Barry Gordon Barry Gordon

Too much democracy?

Americans are ill-equipped for the role that modern democracy imposes on us

By Barry Gordon 06/10/2010

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On Tuesday, some of us (all too few, actually) went to the polls to exercise our right — some would say our God-given right — to vote. We voted in our party primaries for nominees for the offices of US senator, governor, US representative and a host of other state legislative and executive offices. In performing this simple task, we fulfilled the vision of our Founding Fathers, who established a representative democracy with the essential, but limited, role for the people of directly electing their federal and state office-holders (although direct election of Senators would have to wait until 1913).

Naturally, when I say “people,” I’m referring to white males. While that very idea is offensive to modern sensibilities, it seemed perfectly natural to white men 200 years ago. Nevertheless, the idea that the “people” of a nation should have a vote on anything was radical in itself. And today, through the extension of the franchise, that right belongs to virtually every citizen who is at least 18 years old and is not a convicted felon.

But back to Tuesday. Not only did we vote for our representatives; we also voted for judges whose names we’ve never heard of. We decided whether one-third of the voters could keep a city from starting up a public power company. We decided whether Republicans could vote in Democratic primaries and vice versa, further encroaching on the traditional province of political parties. And we decided whether insurance companies could provide discounts for, or increase the cost of, insurance. That used to be the job of the Legislature or, conservatives would argue, should be left to the free market to determine.

Since I’m writing this column on Election Day to make a deadline, I don’t know the outcome of any of these decisions. But that’s not my point. I simply question this new role that we’re required to perform. Why do we vote for judges? Shouldn’t they be independent and not subject to the political whims of the electorate? And are we really equipped to play legislator on issues that are considerably more complex than a 30-second ad or a page in the voter guide would suggest?

The Progressive movement at the turn of the 20th century is largely responsible for this century-long experiment in direct democracy. The initiative was designed for those supposedly rare times when the Legislature failed to represent the will of the people. Yet even Herbert Croly, one of the founders of the movement, pointed out that “the right to force a vote on specific legislative projects, which cannot be discussed in detail or amended, but which must be approved or disapproved as a whole, places an enormous power in the hands of a skillful and persistent minority.” Croly’s comment is prescient. Today, many initiatives are Astroturf — as opposed to genuine grass-roots — creations supported financially by corporations and other special interests that apparently were not persuasive enough to get the Legislature or regulators like the insurance commissioner to see things their way. Instead, they pay folks a few bucks to stand in front of supermarkets and lure voters into signing petitions with a 10-second talking point. It is the very opposite of deliberative democracy, in which ideas are thought through, debated and then acted upon.

We also use the initiative process to hamstring legislators by restricting the actions they can actually take. Then, of course, we despair when the legislative process disintegrates into gridlock and inaction. Rather than permitting our representatives to act on our behalf, and then hold them accountable through elections if they fail to do so, we take away their ability to do anything by mandating super majorities and other devices, and then hold our noses while we reelect incumbent after incumbent. There’s something terribly wrong with that picture.
 
The American people are not stupid. Most of us are thoroughly capable of raising a family, pursuing a career and living a meaningful life. But we are not well-equipped for the role that modern democracy imposes on us. Most of us are woefully ill-informed about the issues that can have a major impact on the future of our society. We listen to radio talk show hosts or cable news pundits and generally take our cues from those with whom we already agree. We take on more responsibility as voters, while we have less willingness to seek objective sources of information and fewer places to find them. 
So maybe the Founders — except for the white male thing — had it right. Athenian democracy has generally been considered a noble experiment but ultimately a failure. On the other hand, the democratic republic established on our shores is thought of as a tremendous success by the entire world. Yet the current trend in American politics is definitely toward a more direct, Athenian-style democracy.
 
If we are to continue to move in this direction — and every indication is that we will — then our job as voters becomes much harder and, like any job, we will have to devote more time and energy and brainpower to become good at it. If collectively we’re not willing or able to do that, then we have to pause to consider whether there is such a thing as too much democracy.

Barry Gordon teaches political science at Cal State LA and is the co-host of “City Beat” on KPAS.  Contact him at barry@barrytalk.com.

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Comments

It is astonishing and troublesome that Barry Gordon is a professor of political science at a publicly funded state university. This article and the one he wrote last week demonstrate that he is either forgetful of or unaware of certain political facts and points. First, Gordon writes last week that the 2/3 majority passed by the voters under Prop 13 should be eliminated in order to ensure easier passage of additional property tax assessments and that the ability to do so with a simple majority is a fundamental principle of democracy. Now, this week he is arguing that direct democracy exercised through the initiative process is flawed because only corporate sponsored initiatives are placed on the ballot.

Okay, Barry Gordon, where have you been?

Prop 13 was passed by the PEOPLE to limit out of control property taxes and make it more difficult with the 2/3 majority requirement, to burden property owners with additional, unnecessary property tax assessment.

Prop 213 was passed by the PEOPLE to limit INSURANCE COMPANIES from GOUGING consumers. It resulted in insurance rate regulation which lowered auto and other insurance rates.

The Living Wage Initiative of the 1990s increased the state minimum wage because the anti-worker Wilson administration was dismantling worker wage and overtime protections through the Wilson appointed Industrial Welfare Commission.

These three initiatives were passed by the people and were ultimately were for the people's benefit.

Gordon, get your facts straight or go back to acting.

posted by Ramon Hernandez on 6/12/10 @ 09:30 a.m.

prop 203 not 213

posted by Ramon Hernandez on 6/12/10 @ 03:41 p.m.

Ramon, the "facts" you say I need to "get straight" are yours, not mine. First, the "unnecessary" property tax assessment you refer to is a characterization without justification. Who determines what's "necessary"? You? Apparently, the 54% who voted for Measure CC believed that a small parcel tax to provide additional resources for schools WAS necessary. Why should the opinion of the 47% who decided it was "unnecessary" prevail?

Second, I don't think I said we should eliminate the initiative process entirely. But surely you can't deny that many, if not most, initiatives are put forward by special interest groups and, only in rare circumstances, by "the people." Often, they are the personal gripes of legislators who didn't get their way through the normal legislative process. I"m simply suggesting that the use of the process should not be so routine and should truly be "for the people" when all else fails, as the Progressive movement leaders clearly intended.

I'm not sure what your political background and knowledge might be, so I won't presume to criticize it. But before you criticize me for lack of knowledge, I strongly suggest you read Locke, Montesquieu, maybe Plato and Aristotle, and the Federalist Papers. Then we can talk.

posted by Barry Gordon on 6/15/10 @ 07:22 a.m.

Jesus on a bike!

Be careful Ramon how you criticize all those self-absorbed professorial types such as Mr. Gordon, or they'll whip out their dusty bag of books by long dead Greeks and Frenchmen and bore you to death with proclamations about how they think it happened in the past.

To me, Mr Gordon's primary disqualifier as an insightful ideologue revealed itself when he emphasized America's "democracy" but wholly ignores what the Federalist Papers authors (primarily Alexander Hamilton) sought to create (by way of a democratic consensus) ... that being a (Constitutional) REPUBLIC, first.

You see, America's Founding Fathers liked making it hard for the flip side of a marginal majority to easily oppress less popular minorities (with the white, male, monied class being one of their preferred choices of minority protection).

As it turns out, Proposition 13's three quarter requirement has produced the collateral effect of preventing the bureaucratic aristocracy of California government from as easily financing their most comfortable lifestyles on the backs and through the bank accounts of the State's property owners.

While it's obvious that Ramon has a point, Mr. Gordon can't quite seem to admit as much.

DanD

posted by DanD on 6/15/10 @ 05:53 p.m.

Mr. Gordon, you ask in reference to the super-marjority required to pass the parcel tax, "Why should the opinion of the 47% who decided it was "unnecessary" prevail?"

Any high school student who pays attention in Government class knows that super majorities did not begin with Prop 13 and that it is required under certain circumstances in both state and federal legislative bodies. Furthermore, high school seniors who pay attention know that the objective of super majority requirements is to prevent the "tyranny of the majority" which results in oppression of minority interests.

YOU Mr. Gordon are the one who should read the Federalist Papers and John Stuart Mill, because you obviously don't understand these elementary concepts.

And puhleez, throwing around names such as Locke, Montesquieu, Plato and Aristotle demonstrates not your knowledge, but your lack thereof.

posted by Betty Harris on 6/15/10 @ 08:19 p.m.
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