Is American democracy still “by the people, for the people?”
According to recent research, this may not be the case. Martin Gilens of Princeton University confirms that the wishes of the American working and middle class play essentially no role in shaping our country’s policies. A BBC story aptly sums it up with the headline: The United States is an Oligarchy, Not a Democracy.
However, new research from Benjamin Radcliff and Gregory Shufeldt suggests a silver lining.
Voting initiatives, they argue, may serve the interests of ordinary Americans better than laws passed by elected officials.
Busy Ballot Initiative Year
Today, 24 states allow citizens to vote directly on political issues. This year, more than 42 initiatives have already been approved for the ballot in 18 states.
California voters will decide a variety of issues, including banning plastic bags, voter approval of state spending over $ 2 billion, improving funding for schools, and the future of the bilingual education.
“By the people” – or not so much?
Our founders would have been ambivalent about so much direct democracy. Although the country was founded on the idea that people are happier when they have a say in government, the founders were not optimistic about the ability of people to govern themselves too much. directly. James Madison, the “father” of the Constitution, argued that the public voice, spoken by the representatives of the people, will be more in keeping with the public good than if it were spoken by the people themselves.
By the end of the 19th century, average Americans felt excluded from a representative system they saw as becoming a plutocracy. Just like today, Americans then saw government controlled by the rich and the corporations. This gave birth to the populist era in which citizens demanded that the government be more responsive to their needs. Most of the reforms of the populist era were expansions of direct democracy. Examples include popular election of senators, a primary system for choosing party candidates, and women’s suffrage.
South Dakota adopted a system of “initiative, referendum and recall” in 1898. Oregon and California quickly followed, and the system was adopted by another dozen states in less than 10 years. .
It has been a slow build ever since. Most recently, Mississippi gave the Citizens Initiative in 1992. This brings us to a total of 24 states, plus the District of Columbia, now recognizing some form of direct democracy.
However, many reported problems with direct democracy in the form of voting initiatives.
Maxwell Sterns of the University of Maryland, for example, writes that legislatures are better because initiatives are the tools of special interests and minorities. Ultimately, initiatives are voted on by an unrepresentative subset of the population, Sterns concludes.
Others, like Richard Ellis of Willamette University, argue that the tedious process of collecting signatures introduces a bias in favor of financial interests. Some suggest it has damaged direct democracy in California, where professional petition writers and paid signature collectors dominate the process. Financial interests also have a natural advantage in having the resources that ordinary people lack to mount media campaigns to support their narrow interests.
To curb this kind of problem, bans on paying people at signature are being proposed in many states, but have not yet been passed by any legislature. However, because Californians in principle love direct democracy, they recently changed the process to allow for review and revision, and they require mandatory disclosures about the funding and origins of voting initiatives.
Finally, some say the initiatives can be confusing to voters, such as Ohio’s two recent marijuana proposals, where one ballot proposal essentially overruled the other. Likewise, Mississippi Initiative 42 required the ballot to be marked in two places for approval, but only one for disapproval, resulting in many “yes” votes being overturned.
Despite these flaws, our research shows that direct democracy can improve happiness in two ways. One is through its psychological effect on voters, making them feel that they have a direct impact on policy outcomes. This is true even if they may not like, and therefore vote against, a particular proposal. The second is that it can effectively produce policies more consistent with human well-being.
The psychological benefits are obvious. By allowing people to literally be the government, just as in ancient Athens, people develop higher levels of political efficiency. In short, they can feel that they have some control over their life. Direct democracy can give people political capital because it provides a means by which citizens can put questions on the popular ballot, giving them the ability to both set the agenda and vote on the results. .
We think it’s important today given America’s waning confidence in government. Overall, today only 19% think government is run for all citizens. The same percentage trust the government to do the right thing. The poor and working classes are even more alienated.
Our evidence comes from surveys of the American public that are large enough to allow cross-state comparisons.
Specifically, we used the DDB-Needham Advertising lifestyle studies. Beginning in 1975, this study polled large numbers of Americans each year about trends, behaviors, beliefs, and opinions. The study uses samples so large that we can directly examine the impact of the initiatives on satisfaction despite having multiple causes at the state and individual level.
The statistical evidence is clear.
Life satisfaction is higher in states that allow initiative than in those that do not. This even applies when controlling for other factors. Satisfaction also increases as cumulative use of initiatives increases over time. In other words, the more initiatives a state has used to create its current policies, the happier people are.
States that use the initiative tend to have policies that help protect the prosperity, health and safety of citizens, all of which contribute to greater happiness.
This may be because the citizens themselves use the initiative process to implement laws that directly help them. Or it could be that lawmakers are paying more attention to the welfare of citizens in states that have initiative, referendum, and recall mechanisms. In all cases, the net impact on satisfaction and well-being is positive.
Perhaps more importantly, the study finds that low- and middle-income people benefit the most from the initiatives. Simply put, the happiness of the rich and powerful in a state increases less (or even decreases slightly) compared to the increase in happiness that ordinary citizens receive.
In other words, the greatest increase goes to those who are less happy to begin with, effectively reducing the “inequality of satisfaction” between the rich and the poor.