Although the United States has been an active promoter of democratic governance around the globe for decades, here at home, there has always been skepticism about the public’s ability to make informed decisions. Most people periodically come away from discussions with friends and family members with their faith in universal suffrage severely in doubt, and events in 2016 are illustrating why.
Our Founding Fathers qualified their enthusiasm for “representation” as the means for governing. Obviously, we all know the inherent limitations presumed in the 1776 phrase, “All men are created equal.” The Constitution, written a dozen years later, not only excluded women and slaves (except for purposes of assessing population), but incorporated many other features to guard against majority rule.
The best known of such limitations include the indirect election of U.S. Senators (until 1913) and the use of the indirect Electoral College to determine the presidency. Nor were voters given the ability to elect federal judges, who were given life terms to insulate them from retribution.
It should be noted that the Founders didn’t have much inherent trust for the people who would be elected by such a system either. “Where annual elections end,” wrote James Madison in Federal 53, “tyranny begins.” (Anti-Federalists actually favored a one-year term for the House of Representatives.) “The greater the power is,” Madison (or perhaps Alexander Hamilton, founder of Paterson NJ) wrote in Federalist 52, “the shorter ought to be its duration.” Since the awesome power of initiating taxation lay with the House of Representatives, its term of office was the shortest, and its Members the most accountable, in the federal system.
Over time, suspicion of government and those who select its members has generated demands for reform. In the early 20th century, progressives within both political parties embraced a series of reform both to inject more public will into the political process, to limit the role of bossism and urban political machines, and to facilitate lawmaking outside the legislative process altogether. The initiative gave voters the ability to propose and vote on legislation drafted by private citizens; the referendum allowed voters to assess the work product of elected officials; and the recall gave voters the ability to remove officeholders without having to go through the messy business of proving high crimes or misdemeanors. An additional reform allows voters themselves instead of bosses in smoke-filled backrooms, to select party nominees.
What could possibly go wrong?
Well, actually, quite a bit. Few axioms of politics or history are as certain as that of unintended consequences, and political reforms certainly have proven no exception. Take primaries, which have allowed tiny minorities of voters to select the candidates who will appear in general elections, increasingly open primaries that allow voting by those who are not even members of the political party whose mantle the candidate will carry and whose policies he or she presumably would espouse. The vast majority of voters are too uninterested, disgusted, or disengaged to bother casting a vote in a primary. This year, just 9% of eligible voters selected Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump respectively, a phenomenon that regularly occurs in congressional and other primaries where pluralities rule, allowing the most extreme base elements to exercise hugely disproportionate influence in the selection process. It doesn’t matter why the other 91% stayed home; the candidate selected by the hard base represents the Party in the fall campaign. This primary process is one reason we end up with officeholders beholden to the intense base that they are loath to offend.
The initiative process is just as loaded with problematic consequences. Designed to circumvent corrupt legislatures bought by special interests, the initiative process has spawned what may be a far worse process for decision-making, one in which opinionated oligarchs find it much quicker, and cheaper, to buy the voters than to buy the legislature. When I worked on Capitol Hill, virtually every election cycle would produce some advocate explaining why my boss had to support their cockeyed initiative that ignored every other point of view. When I explained we could not endorse their pie-in-the-sky initiative (no matter how resplendent its contrived name) because it was unbalanced and couldn’t even make it out of a subcommittee mark-up, we faced outrage from the rich benefactor or special interest who thought their idea should become law undiluted by opposing viewpoints.
Others had fewer qualms, which is one reason that California spent much of the last quarter of the 20th century reeling from crisis to crisis, many instigated by misinformed zealots who were able to entice voters into approving a pleasingly-named tax and budget initiatives they neither read nor understood. As documented in his excellent 1988 study, Paradise Lost: California’s Experience, America’s Future, Peter Schrag noted the extensive damage to the State’s economy and political system resulting from a mistaken notion that direct democracy was superior to the messiness of the legislative process. The exploding role of private money in initiative campaigns complicates the problem. Voters continue to make snap judgments based on slick advertising promoting initiatives that promise painless policy nirvana without regard for how the proposal might actually be implemented of whether it might conflict with other policy directives. “We all want a free lunch,” said former Gov. Gray Davis, who was unceremoniously tossed out through a dubious recall and replaced with Arnold Schwarzenegger, “but unfortunately, that doesn’t exist.” As Davis noted, California has spent decades “papering over this fundamental reality.”
This coming November, California might be an Election Day snorer except for the presence on the ballot of 17 initiatives that would impose the voters’ will on everything from state bonding priorities to public education to safe sex in the pornography studios. (Local activists can cram the ballot with additional measures; in San Francisco this fall, there will be an additional 25 items for voters to decide.) Qualifying for the ballot just got easier because the number of signatures required — only 365,000 this year for a state initiative – is tied to the turn-out in the last gubernatorial election, in which voter participation was low. Professor Thad Kousser of UC-San Diego, a political scientist, characterizes the panoply of 2016 proposals as “Sex, Drugs, Guns, and Death”; now, there’s a litany of issues we certainly want millions of minimally informed voters to be deciding.
Voters will get lots of help between now and Election Day in “understanding” these measures. Thus far, supporters of one health care proposition affecting hospital fees have spent $59 million, and it’s just August. Those promoting a measure to regulate prescription drug prices – also arguably an issue legislators should address within the broader context of health care – have spent nearly $10 million, but opponents have shelled out $70 million, and counting. By the time it is all over, experts estimate, as many as eight initiatives could cost more than $40 million apiece, outstripping the cost of Senate races in many states. And unlike congressional and legislative races, there are no limits on contributions. Some recent reports indicate that some legislators raise vast sums for “ballot measure committees” that, in addition to promoting their pet projects, skirt contribution limit laws and pay for new wardrobes and foreign travel.
Citizens’ cynicism about the electoral system, fed by both the Right and the Left, may well be justified by the low productivity of many in policymaking positions, but the low participation exacerbates public disenchantment with politics: growing polarization, special interest domination of the debate, and the exploding effect of money in campaigns. Every step that cedes influence to the fringes, the wing-nuts on both ends of the spectrum, and those with the big dollars for whom an investment of a few million dollars represents an intelligent investment further diminishes our democracy and the legitimacy of the political system. Simply tossing the tough decision-making into the hands of amateurs who are utterly unskilled (and often uninterested) in the complexity of policy and the need for balance in any functioning democracy may be intended to empower the people against special interests, but too often, it has exactly the opposite effect.
Real power lies in the hands of voters (which is why some interests are so busy trying to discourage or obstruct voter participation). Magic pills that attempt to circumvent the messy and time-consuming nature of politics often fail or have perverse, unanticipated consequences. As a political friend once said, “You can’t take politics out of politics.” Hold elected officials accountable, sure; cede power to small, unrepresentative factions of the electorate, and you get what you ask for. Pretending that direct democracy will solve the problem is disproven by the historic record: excessive reliance on initiatives, referenda and low-turnout primaries has made the political system, the campaign finance crisis, and polarization even worse.