Our President Should Support More Direct Democracy (Guest Voice)

This Guest Voice is by Joel S. Hirschhorn, who is critical of both political parties.

Our President Should Support More Direct Democracy

by Joel S. Hirschhorn

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, parent 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.]

13 Comments

  1. Joel,

    The concept of more direct democracy may be appealing on a populist basis, but it is stunningly bad in practice.

    Direct democracy has another name – Mob Rule.

    You advocate taking the decision making process away from people we elect for just that purpose and handing it over to an easily swayed crowd of ill-informed, emotion-filled sheep. If you would have said voters for any referendum would be limited to those who could pass a basic 10 question test on government, I might have been able to give it a little support, but just working the mob into a froth and voting is out of the question.

    Elected officials need to know that when they make tough, necessary decisions they will have the time to implement them and hopefully be able to see the results by the time the next election rolls along. Removing that ability would lead to short term thinking dominated by misconceptions and distortion.

  2. Do you really want 527-style groups exerting even more influence on our country? At least with a republic you can hold someone accountable when he or she votes contrary to your wishes. With more referenda, the special interests will just saturate the airwaves with lies and get whatever they want.

  3. Yeah,
    That is a great Idea.
    Then we could have referenda like Reform Michigan Government Now!
    Also known as “Changing the Rules of Politics in Michigan to Help Democrats”
    Their title, not mine.

  4. I have to agree with jwest and Tim.

  5. “The concept of more direct democracy may be appealing on a populist basis, but it is stunningly bad in practice.

    Direct democracy has another name – Mob Rule.”

    Yes, and consider the additional damage done to federalism if we made anything and everything the possible object of action by such direct-democracy mechanisms.

    “Do you really want 527-style groups exerting even more influence on our country? [...] With more referenda, the special interests will just saturate the airwaves with lies and get whatever they want.”

    I saw that several years ago with abuse of these mechanisms in California.

    They're great in theory but subject to abuse. And of course why should there be much if any such direct action happening between people in this country and Washington rather than state and local governments? You think viewing Washington as a candy store is bad already…

  6. Despite what some idealists may believe (note and warning to Obamaniacs), what is nice in theory is not the same in reality and today's ugly facts. Would anyone truly believe it would be the same today, with the politicians we have in Congress today, coupled with the kind of politics we have seen since the 1960s, in the case of starting from nothing to put someone on the Moon and return him or her? (OK, the “her” part is an improvement, but could today's Congress and NASA and contractors inspire the same feelings and confidence we held back then?)

  7. I'm always rather skeptical of calls for more direct democracy. Sure, it worked for the Athenians, but that was a fairly small Greek city-state, one nowhere near the size of the United States. But hell, if we're going to increase the “directness” of our democracy, why not go all the way? Let's replace Congress with the people, by implanting little mindpower voting devices in the heads of all adult citizens. If the conspiracy theorists are right, the government already has that sort of thing, so we wouldn't need to spend money to develop it. It would be hard to be more direct than that!

  8. “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.”

    More modest and sensible things to do in place of rushing to silly extremes would be to impose term limits, first of all, which the public has wanted. A more radical step to take that is still better than direct federal government democracy (which is even more anti-federal than our current misused system) is to break up the duopoly and go to a multi-party system with proportional representation in the US House of Representatives. Approval voting for single office holders (Senators and President and Vice President) is superior to other methods, and should be adopted promptly. More radical still but still better than trashing federalism would be random selection of delegates to the House of Representatives, whereby each seat is occupied from someone chosen at random — glorified jury duty — from each district. (It goes without saying that districts need to be rationalized and fully reorganized as well, encompassing contiguous, suitably-related counties, Census tracts, or ZIP code zones.)

    All of these are better than turning the federal government into the equivalent of American Idol where all the audience members can vote and initiate new laws about anything they want, truly making the federal government into a giant candy store (so such people would be led to believe and even view Washington).

  9. “But hell, if we're going to increase the “directness” of our democracy, why not go all the way?”

    A granola hippie-style book (from John Muir Press) written decades ago had a nice extreme idea, getting rid of the states and having government organized to the closest level possible, which I believe the author called “neighborhoods.” Then there would be a capital of North America where their representatives would meet as needed. It was an interesting book (“but there shall NEVER BE ANY HANDGUNS anywhere…”). Heyy, mann. Real power to the people.

  10. DLS, “Despite what some idealists may believe (note and warning to Obamaniacs), what is nice in theory is not the same in reality and today's ugly facts.”

    You can't even make one post without trying to take a swipe at Obama, “the left” , or “liberals” can you DLS? I can agree with most the above statement, except for your parenthetic part.

  11. I was hoping Neocon would weigh on on this since he claims to be a libertarian… a claim I'm not quite convinced of btw.

    My own view is closer to Joel Hirschhorn's than it is most of the responders here. Sure, I've done my share of criticizing the electorate for acting dumb as a box of rocks, but how much better has the “leadership” been?

    The easy way to create more opportunity for responsible course correction when the 2 party system wasn't doing right by the citizens would be the adoption of instant runoff voting. Third parties would suddenly become more viable and competitive – which would in turn create a more healthy democracy.

  12. One of the great things the Constitution provides is protection against the tyranny of the majority. Direct Democracy IS tyranny of the majority.

    And there would be a LOT of nasty surprises on what that electorate would vote for, too, IMHO.

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