledged personhood was bestowed on corporations. That was the key decision that ultimately led to the extreme power wielded by corporations today, at home and abroad.
With so much power concentrated in so few hands, it’s no wonder that political graft, extortion, and other forms of corruption have become the norm in our nation. Today, with campaign finance reform in the news, we’re at least aware of political corruption. But earlier in our history, the corruption was even worse, yet less well known. For instance, a century ago, just one man, Mark Hanna, a wealthy industrialist from Ohio, essentially bought the Presidency of William McKinley. Today it’s more subtle, but no less pernicious. An example would the National Rifle Association, which claims three million members. That means that 280 million Americans don’t belong. But does anyone doubt that our lack of gun control isn’t the handiwork of the NRA and its political contributions? Or read Richard Kluger’s book, “Ashes to Ashes,” for the lowdown on how the tobacco lobby has bought all 50 state legislatures as well as the U.S. Congress. The list goes on, endlessly.
3. Can we change the system? A more profound question is, do we want to? Opinion leaders in our country and around the world will state unequivocally that real democracy can’t work, that any society should be run by the elites—you know, those in the know, the intelligentsia with Ivy League educations and the luxury of time to carefully consider questions of governance.
That’s the elites talking. The elites have protected their own self-interest down through the generations. When the elites run the show, create gated communities across the land, establish exclusive clubs and mountaintop, fenced 20,000 square-foot homes, even arrange for preferred medical care and on-call doctors that most people can’t afford, and, on top of that, elect their own people to office to safeguard their interests—then America begins to look more like the class society of 19th Century England and Europe, replete with its land barons, servants, and castles. We’re not there yet, but if the divide between the extreme rich and the rest of us continues, we’ll get there.
The Initiative Process It is axiomatic that each of us can be counted on to act in our own self-interest. The power elites certainly rationalize their behavior in this way. But what about the rest of us? Can we trust We the People to rule with any more integrity and insight into public policy? It’s a timeless question, on which opinion remains strongly divided. But since nobody’s ever actually tried it anywhere in the world, how can we know the answer with certainty?
Americans have tried real democracy—usually known as “direct democracy”—on a limited scale. By contrast, the Swiss have been using it for almost a century and a half, quite successfully. We the People of Oregon use it with great effect. I refer, of course, to the Initiative Process, in which citizens can qualify a proposed new law for the ballot by gathering a given number of signatures. Then, in the next general election, we all get to vote on it. If approved, it becomes a law just as valid as one passed by the legislature.
Thus far, such citizen-initiative provisions exist only in about half of the states, and in many smaller governmental bodies including cities and counties. Unfortunately there is no federal initiative process in the U.S.
The Initiative Process has given us a taste of real democracy and, while not without its problems, most people strongly favor it. South Dakota was the first state to enact the initiative, but Oregon was the first state to actually use the Initiative Process to make law. When Oregonians were asked by the state legislature in 1902, just 100 years ago, to approve of the Initiative Process in a referendum, they did so overwhelmingly—92 percent of the voters voted “yes”. The initiative petition has become an institution in Oregon: we have considered more initiatives than any other state, and approved more, as well.
Women got the right to vote in Oregon by the initiative several years before the 19th Amendment extended that right to all women in the country. The 8-hour workday became law in Oregon by initiative, along with a long string of socially progressive issues, culminating most recently in our “physician-assisted suicide” and “medical marijuana” laws.
The initiative process evolved during the late stages of the progressive-populist movement of the 1890s in the U.S. It was led by the farmers of the southeast, but joined by millions of ordinary people fed up with laissez-faire capitalism and the increasing power of the “robber barons” who controlled the railroads, steel, oil, and banking. It’s surprising that the Initiative Process has withstood court challenge, when the Constitution clearly states that “The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government…” (Article IV, Section 4.)
Initiatives aren’t republican—they’re democratic.
The Initiative Process is here to stay. One man, Dane Waters, has created the Initiative and Referendum Institute (www.iandrinstitute.org) to promote the Initiative Process and track its successes. Another good citizen, Paul Jacobs, has started another organization, Citizens in Charge (www.citizensincharge.org) to help spread the Initiative Process to those states that don’t have it.
The initiative has not been an unqualified success, however. We the People have made some mistakes. The most famous state initiative of all, Prop. 13 in California, is said to have set back education in that state—due to property-tax limitations—from which the state has yet to recover. Oregon, too, has had its share of mistakes or near-mistakes in recent years. I’m reminded of several anti-gay initiatives that almost passed, and a “property-rights” initiative that did pass in 2000 but is now under court review.
In addition, the legislature and the courts continually throw up new roadblocks against the Initiative Process, making it more difficult to qualify initiatives for the ballot, and striking down some successful initiatives as unconstitutional.
Finally, the “forces of darkness” are never far away, and some extreme, well financed, right-wing proposals are circulated with increasing frequency, although very few have become law.
The Future of the Initiative The movement toward real democracy—begun with our Declaration of Independence and continued on through universal suffrage and statewide citizens initiatives—may be slow but it cannot be stopped. In recent years, a movement toward a national initiative has gained some momentum. Invigorated in its present form by former U.S. Senator Mike Gravel, it would allow We the People to make our own laws, amend the U.S. Constitution, and even overrule the U.S. Supreme Court (www.ni4d.org). Substantial safeguards would be incorporated into the system. While not without its risks, a national initiative process has great appeal to me. It would mean that finally, after several centuries of talk, real democracy might at last be attempted in our country. I’d like to see that in my lifetime.
My informal polling among friends has indicated considerable doubt about a national initiative. “Can we trust the People?…They’re easily misled…Won’t the rich and powerful contrive to rule by using TV to propagandize us?…Americans are apathetic and not ready to take on self-governance…” These are some of the more serious and frequent objections I hear. If Richard Mellon Scaife and his millions of dollars can almost bring down the most politically astute president of our lifetime (Bill Clinton), can’t he and others like him convince us that black is white, if it serves their interests?
Maybe so. But I’m not dissuaded. The system we’ve got now ain’t so hot.
Who’s in Charge Thomas Jefferson had it right 200+ years ago when he said that an informed citizenry can be trusted to make the right decisions. Abe Lincoln offered us similar wisdom. The first order of business, then, will be to fairly inform the electorate, and for that we need to recapture our public airwaves and let an honest debate begin on whether or not we’re ready for self-governance.
Yes, we’re gullible. Several hundred thousand people a week read the National Enquirer and many of them believe what they read there. George W. Bush, the dullest and most dangerous president of my lifetime, has enjoyed high approval ratings since the disaster. And a lot of us believe in pseudo-science. Yes, we can make mistakes. But an intelligently designed direct democracy system would allow us to undo our mistakes—and to do so with more certainty and faster than we can reverse bad Supreme Court decisions.
In thinking about a national initiative, I’ve come up with a growing list of issues that I’m willing to let the U.S. citizenry decide—after being fairly informed on the pros and cons. Here’s my partial list.
Should we: 1. Return our public airwaves to the public? 2. End corporate personhood? 3. Make elections publicly funded? 4. Enact strict gun-control laws? 5. Make income taxes more progressive? 6. Institute a wealth tax? 7. Provide a living wage for every working American? 8. Provide universal healthcare? 9. End cutting in our national forests? 10. Subsidize renewable energy? 11. Legalize most drugs? 12. Label tobacco as addictive? 13. End corporate welfare? 14. Stop exporting arms? 15. Repeal the 1872 Mining Law? 16. Advocate family planning worldwide? 17. Pay our U.N. dues? 18. Advocate an effective U.S. peacekeeping force? 19. Provide for the recall of members of Congress and the President? 20. Endorse the International Criminal Court? 21. Make the U.S. energy-sufficient by 2020? 22. Make political literacy a required high school course? 23. Require large landowners to provide public access? 24. And more, much more.
Make your own list and see if you don’t think direct democracy is worth a try. Isn’t it time?
Americans are better informed than ever before. There are two 24-hour all-news channels. There’s the Internet. Anyone who doesn’t know what’s going on simply doesn’t want to know.
Sure, the right-wingers will have their own list of national initiatives, and we might lose on many issues we hold dear. But who do you trust the most—Congress, and their backers, or We the People? Who’s in charge here?
Harry Lonsdale lives in Sisters, Oregon. His experiences running for office are described in his just published book, “Running. Politics, Power, and the Press,” available on-line at www.1stbooks.com, or from Amazon or Barnes and Noble, or toll free 888-280-7715. The book can also be ordered from your favorite bookstore.