Has Direct Democracy Gone Too Far?

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Wednesday, September 17, 2003
The political free-for-all set in motion by the effort to recall California Governor Gray Davis has subjected that state to much national tut-tutting. But the recall is just a high profile example of a trend towards democracy embraced by many states, and the ongoing debate about the direct participation by the American people in public policy issues. 

18 states allow the recall of state officials, but it is rarely used. Only North Dakota – in 1921 – actually turned a governor out of office, and California is the first state since then to put a recall measure on the ballot. By contrast, 24 states allow citizen referendums on measures passed by their legislatures, and another 24 (mostly the same) allow citizen-sponsored initiatives to make new laws. These have become popular avenues for making policy, and there is a movement afoot to create a national initiative and referendum process. 

I understand the arguments in favor of these forms of direct democracy: they encourage citizen participation; they promote public debate; they allow citizens to take matters into their own hands when a legislature is too tangled up in politics or beholden to special interests. But I am struck by one overriding fact: nowhere in the U.S. Constitution can you find a mention of the popular initiative. There’s a reason for this. 

In devising our political system, the Founders wanted above all to strike a balance between popular government and government by the elite. They did not believe in direct democracy – in which people assemble and administer government in person – because it would prove cumbersome in a country our size, and threatened a vital process: cooling the passions of the moment, encouraging deliberation and reasoned debate, and protecting the right of the minority to be heard and understood. Thus they spoke of the “mortal disease” of popular government that decides by force of numbers and immediate passions. 

At the same time, the Founders wanted to ensure that the people were the rulers, not the ruled. So they opted for an indirect democracy in the form of representative government, in which people elect legislators to make decisions. By passing the public’s view through an elected body of citizens who are better positioned to discern the interests of the country, representation prevents the ills of an overbearing majority. 

Obviously, you can lose the un-muffled voice of the people in a system of representative democracy. When city councils, state legislatures or Congress are at their best, this is not a problem – representatives accurately reflect their multifaceted communities. But advocates of direct democracy argue that special-interest lobbying and campaign contributions have stifled the ability of ordinary citizens to be heard. Initiatives and referendums, they believe, give citizens their only chance to make headway in an unresponsive system. 

But direct democracy has its own problems in this regard. As David Broder wrote in his book, Democracy Derailed: “Though derived from a century-old idea favored by the Populist and Progressive movements as a weapon against special-interest influence, the initiative has become a favored tool of interest groups and millionaires with their own political and personal agendas. These players…have learned that the initiative is a more efficient way of achieving their ends than the cumbersome and often time-consuming process of supporting candidates for public office and then lobbying them to pass legislation." 

Even if this were not the case, the initiative process would undermine two principles vital to effective democracy: perspective and deliberation. A ballot measure addresses one issue. But making policy is a matter of choices and setting priorities when faced with a host of issues – many of them worthy, all competing for attention and money. It may seem as though building more prisons and limiting class size are unrelated issues, but they’re not: with a limited budget, doing one often means not doing the other. Legislatures are designed to allow representatives to weigh these matters and make difficult decisions about their priorities. Initiatives are not. 

Cumbersome as it might seem, the legislative process allows different interests and points of view to be heard so that complex issues can be fully examined. I’d be the last to say the legislative process always works – indeed, I find the recent trend to short-circuit debate in Congress quite worrisome. But just as worrisome is the prospect of a citizenry deciding difficult questions based on 30-second television commercials. 

The Founders opted for representative democracy so we would have a system of decision-making that reflects the complexity and diversity of our society, and permits us to effectively set priorities. Representative democracy enlarges and refines the public view, making it more likely that we’ll arrive at decisions that advance the public good. 

(Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.)