With Congressional approval at an all time low, many Americans, myself included, are tired, weary and frustrated with our government.
Among calls for reform, some have suggested campaign finance reform, congressional term limits, and even Constitutional amendments. One intriguing proposed amendment to the modus operandi of our government is a proposition for directly voting on American policy on a national scale.
A new Gallup Poll shows that 68% of Americans prefer having national referenda on key issues.
While seemingly attractive, a pivot towards populism and the embrace of direct democracy is a dangerous path that we dare not tread.
National referenda have the potential to eliminate the deliberative component of policymaking and cause people to vote on instinct, initial reactions, and emotions rather than comprehensive study and analysis of an issue. Individuals bear no responsibility in working for the general will of the people and there is no certainty that any policy will be in the long-term interest of the general public. In this case, the power of opinion outweighs the power of argument for the national good.
Legislating in a representative democracy drives a thorough national debate which ensures more thoughtful policy. Referenda often compound issues and may confuse the populace what is being proposed. The framing and wording of ballot initiatives engender close-ended questions and a separability problem. Unspecific initiatives distort issues, confound voters and can force a decision between two deficient ideas.
National referenda would allow politicians to avoid facing critical issues and dissuade compromise between multiple opposing ideas. A national referendum would eliminate compromise on an issue and implement a winner-take-all system. Legislators are useless unless they legislate and compromise amongst themselves to avoid ochlocracy, or as John Adams put it, "a tyranny of the majority."
Another major issue with referenda is the practice of "never-end-ums," where proponents of legislation will keep introducing a ballot measure until it successfully passes.
As a solution, some have proposed implementing national referenda only on certain issues like civil rights, civil liberties, and wealth management. Part of the problem, however, lays in the ability of special interest groups to employ crowd manipulation tactics.
Wealthy tycoons, large corporations, and special interest groups like unions and religious organizations bankroll most initiatives. They berate and confuse the general public with large marketing campaigns and sway voters with strong celebrity personalities, media, propaganda and misinformation.
Among these types of referenda is the most well known referendum in recent history, California's Proposition 8 (2008), which invalidated same-sex marriages in the state (but has recently been overturned by the Supreme Court). Examples of populism gone awry can be found in the rise of fascist dictators like Hitler and Mussolini, but one must not look further than the Golden State to see an example of the failures of using referenda. The state's inability to pass a budget, overflowing prisons, broken education system, lackluster healthcare, and overflowing debt made California one of our nation’s most troubled states.
As Governor Jerry Brown attempts to fix California's miserable situation, one only wonders how did California possibly reach this point of disarray?
Numerous referenda neutered the legislature’s ability to legislate and the government’s ability to govern. Initiatives have limited the state's ability to levy taxes, allocate spending, and regulate (for examples, see Propositions 13 , Proposition 98 , Proposition 111 ) in what has amounted to "ballot-box budgeting." The referenda imposed on California earned them the title of "The ungovernable state" by the Economist, due to what they call "citizen-power gone mad." Referenda, as best represented by the California case study, allow people to circumvent the elected legislature, directly make policy and undermine our current politcal system.
As a nation, we elect representatives to act for our best interests and trust them to work for the common good of the people. It is our responsibility to choose those leaders most capable of making careful, intelligent and sagacious decisions. They legislate so we don’t have to.
In his Speech to the Electors at Bristol at the Conclusion of the Poll, Edmund Burke, the 18th century Irish statesman and philosopher, gave the following defense of representative government:
"... it ought to be the happiness and glory of a representative to live in the strictest union, the closest correspondence, and the most unreserved communication with his constituents. Their wishes ought to have great weight with him; their opinion, high respect; their business, unremitted attention. It is his duty to sacrifice his repose, his pleasures, his satisfactions, to theirs; and above all, ever, and in all cases, to prefer their interest to his own. But his unbiased opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living. These he does not derive from your pleasure; no, nor from the law and the constitution. They are a trust from Providence, for the abuse of which he is deeply answerable."
In his final sentence, Mr. Burke gives us the key to representative democracy:
"Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion."
A representative democracy can only function if we allow our representatives to work on our behalf. Better than moving towards a more direct democracy would be to fix the representative democracy we already have. We should focus on campaign finance reform, consider congressional term limits, shorten official campaigns, revise our primary system, increase transparency in government, enforce current laws, uphold the Constitution, preserve our system of checks and balances, and examine other sensible political reforms. Our government is certainly not perfect and has plenty of flaws, but it remains one of the shining lights of democracy on the planet.
We know what the problems are and now it's time to fix them.