Expanding Direct Democracy Won’t Make Americans Feel Better About Politics

As Americans watch the political turmoil over Brexit in the UK, it’s important to remember that the chaos started there in a form of direct democracy. When British voters triggered their exit from the European Union, they did so by voting directly on the so-called “Brexit” initiative.

Normally, such a major policy would have been initiated, deliberated and voted on by their elected representatives in Parliament.

The Brexit mess is an example of the disruptive potential of direct democracy, a practice that Americans believe has long led to a healthier democratic society.

Recent polls show that Americans are increasingly dissatisfied with their system of representative democracy. Many see sharp and unhealthy partisan divisions and lack confidence that the system will produce the results they want.

In this context, some argue for an increased use of direct democracy. This includes voting initiatives, such as those practiced in 24 states, including California, Massachusetts and Michigan.

Voting initiatives bypass the normal legislative process. They can be drafted by anyone and receive a public vote without the involvement of lawmakers, provided enough petition signatures are obtained to get the initiative on the ballot.

Well-known initiatives have addressed issues such as same-sex marriage, tax reform, and the legalization of marijuana. Advocates say that greater use of such measures could help combat citizen disengagement and cynicism about politics. Based on 15 years of our own research, we believe the commonly held view of the initiative process – that it is good for democracy – is wrong.

Direct democracy, say the authors, produces more political conflict and polarization, such as this demonstration in London on September 4 by supporters and detractors of Brexit.
AP / Alastair grant

The unfulfilled hope of progressives

Allegations promoting the positive benefits of direct democracy on voter participation and engagement have appeared periodically since the wave of progressive-era reforms in the early 20th century. These reforms led to the establishment of the state ballot initiative process.

Americans practice a form of representative democracy by choosing from among the candidates for election. Proponents of direct democracy argue that by voting directly on policy proposals, people become more informed about government, confident in their own abilities, and positive about the abilities of others.

As political theorist Ben Barber has argued, “initiative and referendum can increase popular participation and government accountability, provide a permanent instrument of civic education, and give popular discourse the reality and discipline it has come to expect. need to be effective ”.

About two decades ago, some political scientists claimed to have found support for the idea that greater use of the tools of direct democracy, especially the state ballot initiative, helps people engage and to become more involved in politics and build confidence in government.

Direct democracy has been popular with both political parties, liberals and conservatives.

Modern-day progressives often claim that the ballot initiative can solve problems such as gerrymandering, campaign finance abuses, or growing income inequality. The Ballot Initiative Strategy Center states that “[W]We envision a future in which progressives have harnessed the power of voting metrics as proactive tools for success – to increase civic engagement, adopt forward-looking policies, and strengthen progressive infrastructure in key states.

Yet, not so long ago, conventional wisdom considered voting initiatives and referendums to be the tools of the Conservatives, at least for the past 40 years.

In 1978, California passed Proposition 13, sparking tax reduction measures across the country. Before the Supreme Court ruled that same-sex marriage was legal, states with voting initiatives and constitutional amendments approved by voters passed laws defining marriage between a man and a woman in more than 30 votes to the statewide between 1998 and 2011.

Conflict and polarization

Based on a wide variety of data, we conclude in our book “Non-Commitment Initiatives” that the initiative process primarily encourages greater conflict rather than produces political and social benefits.

Voting initiatives can increase voter turnout, which sounds like good news. But they do so by mobilizing casual voters and encouraging generally fear-based voting without making people more generally informed or engaged.

Initiatives can also be a tool for ideological extremists and opportunists. They are using the process to bypass the US legislative process, long known for its incrementalism and premium for compromise.

Our research finds that the relationship between party identification and polarized attitudes about the issues – where Democrats increasingly take the most liberal stance and Republicans take the most conservative stance – is around 25 to 45 percent. more important in States which frequently use the initiative than in States without initiative.

Tyranny of the majority

Our research also confirms that initiatives often inflame occasional majority voters. They do so with measures targeting the rights of members of minority groups.

This has been the case with attempts to limit immigrant rights, curb affirmative action, and define marriage as between a man and a woman.

Looking at all of the post WWII voting measures in California, we found many examples of votes that sought to restrict the rights of minority groups, including the LGBT community, racial / ethnic minorities, and immigrants. A single initiative aimed to expand them.

The 1946 voting initiative, Proposition 11, was called the Fair Employment Practices Act and allegedly prohibited employers from discriminating on the basis of race, religion, color, national origin or nationality. ancestry. He only received 28% yes against 72% no.

It was exactly the “tyranny of the majority” that worried the American founders. James Madison argued that pure democracies were incompatible with “personal security” and “property rights”. If the opportunity presented itself, he believed, the masses could vote against the rights and wealth of the elite. His ultimate argument, that majorities can be myopic, turned out to be premonitory.

Distrust of the government

As a result of all this conflict, our research shows that the frequent use of voting initiatives causes citizens to trust government less, not more. This is because initiative campaigns often point out that the government is broken. Voters conclude that we would have fewer direct democracy campaigns if the government were more competent.

Many people have a visceral attachment to the idea that “the cure for the evils of democracy is more democracy”. Presidential candidate and Democratic donor Tom Steyer and others are calling for the expansion of direct democracy nationwide.

In contrast, some scholars fear that the extension of direct democracy to the national level will result in a lack of effective deliberation if critical political issues are decided by popular vote. And because direct democracy approaches problems one after another rather than one against the other, it can hamper the ability to set priorities. This is especially true of measures that affect state budgets.

Our research goes further, raising concerns about the consequences of extending direct democracy for citizens’ engagement with their government. We believe that the likely effects of taking something like the state initiative process at the national level would be to deepen mistrust between citizens and government as is the case in states. This in turn would give parties and presidents another tool to increase polarization.

The consequences of a national referendum process in the United States may be more like what happened in the United Kingdom than the innocuous promises of future reformers.

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