At The Baffler, Dave Denison writes—Defeating the Voters:
REPRESENTATIVE DEMOCRACY, WITH ALL ITS CHECKS and balances and enlightened deliberation on behalf of busy citizens, was a pretty good contrivance. Excellent job by Montesquieu in beginning to work the essential ideas out in The Spirit of the Laws! Nicely done, James Madison et. al, in building on such ideas, drafting a United States Constitution, and explaining it all in The Federalist Papers! Kudos to John Stuart Mill, who came along and refined the theories admirably in Considerations onRepresentative Government. Democracy, after all, is a hard problem to solve, and the 1700s and 1800s produced concepts that led to mechanisms that at least got the American experiment with republican government off to a promising start.
It took a great while before some obvious flaws were corrected. Almost a century after the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia before slavery was ended. More than 130 years before women won the right to vote. John Adams wasn’t entirely right when he wrote in 1814 that “Democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.” But ours has been looking exhausted for a long time now, and sometimes seems on the verge of suicide. We are far enough along now that foundational principles such as “the consent of the governed” and “the common good” and “the rule of law” are just dead words on a page to most people. You could probably find more widespread belief in astrological portents than in the proposition that “here, the people rule.”
The current news cycle focuses our attention on the “constitutional crisis” in Washington, D.C., in which a corrupt executive branch proclaims itself immune from the legitimate countervailing power of Congress. But the failures of representative government in the United States are evident from coast to coast. Anyone who has spent time observing the workings of a state legislature—whether in Boston or Boise, Madison or Jefferson City—has seen how democratic deliberation is made into a farce: a few leaders control the calendar, they confer with former lawmakers who are now highly paid lobbyists, and they determine what will and will not happen. Congress is currently in a power struggle against the president; but what you see on the state level is legislative power brokers constantly at war against insurgent members who push for even the mildest reforms, against outside activists who presume to interfere in the insiders’ business, and quite often against the plainly expressed will of the voters themselves.
Maine gives us a perfect example of this legislative arrogance. You might think that since states are thought to be “laboratories of democracy” you could get a legislature—especially in a low-stakes place like Maine—to consider a proposal to try the reform known as Ranked Choice Voting. Also known as “instant runoff voting,” the system allows voters to rank their preferences when choosing between multiple candidates, thus making it less likely a third-party “spoiler” candidate will lead to a winner most voters don’t favor. It’s clear the ancient “first-to-the-post” method of electing someone by a slim margin who might not even have majority support is not necessarily the ultimate and final perfection of the democratic process. But of course legislatures seldom want to make any change to the system that put them into office. So in 2015 a Maine Committee for Ranked Choice Voting gathered signatures to put the question on the ballot. It was approved by 52 percent of the voters in November of 2016. But in October of the following year, the Maine legislature voted to suspend the law until 2021, with conditions that proponents believed essentially repealed it. So activists next gathered 80,000 signatures for a “people’s veto” to reverse the legislature. And in June of 2018, the voters again approved the measure. It was in place for the November elections last year and resulted in the election of Democrat Jared Golden to Congress—the first member sent to Washington by Ranked Choice Voting.
More and more, the hope for basic democratic responsiveness in government involves this kind of work. The right of the people to propose laws through ballot initiatives, of course, is one of the reforms that gained steam in the Progressive Era, when the problem of recalcitrant legislatures controlled by moneyed interests was well understood. This kind of direct democracy has a long and checkered history, especially in a state like California that uses it extensively. It led to the damaging property tax limits of Proposition 13 in 1978, and it also allows well-funded special interests to push measures that might bamboozle ordinary voters.
Yet today’s progressives and liberals are taking matters to the ballot—to raise the minimum wage, to expand Medicaid funding, to extend voting rights, to legalize marijuana, and to end gerrymandering—and often winning. There are many signs this ferment has the enforcers of the status quo in statehouses struggling to clamp down on citizen meddling. In several notable cases, legislatures have reversed, or attempted to reverse, proposals after they’ve been approved by voters. “It’s not a new phenomenon by any means, but I haven’t seen this much brashness on the part of legislative bodies in the six years I’ve been covering these, or even in the last decade or so,” Josh Altic, who tracks ballot measures for Ballotpedia, told Sarah Holder of CityLab last year. […]
HIGH IMPACT STORIES • THE WEEK’S HIGH IMPACT STORIES
“It takes a disciplined imagination to acknowledge that the less personal savageries of bombs, missiles, artillery and heavy weapons are, to those blown to smithereens, also barbaric. The main horror of what the coalition is doing is not a matter of the occasional soldier who, in the heat of battle, commits a war crime, but the steady destruction rained on cities, villages, the Iraqi people. This violence is wreaked calmly, from a distance, within the rules of engagement. The war itself is the American war crime. But that is lost in the “normalcy” of the news.” ~~James Carroll, “Afraid to look in the moral abyss” (2004)
TWEET OF THE DAY
BLAST FROM THE PAST
On this date at Daily Kos in 2011—Oil-subsidized Senators just returning the favor:
When Republican Senators (with two exceptions) decided on a procedural motion Tuesday not to take up a bill that would have removed $2 a billion a year in tax “incentives” for the world’s five largest private oil companies, they had one good reason in their pockets. Over the past two decades, since 1989, they have collectively accepted just under $21 million in campaign contributions from oil and gas companies, according to an analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics.
Democrats (with three exceptions), plus the Senate’s two independents, voted that there should be a debate about the incentives—a collection of tax breaks that amounts to subsidies of the five oil giants, which in the first quarter of this year made $36 billion in profit. Collectively, the Democrats and independents who voted for a debate have accepted just under $5 million in campaign contributions from oil and gas companies.
Six Republican Senators alone took in twice as much in career oil-company contributions as those 48 Democrats and two independents who voted “Aye” in the Senate. They are: John McCain of Arizona ($2,718,774); Kay Bailey Hutchison ($2,141,025) and John Cornyn ($1,734,950), both of Texas; James “Climate Change Is a Hoax” Inhofe of Oklahoma ($1,256,023), David Vitter of Louisiana ($943,885), and Mitch McConnell of Kentucky ($914,811).
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