Acute observers like George Gallup Sr, the pollster; Noam Chomsky, the most-cited academic alive; and recently, John Kerry, US Secretary of State, say that Americans are way ahead of our government. Gallup:
“On most major issues we’ve dealt with in the past 50 years, the public was more likely to be right…based on the judgment of history…than the legislatures or Congress.”
Leaders like Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Patch Adams, Daniel Ellsberg, Doris "Granny D" Haddock, Julia Butterfly Hill, John Perkins, Rabbi Michael Lerner, Coleen Rowley, Ralph Nader and Pete Seeger have all endorsed former Senator Mike Gravel's plan for national direct democracy. Mike ran for President in 2008 to publicize it, but the media gave him little chance. I worked directly for Mike in 2002, and signed up these folks, except Perkins.
But famous supporters are the least of the reasons we should make direct democracy a top priority. Indeed, an advantage of direct democracy is it counteracts the "star system" that makes only the richest, most powerful and most famous the "deciders," politically and socially.
As longshoreman/philospher Eric Hoffer put it,
"Power corrupts the few, while weakness corrupts the many."
Since "the 99%" have no representation in Congress, according to Princeton research, most Americans give up participating in their country's affairs.
Remember "no taxation without representation"?
Fortunately, direct democracy exists in crude form in 24 States and DC as ballot initiatives and referendums, and lets ALL voters be "deciders." If you can get enough signatures to get your proposal on the ballot, you can help set the agenda, too.
We must expand this to the whole country, and improve the process. I’ll list 12 compelling advantages of direct democracy, answer the usual 3 objections, list 6 ways to improve it the process, and list 3 ways it COULD happen here.
Initiatives and referendums were the start of everything from women's suffrage, child labor laws and secret ballots to minimum wages, 8 hour days and sunshine acts to renewable energy mandates, medical and legal marijuana.
Here are some reasons direct democracy should be as important as getting big money out of politics. If you have more, please put them in comments…
1. Really getting money out of politics may require direct democracy: Polls show about 80% of all voters want it, but representatives for many decades have left loopholes big enough to drive trucks of cash through. Remember how Granny D walked across the US at age 90 to help get the 2002 McCain-Feingold Act passed? Now the problem is worse than ever. Money seeks politicians0, so we need to put people into politics, not just to elect representatives, but to keep money out and keep the country on track.
2. Bernie Sanders has repeatedly said that to get his agenda through an obstructive Congress, he'll need a million people to occupy the National Mall. That's doable, but occupiers eventually have to go back to their lives. Something permanent must remain to empower people, and make Congress our representatives.
3. Just as Progressives and Populists over a century ago demanded state initiatives and referenda and quickly used them to get women's suffrage, direct election of senators and secret ballots, polls have shown for decades that national ballot initiatives would advance our agenda. This is especially important when Congress is gridlocked or bought off.
4. Initiatives put people in the drivers seat. Giving people responsibility makes them more responsible. In Switzerland, with local and regional initiatives for centuries, and national initiatives since 1891, per capita newspaper readership is highest in the world. Empowering people gives us a reason to get informed.
5. State initiatives are competition for legislators. National initiatives will break the monopoly Congress now has on national legislative power. May the best ideas win!
6. People are less swayed by money than representatives are. This study and book show that people favor “grassroots” initiatives over “big money” initiatives while the Associated Press shows Congress usually votes the way big money wants. Buying Congress is the world’s best investment, paying off at 1000 to 1 or more, according to convicted lobbyist/bribesman Jack Abramoff in this Washington Post article.
7. “No one misunderstands the public as much as its representatives.” was a conclusion of a 1997 study from the U. of Maryland. No wonder: most of them are millionaires, at least.
8. When legislators make mistakes they usually cover them up –to protect their careers. Citizens lack the coverup incentive but have incentive to fix mistakes, because we suffer from those mistakes far more than the privileged. Thomas Jefferson said
“The will of the majority is the natural law of every society and the only sure guardian of the rights of man; though this may err, yet its errors are honest, solitary and short-lived.”
9. Large, diverse groups of independent people make better decisions. The best-selling book The Wisdom of Crowds shows how and why. Basically, the larger the group, the more our personal cognitive biases cancel each other out. See a list of biases.
10. Social animals practice democracy! NY Times article
11. The record shows that the more ballot initiatives, the better the voter turnout.
12. New research shows that States with lots of direct democracy are happier!
13. Direct democracy makes legislatures more productive more productive.
Answering some objections (if you have others, please put them in cogent form in comments):
1. "If the majority of people rule, they will abuse minorities." The media have focused on the few problem initiatives like California's Prop 8, which like Colorado's Amendment 2, would have restricted gay rights, if the courts didn't strike them down. But far worse are the actions of representatives, who criminalized sodomy, imprisoned Japanese-Americans during World War II, persecuted communists and their friends during the McCarthy era, and continue to persecute marijuana users, for almost 80 years now. (The courts didn't strike these down!) Ball initiatives got the ball rolling for medical marijuana and recreational, and now have legalized gay marriage in Maine, Maryland and Washington. These facts also give the lie to the Libertarian trope, "Democracy is two wolves and a sheep deciding what's for dinner." We are people, not wolves. The vast majority of us are decent people.
2. "We must educate people first." Ballot initiatives give people the incentive to educate themselves. Without power, why try to inform yourself -in spite of the manipulative mass media- when you can't do anything about it anyway, as the Princeton study mentioned above shows? See 4 and 8, above.
3. "Representatives take more time to study the issues than voters." Actually, as Senator Mike Gravel says, 90% of representatives haven't read 90% of what they vote on, as they spend their time raising money. Lobbyists and lawyers write a great deal of legislation, and read and interpret it for the representatives. Voters do need better information, and improvements 1 & 5, below, give it to them.
Remember, we want both direct and representative government, so they check and balance each other.
Here are some ways that ballot initiatives can be made better and more deliberative, more like New England town meetings:
1. Citizen Initiative Review, instituted in Oregon in 2011 and now spreading to Colorado and Arizona, has randomly selected "jurors" hold hearings, take expert testimony, deliberate and issue reports, all available as online video. This gives voters the same kind of information legislators get.
2. California since 2014:
A. Allows modification of initiatives after 25% of the signature requirements are gathered.
B. Lets initiative sponsors negotiate with the Legislature to get them to pass a version of the initiative, before it goes to the voters. This is now working.
C. Continually updates online records of major donations.
3. The best reform would be for States to let people sign initiative petitions on their websites, just as 37 states and DC now allow online voter registration and change of address. This would save the government a great deal of time and money comparing physical signatures - which could pay for Citizen Initiative Review.
More importantly, this would open up the process to initiative sponsors without a lot of money to hire paid petitioners. The LA Times just came out in support. This would also get people to read more of the initiative before signing, reduce misrepresentation or harassment to obtain signatures, let people sign from anywhere at any time and allow people to unsign petitions before the petition deadline.
In Colorado, where signature requirements are a little easier than most states, we have a stellar record of ballot initiatives including the Nation's first renewable energy requirements for utilities (Initiative 37) the strongest Ethics in Government law (Amendment 41) and the first legal marijuana (Amendment 64)
Online petitioning would also encourage people to read more of the initiative text online, and lessen harassment for signatures.
4. If online petitioning results in an increase in the number of initiatives qualifying for the ballot, the solution is Swiss: They vote on many local, regional and national initiatives, scheduling up to 4 votes per year.
5. There is also the potential for the Internet to host deliberations about ballot initiatives open to all, or limited to residents of that polity.
6. Public campaign financing would be good for initiatives and referenda as well as for representatives.
National ballot initiatives require a Constitutional Amendment, recently an impossibility. But in this unusual election year, when both Republican and Democratic parties are coming apart, here are ways I can see it happening:
1. Bernie wins in a landslide and sweeps in an advanced enough Congress to amend the Constitution. You can see "Sanders Democrats" nationwide to support at sandersdemocrats.com
2. The people could amend it themselves at a Constitutional Convention as described in Article V. My friend Dan Marks, who got Congress to finally start counting State requests for a convention, thinks national ballot initiatives should be a top priority.
3. Sen. Gravel discovered that since "The People are Sovereign," we always had the right to amend our constitution, ourselves, without needing a convention. The Constitution says WE "ordained and established" it. George Washington said, "The basis of our political institutions is the right of the people to make and to alter their constitutions of government." Yale's Akil Ammar, perhaps the leading living constitutional scholar, agrees with this. See the first paragraphs here for more and a link to his legal paper.
This is quite a paradox. It means we always had the right to direct democracy, Congress has propagandized us for over a century to make us forget we're in charge.
All real representatives should want direct democracy, but Sanders sounds like the person to do it. Recently he's talked about Vermont town meetings and has been using the hashtag #ByThePeople. That's how the country started, and that's how we can get it back and keep it on track. Please share this article!
"What government is best? That which teaches us to govern ourselves." -Goethe
Evan Ravitz likes a challenge. He was a tightrope artist for 20 years, and guides backpackers in extreme terrain in Mexico's Copper Canyon. His illustrated personal journey to promoting direct democracy is here.