Representative government fails when corrupt politicians mostly serve corporate and other special interests. Then it is crucial for citizens to have direct democracy opportunities. This means having the right to place initiatives or referenda on ballots that can make new laws, amend constitutions, recall elected officials, or control taxes and government spending.
Though many local and 24 state governments provide rules for some ballot measures and initiatives, they have been limited by diverse establishment, status quo political interests on the left and right that feel threatened by such populist citizen power.
I was impressed by the recent Wall Street Journal article by John Fund: The Far Left’s War on Direct Democracy. He made the point that direct democracy, though sorely needed, has been successfully crushed by ugly tactics from those interests that would rather use their money and influence to control legislative and other government functions. They fear citizen power. They know how to control elections and manipulate voters. “Unfortunately, some special interests have declared war on the initiative process, using tactics ranging from restrictive laws to outright thuggery,” said Fund.
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I agree with Fund’s summation: “Representative government will remain the enduring feature of American democracy, but the initiative process is a valuable safety valve. …attempts to arbitrarily curb the initiative, or to intimidate people from exercising their right to participate, must be resisted. It's a civil liberties issue that should unite people of good will on both the right and left.”
If this sounds reasonable to you, then the appropriate question to ask of presidential candidates is straightforward: Do you support providing more direct democracy opportunities?
Indeed, many people want some way of creating a federal ballot initiative mechanism whereby the misdeeds or inaction of government could be addressed by Americans voting directly to get the transparent and accountable government and effective public policies they want. A national ballot measure to end the Iraq war would have succeeded in 2006, for example. Putting Democrats in control of Congress did not work. Do we need the ability to recall a president because of dishonesty, incompetence and wrongheaded policies? Yes.
Also consider that the two-party plutocracy has been able to stifle political opposition by making third party and independent candidates unable to grasp any real power, as they can do in most other democracies.
In thinking about direct democracy I was reminded of the all too prevalent view that Barack Obama will challenge the traditional, money dominated two-party control of Washington politics. So, I pose this challenge to Obama: If you truly represent a force for fixing a divisive and ineffective political system, then why don’t you explicitly come out in favor of creating more direct democracy opportunities? Why not condemn all attempts to crush ballot measures and initiatives? And why not help start a national discussion of the possibility of a federal ballot initiative mechanism?
When over 80 percent of Americans see the nation on the wrong track it is fair to conclude that representative government has failed. The two-party plutocracy has too much power. This is the ideal time to recognize the limits of electoral, representative democracy and become an advocate for more direct democracy.
President Theodore Roosevelt, in 1912, wisely observed "I believe in the Initiative and Referendum, which should be used not to destroy representative government, but to correct it whenever it becomes misrepresentative." Direct democracy is all about converting the notion of sovereignty of we the people into reality.
It comes to this: Should we be content to put our faith in elected representative or should we put it in ourselves? When you vote for candidates you don’t put your faith in yourself, you put it in them. Haven’t we been disappointed enough in those elected? We have less to fear from the will of the majority than from the actions of dishonest, corrupt and plutocracy-serving elected officials.
For political reform seeking Americans the litmus test for presidential candidates should be whether they support more direct democracy. If Obama is not just about rhetorical change, but a true reformer of the political system, then we need to hear from him on this issue.
Let him explain whether or not he supports what Ralph Nader does, who has said that presidential candidates should “put front and center empowering the American people in direct democracy format so they can move in when their so-called representatives cave in to the interests of big business. …Campaign finance reform has got to go hand in hand with direct democracy like initiative, referendum, recall.” His current platform says that we need “more direct democracy reflecting the preamble to our constitution which starts with ‘we the people,’ and not ‘we the corporations.’”
Can you imagine Obama saying these things? I can’t.
Joel S. Hirschhorn can be reached through www.delusionaldemocracy.com.
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