Monday, May 20, 2013

Direct democracy

Beginning before the 2012 election, I have published a series of Ethical Musings posts on politics (these link to parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7), considered whether Jesus was a politician, discussed the campaign (these links to parts 1, 2, 3, and 4), and the role and influence of campaign contributions.

Two threads, woven through those posts, are a commitment to democracy and a concern that people in the United States (and perhaps in other democracies) increasingly feel less ownership of their government, i.e., We the people have become They the government.

Thus, I read with considerable interest an excerpt from Jack N. Rakove's The Annotated U.S. Constitution and Declaration of Independence (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Harvard, 2009). Following the first census in 1790, the U.S. House of Representatives expanded to 105 members, each representing about 33,000 inhabitants as specified in the Constitution for apportionment purposes, i.e., slaves counted as only three-fifths of an inhabitant.

By Rakove's calculations using data from the 2000 census, the House of Representatives would need 9,380 members to maintain the same ratio of representatives to inhabitants as in 1790, ignoring the skewing attributable to not counting slaves as people. (p. 112) Instead, the 435 members of the House of Representatives each, on average, represent 646,952 people, almost twenty times as many constituents as their predecessors from two centuries earlier did.

No deliberative body could function well with almost 10,000 members. Conversely, some measure of the alienation that many citizens feel toward Washington, the constant need for raising money to fund election campaigns, the constantly expanding size and influence of Congressional staffs, and the influence of large donors have all, to some degree, been caused by the huge increase in the number of people each member of the House represents.

Perhaps the United States (and other large democracies) should consider complementing representative democracy with direct democracy. Direct democracy – citizens voting directly on an issue, as in the case of a referendum – was not an option in the eighteenth century, but it is today, with the advent of the internet era.

Direct democracy offers at least three potential advantages but comes at a price. First, direct democracy may reverse the growing alienation that many feel toward the government by affording people a personal say on important issues. Direct democracy truly gives power to the people.

Second, direct democracy may prove an easier way to rebalance power within the nation than amending the Constitution to change the Senate so that not every state automatically has two senators. This provision was important for the founders, among whom loyalty to their state (or commonwealth) sometimes exceeded loyalty to the nation. Post-Civil War, few Americans order their loyalties that way; an overwhelming majority of citizens is primarily loyal to the nation; loyalty to a state tends to be minimal. However, small states this anachronistic provision allows small states to wield disproportionate influence in national affairs, an affect that direct democracy would to some degree nullify.

Third, direct democracy might prove a way to break the logjams (e.g., caused by political polarization) that blocks Congressional action on issues ranging from the budget (the U.S. has not had a budget in four years) to gun control (which polls repeatedly show that a preponderance of citizens support).

The price of direct democracy can be measured in both dollars (this includes all costs associated with voting) and in a potentially ill-informed or uninformed electorate making decisions. Of course, one can make the same observation about the votes of members of Congress who prioritize electioneering and fund raising over legislative business.

Direct democracy is no panacea. National votes are not suitable for complex issues (e.g., the national budget); no process exists for amending proposals as part of a referendum; discussion and compromise consequently are problematic. Nevertheless, perhaps direct democracy is an idea worth considering.

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