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Monday, February 7, 2011

Invigorating Popular Sovereignty

A republic is characterized by the citizenry electing representatives, who in turn legislate (i.e., make law). As an alternative, the citizenry itself could vote directly on legislative proposals. The latter is called direct democracy. Ancient Athens, for example, practiced it. In the United States, the republic form is the prevalent form of government.  In spite of Wilson’s comment made in the constitutional convention that representation “is made necessary only because it is impossible for the people to act collectively,” direct democracy has typically limited to an occasional “referendum” question even though more vital questions could be put to the body politic directly. Typically, referendums have to do with elections (and thus with representative rather than direct democracy) or with general taxing or spending limits for a government. The rationale for putting general taxing or spending limits up for referendum is that they apply to a government as a whole—this perspective being from that of popular sovereignty (i.e., the citizenry, whose electoral power transcends their government). Rarely, an “issue” is put up to be decided directly by the voters. In 2010, for example, Californians decided on whether to legalize pot in California. I contend that many more matters of policy could be decided directly by the voters. Since the elected representatives represent the citizenry, the former should not be presumed as having the definitive right of such decision. Deciding on matters of general policy are primarily value-judgements, rather than requiring expertise.  Issues such as abortion, gay marriage, the Bush tax cuts, and the Iraq and Afghanistan wars could—and I would argue should—be decided by the voters directly. Beyond issues, the voters could decide more general governance questions, such as whether federalism should be continued. Such a question could lead to more specific proposals at the next election. For example, if the majority of American voters want the US to be of federalism, representatives could work on not only constitutional amendments, but also proposals for the voters on which broad areas of power would be transferred back to the states (or the voters could be asked—assuming a majority still want federalism—whether X or Y areas of power should be transferred back to the States). Should elected representatives counter that we should not trust the people to make such decisions, I would argue that it is nonsensical for an agent to contend that his principal is somehow inferior to himself. In a representative democracy, the representatives are the agents of the people; it is not the other way around.

In short, I contend that popular sovereignty ought to be strengthened rather than vitiated. Elected representatives are best suited to working out the technical details rather than deciding broad questions of policy.  An election campaign is a bricollage of factors; it is rare for a victor to be able to claim a mandate on a particular issue. In fact, a representative may be elected for reasons having nothing to do with his or her positions on “the issues.” The midterm election of 2010, for example, could be informed by a mix of factors; it was not even clear whether people voting Republican, for example, were saying yes to that party’s platform or no to the previous two years of legislation (which was informed by both Democratic and Republican law-makers—neither party being able to enact its platform as given).  Even voters blaming the Democratic Party for the resulting legislation is not strictly speaking accurate, as compromises had to be made with Republicans.  So an election of representatives is a broad brush that cannot be divined as a mandate on particular issues.  Regarding particular policies—even foreign policy, such as whether the US Government should continue to support Israel—the only way to know if there is a mandate is to put the matters up for decision by the voters. Political parties could have a say on how the questions are worded so they are objective (or two versions could be provided). Courts would still be able to declare the resulting law unconstitutional, but even here constitutional amendment is possible.  Even in terms of amendments, the voters, rather than their constitutional delegates or state or federal representatives, could decide directly.  For example, the voters could decide whether US Senators should continue to be elected, or whether they should be appointed by the state governments or be the governors themselves (the US Senate being like the European Council of the E.U.). The voters could also decide whether abortion should be decided by the state or US courts, or directly by the voters—by state or US—as an amendment.

At the very least, basic decisions would be made that have been mired in disputes between governmental institutions and/or government officials. We are depending much too much on elected and appointed government officials to “make” policy. Ultimately, the will of the people should be freed up and exercised beyond the confines of simply electing representatives—being subject only to the judiciary protecting individual rights (which can be overruled by constitutional amendment, which can be of the people).  Sadly, those in power—the elected representatives—will naturally and ironically resist efforts to expand the will of the people. Because the election of a representative involves many elements, an elected representative could easily get around interpreting his or her victory as a mandate to expand the will of the people.  This is precisely part of the problem, and it maintains the monopoly of power that our elected representatives enjoy.  I suspect this is no accident. Hence I am not optimistic on any expansion of popular sovereignty any time soon.  Even so, I hope my thoughts here are thought-provoking. Although not the best person to cite, Richard Nixon pointed in one of his books to the need for political development: “In terms of material progress, the twentieth century has been the best in history, but in terms of political progress the record has been disappointing.”  (See Richard Nixon, 1999 Victory Without War, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988, p. 16). What I am suggesting is that our political system is so antiquated that were it to develop as technology has, our use of elections could make quite a leap forward.  In spite of all the technological change, we tend to hold very rigidly to the way things have “always been done” in politics.  It is time for politics to catch up. In fact, the technological progress could facilitate the expansion of popular sovereignty.  For example, voters could surf the internet for information before voting on general policy areas. The challenge may well be in how to enable illiterate voters to be able to take part.  As one possibility, voters could vote at desks (as in a classroom) while a reader reads through the questions on the ballot. My point is that we can begin to think outside the box and shake loose our assumptions.

Source of Wilson quote: James Madison, Notes in the Federal Convention of 1787. New York: Norton, 1987, p. 74.