“Representative democracy betrays the electorate when laws have no roots in the people but in oligarchies. Studies on the concepts and modalities of direct democracy are therefore becoming more topical.”
-Alfred-Maurice de Zayas
If not for the American presidential contest and Donald Trump’s electoral college victory, 2016 may well have gone down as a year of surprising referenda that led many commentators to question the slow movement toward more participatory democracy throughout the West. From Brexit to Italy’s referendum on constitutional changes, on the surface it seems that these critics may have a point.
However, by equating the idea of direct democracy with these kinds of top down ‘yes or no’ plebiscites, often not put in context by the very people proposing them, these pundits show a certain degree of contempt for their fellow citizens, especially those on the losing end of received economic wisdom and desperate for a means of protest.
In boiling down the complicated issues that would come out of a decision to take Britain out of the European Union to a simple ‘either/or’ equation, David Cameron and his inner circle offered a perfect demonstration of how out of touch they were with the actual mood of the British public they were elected to represent.
On top of this, these highly educated products of their country’s most elite schools took the extra step of making the vote non-binding, rendering voters’ decision meaningless if politicians don’t follow through, something that could still be in the cards.
The ‘Yes’ side, who, it should be remembered, called the referendum in the first place, could have demanded a higher turn out or a larger majority for the measure to pass but for some reason didn’t think to take either of these simple and easily explained steps. They may have even tried ranked or approval voting to minimize the risk of their least desired result.
The referendum in Italy, as reported on by most mainstream English language news sources, was also explained as a rejection of the EU, fitting neatly into the post-Brexit narrative of rising rightwing ‘populism’. Ignored by most media was the simple fact that traditionally left leaning areas of the country also voted ‘No’. Also, and more importantly, the vote wasn’t about the EU at all.
For their part, the uniformly wealthy ‘populists’ vying to represent the ‘common man’ like the UK’s Nigel Farage and France’s Marine Le Pen have picked up this story to bolster their own narrative of unstoppable political momentum for their lowest common denominator pandering.
In this, they either purposefully mislead or miss the point by not seeing the vote for what it was: a rejection of the hapless Matteo Renzi and his plans to make the Italian state run more ‘smoothly’ by limiting it’s often raucous democracy to concentrate more power in the hands of the Prime Minister and ensure traditional political parties would retain their hold on power.
As Lorenzo Codogno, a former Italian treasury economist and prominent ‘Yes’ supporter told the UK Independent after the vote, “It’s nonsense to say this was a call for an Italian EU exit… It was not about Europe and the protest vote was not about the EU, it was about the government.”
Direct Democracy in the United States
An interesting counterpoint to these referenda was offered by the American election where numerous progressive ballot measures passed at the state level. It’s my belief that these ballot measures, including successful initiatives to raise the minimum wage in Arizona, Colorado, Maine and Washington state, show that a majority Americans, when actually given a choice, will vote in their own and their neighbors’ best interests.
Even recreational marijuana ballot initiatives, which passed in four states, can be seen as progressive in that those most affected by enforcement of these laws are traditionally marginalized communities. The main fear going forward of those opposed to the ‘War on Drugs’ is that Trump will turn out to be a fervent prohibitionist and, judging by his choices for his cabinet so far, a real battle could be brewing between states that have passed these laws and the federal government.
In terms of gun control and marijuana initiatives, voters are usually inundated with advertising from well-financed lobbying groups trying to get them to oppose these measures. The long term influence of the NRA is well known, but with marijuana the opposition is often less visible.
As reported by The Guardian earlier this year, Insys Therapeutics contributed half a million dollars to Arizona’s anti-legalization effort, becoming the largest single donor to this cause in the state. Insys manufactures Subsys, a painkiller made from fentanyl, a synthetic opioid. This funding may partially explain the narrow win for the ‘No’ vote in the state.
In Massachusetts, where the recreational marijuana ballot passed, the Beer Distributors PAC “gave $25,000 to the Campaign for a Safe and Healthy Massachusetts” and other alcohol industry affiliated groups gave money to oppose legal pot in most of the states that had these initiatives on their ballots.
The influence of corporate funded advertising campaigns aside, these kinds of ballot initiatives extend democracy beyond legislatures where the influence of monied special interests is even more pernicious. They are a silver lining to 2016’s otherwise depressing American election spectacle.
Embracing Radical Democracy
Disillusionment with representative democracy has been a long running story for decades and it has only increased during the Obama era. Even when Americans overwhelmingly vote for change, it seems they always get more of the same with slightly more hopeful or angry branding.
This feeling is not unique to the United States, but is seen throughout North America and Europe. Here in Canada, as I’ve written before, many of us are feeling the same frustration after voting for a Liberal who promised change and seems in no hurry to make it, flowery words aside.
While many elites scoff at the idea of giving more decision making power to citizens, there is at least one very successful example of a country where direct democracy, alongside a more traditional parliament, has been in place for some time, allowing diverse groups to have more say in their country’s laws and how they are governed.
Switzerland, although the country is split between French, German, Italian and other smaller language groups, has long been one of the most stable countries in Europe. In the modern era this traditional stability, often arrived at in the past in opposition to outside powers, has been buttressed by direct democracy at the local, cantonal (state) and federal level.
Unlike most representative democracies where referenda are often reluctantly held for the biggest and most divisive issues facing the electorate, in Switzerland any law proposed by the parliament is subject to a citizen veto. If 50,000 signatures can be collected, a referendum will be held. Mandatory votes “on more than a dozen laws per year are not unusual in Switzerland.”
Beyond this, if 100,000 citizens come together they can demand a change to the country’s constitution which the parliament must discuss and either reject, recommend or offer an alternative to. Regardless, citizens then vote on the ideas on offer.
Oddly, a more radical experiment in this form of government is being attempted in war torn Syria by the Kurdish led Democratic Union Party (PYD). The areas they and several opposition parties control, collectively called Rojava, have been building a federal democratic system that draws from the Swiss model while demanding equal representation for women, protection for minority groups and environmental sustainability, a unique alternative to the repression that has been the norm across the Middle East for generations.
We should always worry when elites begin to tell us that there’s too much democracy, in our current era one would expect this to be coming from the right rather than the liberal ‘center’ but this is an argument that is increasingly being made by so-called moderates post-Brexit.
Considering the promise offered by technological advances to increase citizen participation in government, it may be time for voters in Europe and North America to demand more say from our governments. Whether on bread and butter issues or issues of war and peace, it’s become more and more obvious than ever that politicians, most of them bought and paid for by their donors, will continue to push the same failed ideas until citizens are given a real say in the decision making process.