The Case For Direct Democracy

Ultimately, “socialism” is the idea that power, not merely wealth, should be made “social”—spread out among the people. That is to say, socialism simply means more democracy. We have seen how worker cooperatives are more democratic structures than capitalist businesses, relying on representative democracy (elected, removable managers and executives) or direct democracy (all decisions made by all workers on a one-person one-vote basis), sometimes called pure democracy. On a similar note, the solution to our troubled political system is a more democratic structure. Under such a system, the people control their own destiny.

Jack London wrote that socialism’s

…logical foundation is economic; its moral foundation, “All men are born free and equal,” and its ultimate aim is pure democracy. By “all men are born free and equal” it means born free and with equal opportunities to earn by honest labor—mental or physical—a livelihood. By a pure democracy is meant a form of government in which the supreme power rests with and is exercised directly by the people instead of the present form, which is a republican form of democracy, in which the supreme power rests with the people, but is indirectly exercised by them, through representatives. Representatives may be corrupted, but how could the whole people be bribed?[1]

Imagine having a direct say in public policy: the ability, like Congress has now, to vote yes or no on proposed laws. Imagine heading to your voting place not every two or four years, but instead many times each year. Your vote would decide national policy. There is more than one reason for America’s abysmal voter turnout, but a large part of it is that people do not believe their vote will affect anything, will bring about meaningful change.[2] With politicians mostly representing the interests of the rich individuals and corporations that fund them, this attitude is understandable. Imagine how this could change if the people had real power, living in a society where the citizens controlled the State rather than the reverse? As London pointed out, it would be very difficult for special interests to influence policy. Citizens are not running for office. They cannot be bribed with campaign contributions, probably won’t be involved in secret meetings or backroom deals. Corruption on a scale that would be effective and remain secret would be impossible. This does not mean there wouldn’t be challenges—when a popular vote takes place the key for special interests is to attack information itself, misleading the public into voting a certain way. But there is no question that giving all voters lawmaking power would decimate corruption.

How would this work? Citizens would need direct initiative rights. Such rights allow people to place a proposed law on an upcoming ballot for people to vote on. Passionate individuals work together to draft legislation, file it with local officials, and gather the required number of signatures to put it on the ballot (no, this is not something a couple of jokers can do in an afternoon; it has to have a reasonable, serious level of support). After the vote takes place, and if the measure passes, government departments enact and enforce the measure as they do today after a legislature passes a law. “Imagine everybody governing!” exclaimed Victor Hugo, who had socialist leanings even if he never adopted the label. “Can you imagine a city governed by the men who built it? They are the team, not the coachman.”[3] And not just one’s city, of course, but one’s state and nation—people’s legislation and the people’s say at every level.

This is a radical change. Socialism would take decision-making power away from city councils, state legislatures, and the U.S. Congress and give it to constituents, ending these institutions as we know them. Rather than electing people to vote on issues for us, we could elect or approve people to enact and enforce the decisions we make: the heads of government departments. Today the president selects a secretary of education, homeland security, transportation, and so on, as well as the heads of the CIA, FBI, and other agencies, and Congress approves them. Then they take congressional legislation and make it a reality. Tomorrow the people will either elect candidates to these positions or take over the traditional role of Congress and approve or disapprove the president’s selections. Those directly responsible for carrying out the people’s will should be answerable to the people, just as presidents and representatives are today. (In contrast to today, candidates, from multiple parties with equal ballot and debate access, will either enjoy publicly financed elections or rely on small donations from individuals—co-ops and organizations should not be able to give, to avoid quid pro quo politics. A $100 cap for each adult leaves $25 billion for candidates to compete for.)

Such a proposal may cause consternation. Arguments about tradition will sound: the U.S. was founded as a representative democracy so we mustn’t change it. Well, systems, laws, and practices can always be improved, and typically are. The U.S. scrapped its first constitution, the Articles of Confederation, after seven years because its designed structure was flawed and ineffective. The 12th Amendment got rid of a system where the losing opponent in presidential races became vice president. In 1913, we finally let the American people directly elect senators. The 22nd Amendment created presidential term limits. Socialists are interested in positive change, not tradition. Which helps explain why American socialists were at the forefront of every major justice campaign—abolition and civil rights, women’s rights, labor rights, the anti-war movements, etc.[4] The U.S. has a rich socialist history, from socialists writing the “Pledge of Allegiance” to founding the Republican Party![5]

One major objection is that it’s a bad idea to give the people so much power, as they could vote for awful things, with a mere 51% majority ruling over and oppressing the minority (“mob rule,” “tyranny of the majority”). That’s what the founding fathers knew, so best to trust them. It’s true that most of the founders detested democracy, in fact because they saw it as a threat to their riches and power.[6] (The same sentiments were expressed by the powerful later on, such as in the Trilateral Commission’s 1975 Crisis of Democracy report.[7]) So they made sure ordinary voters could not elect justices (we still do not), nor directly elect the president (we still do not, as the Electoral College persists), nor directly elect senators. The people only directly elected members of the House, yet only (white, male) property owners were allowed to vote, further disenfranchising the poor and keeping power in the hands of the better off. Only in 1856 did the last state, North Carolina, do away with property requirements to vote.[8] Yet somehow people who gripe about majority rule don’t realize that’s how it works right now. While sometimes the bar is higher, a simple majority decides the fate of most bills in Congress. As little as 51% of congresspersons rule from issue to issue. A majority carries the day in city councils, state legislatures, Congress, and every election except the presidential election from time to time. Direct democracy simply alters which majority makes decisions, giving ordinary people a direct say in the decisions that affect them. “Fear of the mob is a superstitious fear,” George Orwell wrote. “It is based on the idea that there is some mysterious, fundamental difference between rich and poor… The average millionaire is only the average dishwasher dressed in a new suit.”[9] Yes, the majority has the power to make awful decisions—in the precise same way Congress and other bodies do now. But you nevertheless had a say in the matter, whether trying to stop a bad idea or joining others in making a mistake. As with worker cooperatives, it is better that the many fail together by their own hand than be destroyed by the few from above.

Additionally, there are limits to the awful things that a popular will could enact. Yes, mistakes will be made. That’s democracy, whether direct or representative; it’s messy. But remember, checks and balances still exist under this system. It’s true, there is one fewer; today a bill must pass both House and Senate to see the light of day, while direct democracy replaces them with one chamber, the people. (There are countries, such as Denmark, Luxemburg, Sweden, Finland, Israel, and New Zealand, which only have one house, a unicameral congress.[10]) But there would still be a president to veto legislation. There would remain a Supreme Court to declare laws unconstitutional. Only a supermajority of the people could change the Constitution, as it is with Congress today (state legislatures holding a constitutional convention would not be possible, as state legislatures would be replaced by a state’s populace). Fears about the prejudiced majority oppressing smaller groups of people can be put aside. It’s possible, but no more likely than it is now, because checks and balances will be preserved. And it goes without saying that direct democracy gives the people power to end injustices too. As Arthur Miller, best known for Death of a Salesman and The Crucible, said, “Socialism was reason.”[11]

The most sensible concern is how direct democracy can be structured to run well. Much legislation today is very long and highly complex. Bills are introduced by politicians and go through committees, where representatives of different political views research, discuss, and modify them. They go to the House or Senate floor for debate and more changes and amendments before the vote. With direct democracy, aren’t we sacrificing a crucially important vetting and compromise process? Are ordinary people who use initiative rights really smart enough and experienced enough to create laws? Won’t some laws have to be so complex, and so full of unintelligible legislative jargon, that a typical American voter would be unable to make an educated decision on it? With many bills being hundreds of pages or over a thousand, will not the length alone dissuade people from voting or encourage voting without reading through the details?

While a “vetting and compromise process” is valuable in theory, in practice all it means is total gridlock and the death of the bill. Only 1-5% of all the many thousands of bills introduced under each Congress become law.[12] Almost all of them die in committee, never making it to the debate floor.[13] This is not because they are all bad bills, but because the parties don’t agree on anything. Americans are tired of such inaction, and direct democracy is the cure. Some may say why not keep Congress, let it craft laws, and require a popular vote to pass (a referendum democracy). While this, whether or not combined with initiative rights, would be far better than a representative system, it would nevertheless 1) still allow special interests to infect legislation, which the populace would likely remain unaware of when voting and 2) would require committees and compromise to be at all meaningful (otherwise it’s just groups of similar thinkers putting what laws they like before the people, i.e. the initiative process), resulting in the usual gridlock. But direct democracy in fact has its own vetting mechanisms. If an initiative petition cannot garner enough support, it dies. If the question makes it to the ballot and is not quite what most people want, it will fail. Vetting lies in the discussion and debate surrounding proposed legislation before the vote, as citizens of different opinions study it, weigh it, and try to convince others to vote this way or that.

The rest of the questions, concerning the competencies of the people getting questions on the ballot and the complexities of legislation, are not major concerns when we study deeper how the initiative process actually functions. Because filing the legal paperwork, gathering enough petition signatures, and getting out the vote is not an easy task, it is usually undertaken by serious organizations: political advocacy groups, grassroots organizations, non-profits, and so on, which are typically made up of or are well-connected to lawyers and the politically experienced—people who are just as capable of designing legislation as politicians in Washington. Next, the question that goes before voters is not usually the full text of proposed legislation, but rather a summary in plain language created by public officials.[14] The full text is of course publicly available, online and elsewhere (caps on legislation length is in the realm of the possible too). While it is true that many voters will not read the full bill, the summary must accurately describe it. This functions just fine in the real world.

The United States already uses initiative rights and direct democracy to pass or reject legislation, at the city and state levels. It is legal in twenty-four states and Washington, D.C.[15] (Some, however, use indirect initiatives, which force a legislature to vote on citizen-crafted bills.) In the November 2016 election, 150 measures were on ballots throughout these states. California, Nevada, and Massachusetts voters legalized recreational marijuana use; Arizona, Colorado, Maine, and Washington raised their minimum wages; Nebraska restored the death penalty and Oklahoma made it harder to get rid of; Colorado legalized medically assisted suicide; California, Washington, and Nevada tightened gun laws. Voters in Arizona rejected recreational marijuana legalization; Maine shot down stricter gun control; California declined to abolish its death penalty; Oregon, Washington, Colorado, Missouri, and North Dakota rejected tax increases.[16] You won’t always get what you want. That’s democracy. But you will, no matter your beliefs, have a voice. Things will get done. No politicians gridlocked in committee. No representatives on the voting floor following the whims of their biggest donors. Just ordinary people creating real change for themselves, no representatives needed. “I’m a socialist,” one of H.G. Wells’ characters from In the Days of the Comet said. “I don’t think this world was made for a small minority to dance on the faces of every one else.”[17] The Canadian province of British Columbia and all German states also enjoy initiative rights.[18]

All this demonstrates, you’ll notice, that direct democracy works on a large scale. California is the most populous state in the nation, with nearly 40 million people in 2017. Florida, with nearly 21 million people, is up toward the top too. State direct democracy works well, and has since 1898, when South Dakota became the first state to adopt the initiative process.[19] A wide range of U.S. cities use it as well, and have since the town halls of colonial times. Direct democracy has existed in local government throughout human history, from the city-state of Athens, Greece, in the 5th century B.C. to Porto Alegre, Brazil, today.[20] Interestingly, since 1989, Porto Alegre, a city of over 1.5 million people, has allowed participatory budgeting. Citizens participate in the design of the annual city budget, and everyone has the right to vote to approve or strike down the finished product. Since this democratic idea, pushed forward by socialists, was enacted, funds have shifted dramatically to poorer, high-need areas of the city. The process is marked by transparency and lack of corruption.[21]

There are in fact countries that use pure democracy. Switzerland, a nation of eight million people, has had an initiative process at the federal level since 1891. Since then twenty-two initiatives have won out of over 200 proposals. The country also has a parliament that passes laws; it’s therefore called a semi-direct democracy (the people, however, can veto legislation parliament passes through the referendum process). Popular votes take place up to four times annually. In 2016, the populace rejected a law to give each citizen a guaranteed income. Changes to their constitution require majority support from the people and majority support from the cantons (states).[22] While the Swiss majority has at times passed prejudiced, oppressive laws, the Human Freedom Index, published by conservative and libertarian institutes, nevertheless ranks it as the freest nation in the world.[23] The Philippines and the European Union likewise have initiative rights.[24] There is no reason direct democracy cannot work at the national level. (If we were to consider the referendum process, in which legislatures craft laws and once every blue moon the people vote on them, we would have a very long list of participating nations, including some of the most populous in the world, such as Brazil, with 209 million people, and Bangladesh, with 165 million.[25])

Pure democracy is not a perfect system. Yet it gives the many the ability to address the problems we’ve explored elsewhere: to give workers ownership, to protect the planet, to reject war, to guarantee the rights and services people need, and so on. As Mark Twain once asked, “Why is it right that there is not a fairer division of the spoil all around? Because laws and constitutions have ordered otherwise. Then it follows that laws and constitutions should change around and say there shall be a more nearly equal division.”[26] This does not mean they will (the majority may vote for capitalism!), but the mechanisms make it possible. Changing hearts and minds so the system can be used to create a fully socialist society will be just as important.

The idea of broadening democracy raises an important question: how far should we go? If “power to the people” is the goal, what about electing Supreme Court justices and federal judges? Should we abolish the Electoral College and elect a president by popular vote? Give the people recall rights, which allow a supermajority to remove officials, from sheriffs to the president, from office? The answers will depend on how much we can empower the common person while maintaining effective checks and balances. The country’s hundreds of top judges and the nine justices today serve for life. Perhaps the people rather than representatives could approve them; perhaps they could be elected—but certainly not more than once, as we do not want them thinking about their next election when making rulings, and probably not for a short term, as there is value in having one branch, one check, that doesn’t change with the winds. The Electoral College is a vestige of slavery, and there is no explanation as to why the president should not be elected by popular vote (like every other elected official in the nation) that doesn’t collapse under the slightest weight of critical thinking.[27] Recall rights would be a fine way to keep public officials in line, but should perhaps only apply to some (department and agency heads, sheriffs) but not others (the president, justices). There are many ideas to explore and solutions to craft as we build socialism.

 

Notes

[1] London, “What Socialism Is”

[2] https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2016/11/7/13536198/election-day-americans-vote; http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/03/04/half-of-those-who-arent-learning-about-the-election-feel-their-vote-doesnt-matter/

[3] Hugo, “Letter to the Poor”

[4] https://gsgriffin.com/2017/09/25/a-brief-history-of-american-socialism/

[5] https://gsgriffin.com/2017/09/25/a-brief-history-of-american-socialism/

[6] https://gsgriffin.com/2017/06/30/how-the-founding-fathers-protecting-their-riches-and-power/

[7] https://archive.org/stream/TheCrisisOfDemocracy-TrilateralCommission-1975/crisis_of_democracy_djvu.txt. Indeed, the Trilateral Commission’s 1975 Crisis of Democracy report warned that “some of the problems of governance in the United States today stem from an excess of democracy… Needed, instead, is a greater degree of moderation in democracy.” “Expertise, seniority, experience, and special talents,” the authors feel, should “override the claims of democracy” in many situations, claims that were growing louder during “the surge of the 1960s”; the “arenas where democratic procedures are appropriate are…limited,” so it would be unwise to, for example, have “a university where teaching appointments are subject to approval by students,” and presumably the same for citizen approval of national policy. Further, “apathy and noninvolvement” among some groups has “enabled democracy to function effectively,” as when “marginal social groups, as in the case of the blacks…[become] full participants” there is a “danger of overloading the political system with demands which extend its functions and undermine its authority…” Indeed, “Democracy is more of a threat to itself in the United States than it is in either Europe or Japan where there still exist residual inheritances of traditional and aristocratic values.” In sum, full and actual participation by the people leads to claims and demands, whether civil rights or universal healthcare, that can override the authority of the Establishment, the privileged and powerful. Democracy should therefore be checked.

[8] https://books.google.com/books?id=JHawgM-WnlUC&pg=PA218&lpg=PA218&dq=1856+north+carolina+last+state+to+remove+property+ownership&source=bl&ots=sgfKjGzhet&sig=y8ALKjDhkAr2LNvcO6cACsvzRaQ&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwi9_-rC3KXXAhUBYCYKHTxxBiEQ6AEIUzAI#v=onepage&q=1856%20north%20carolina%20last%20state%20to%20remove%20property%20ownership&f=false; https://gsgriffin.com/2017/06/30/how-the-founding-fathers-protecting-their-riches-and-power/

[9] Orwell, “Down and Out in Paris and London”

[10] https://www.britannica.com/topic/constitutional-law/Unicameral-and-bicameral-legislatures#ref384652

[11] Arthur Miller, Timebends: A Life, 1987

[12] https://www.govtrack.us/congress/bills/statistics

[13] https://sunlightfoundation.com/2014/01/16/congress-in-2013/#gplus

[14] The process varies by state. See Missouri’s process as an example: https://www.sos.mo.gov/CMSImages/Elections/Petitions/MakeYourVoiceHeard2018Cycle.pdf

[15] https://ballotpedia.org/States_with_initiative_or_referendum

[16] https://www.pbs.org/newshour/politics/ballot-initiatives-passed-marijuana-minimum-wage

[17] H.G. Wells, In the Days of the Comet (1906)

[18] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Initiative

[19] http://www.ncsl.org/research/elections-and-campaigns/initiative-referendum-and-recall-overview.aspx

[20] https://www.ancient.eu/Athenian_Democracy/

[21] Wright, Envisioning Real Utopias, 155-160

[22] https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2017/07/switzerland-direct-democracy-explained/

[23] http://nationalinterest.org/feature/switzerland-the-ultimate-democracy-11219?page=2; https://object.cato.org/sites/cato.org/files/human-freedom-index-files/2017-human-freedom-index-2.pdf;

[24] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Initiative

[25] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Referendums_by_country#United_States

[26] https://fair.org/media-beat-column/the-twain-that-most-americans-never-meet/

[27] https://gsgriffin.com/2016/12/09/the-electoral-college-how-racist-white-slave-owners-made-your-vote-worthless/; https://gsgriffin.com/2016/12/09/ending-the-electoral-college-wont-lead-to-city-rule-or-dictatorship/

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