Too much democracy?
Americans are ill-equipped for the role that modern democracy imposes on us
By Barry Gordon 06/10/2010
On Tuesday, some of us (all too few, actually) went to the polls to exercise our right — some would say our God-given right — to vote. We voted in our party primaries for nominees for the offices of US senator, governor, US representative and a host of other state legislative and executive offices. In performing this simple task, we fulfilled the vision of our Founding Fathers, who established a representative democracy with the essential, but limited, role for the people of directly electing their federal and state office-holders (although direct election of Senators would have to wait until 1913).
Naturally, when I say “people,” I’m referring to white males. While that very idea is offensive to modern sensibilities, it seemed perfectly natural to white men 200 years ago. Nevertheless, the idea that the “people” of a nation should have a vote on anything was radical in itself. And today, through the extension of the franchise, that right belongs to virtually every citizen who is at least 18 years old and is not a convicted felon.
But back to Tuesday. Not only did we vote for our representatives; we also voted for judges whose names we’ve never heard of. We decided whether one-third of the voters could keep a city from starting up a public power company. We decided whether Republicans could vote in Democratic primaries and vice versa, further encroaching on the traditional province of political parties. And we decided whether insurance companies could provide discounts for, or increase the cost of, insurance. That used to be the job of the Legislature or, conservatives would argue, should be left to the free market to determine.
Since I’m writing this column on Election Day to make a deadline, I don’t know the outcome of any of these decisions. But that’s not my point. I simply question this new role that we’re required to perform. Why do we vote for judges? Shouldn’t they be independent and not subject to the political whims of the electorate? And are we really equipped to play legislator on issues that are considerably more complex than a 30-second ad or a page in the voter guide would suggest?
The Progressive movement at the turn of the 20th century is largely responsible for this century-long experiment in direct democracy. The initiative was designed for those supposedly rare times when the Legislature failed to represent the will of the people. Yet even Herbert Croly, one of the founders of the movement, pointed out that “the right to force a vote on specific legislative projects, which cannot be discussed in detail or amended, but which must be approved or disapproved as a whole, places an enormous power in the hands of a skillful and persistent minority.” Croly’s comment is prescient. Today, many initiatives are Astroturf — as opposed to genuine grass-roots — creations supported financially by corporations and other special interests that apparently were not persuasive enough to get the Legislature or regulators like the insurance commissioner to see things their way. Instead, they pay folks a few bucks to stand in front of supermarkets and lure voters into signing petitions with a 10-second talking point. It is the very opposite of deliberative democracy, in which ideas are thought through, debated and then acted upon.
We also use the initiative process to hamstring legislators by restricting the actions they can actually take. Then, of course, we despair when the legislative process disintegrates into gridlock and inaction. Rather than permitting our representatives to act on our behalf, and then hold them accountable through elections if they fail to do so, we take away their ability to do anything by mandating super majorities and other devices, and then hold our noses while we reelect incumbent after incumbent. There’s something terribly wrong with that picture.
The American people are not stupid. Most of us are thoroughly capable of raising a family, pursuing a career and living a meaningful life. But we are not well-equipped for the role that modern democracy imposes on us. Most of us are woefully ill-informed about the issues that can have a major impact on the future of our society. We listen to radio talk show hosts or cable news pundits and generally take our cues from those with whom we already agree. We take on more responsibility as voters, while we have less willingness to seek objective sources of information and fewer places to find them.
So maybe the Founders — except for the white male thing — had it right. Athenian democracy has generally been considered a noble experiment but ultimately a failure. On the other hand, the democratic republic established on our shores is thought of as a tremendous success by the entire world. Yet the current trend in American politics is definitely toward a more direct, Athenian-style democracy.
If we are to continue to move in this direction — and every indication is that we will — then our job as voters becomes much harder and, like any job, we will have to devote more time and energy and brainpower to become good at it. If collectively we’re not willing or able to do that, then we have to pause to consider whether there is such a thing as too much democracy.
Barry Gordon teaches political science at Cal State LA and is the co-host of “City Beat” on KPAS. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.