By Tom Lamia

Worried about partisanship deadlocking the legislative process? Looking for a way to confront Trumpism with kryptonite? Say no more. In the finest of American traditions, when all roads to political action are firmly closed by a unified group allied around a single idea, single interest or single individual and no amount of lobbying or debate within our system of representational democracy can move the roadblock to the side, the path of progress lies in direct democracy. Direct democracy has been throughout our history a means of saving society at large from an entrenched and impermeable group allied around a special shared interest—in this case a cult dedicated to preserving political power through lies and threats of violence.

Direct democracy sidesteps the problem much in the way that a matador sidesteps the charging bull. In our present and particular case, sidestepping a closed door by removing the wall. Direct democracy is more democracy through direct action; it is an alternative to representational democracy and has been around as long as government and politics, but has always been feared as too dangerous, too undisciplined, too unpredictable, for use as a base case for democracy and for good reason. The U.S. Constitution provides for a republican form of government with power shared among three branches, none of which qualifies as a pure democracy. It provides for filters between the people and government power. We have a representational government through which power is given to representatives of the people and not to the people directly.

Direct democracy exists at the state and local level where a direct vote of the people as a whole authorizes government action without intercession of an elected representative. Today there is on most state and local ballots one or more examples of direct democracy: approval of bond issues; constitutional amendments; changes in voting procedures. Partisan deadlocks that prevent decisions from being made within the rules and traditions of representative government present opportunities for bypassing the deadlock by eliminating the partisanship attached to political parties by narrowing the focus to a single issue.

Of course, it can get complicated, contentious and costly, like most political issues. It is a last resort, a long shot rife with procedural unknowns and lack of precedents to use as models. Still, when all else seems to have failed, it can work. There is a long history of its use, a history that suggests it is anathema to corruption and catnip to frustrated petitioners for government action. It has never wholly displaced representative democracy in any state, but in New England the town meeting form of local government, direct democracy in its purest form, is the norm. In certain western states its popularity as a means of addressing singular issues without intrusion by political parties or special interests provides a safety valve for frustrated taxpayers. In 1978 California’s Proposition 13, a citizens’ initiative, swept the board clean on property taxes and made Howard Jarvis a hero to homeowners who were being dispossessed by rising property taxes. That law remains in effect and now seems beyond the reach of legislative repeal or meaningful amendment.

A majority of U.S. states permit direct democracy today. Laws providing for legislation or other action directly by the people are on the books, ready for getting the message out and for action to be taken upon a successful vote of the people are available as a check on voter suppression laws. A limitation does exist; several of the states that have newly enacted or pending laws that would suppress the vote do not have existing laws that permit direct democracy (TX, GA, IA, KS), nor do other red states where voter suppression is or may become an issue (IN, KY, LA). But other red or purple states do permit direct democracy (FL, AR, MT, AZ, OK, UT, NV).

ROBERT M. LA FOLLETTE, an early advocate of direct democracy. Photo credit: Harris & Ewing Collection, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Every American state makes provision in its governing documents for some form of direct democracy—a way to put before the voters directly those measures, legislative and administrative, that are in cold storage for lack of a path to passage by a state legislature. Laws can be repealed, passed or amended by referendum, elected representatives no longer faithful to the ideals that got them elected may be turned out of office by recall, new laws can be enacted and old ones amended through the initiative of voters. It can be done; it has been done.

Direct democracy is not new. Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Robert Lafollette, Upton Sinclair, Arnold Schwarzenegger, among others, used some form of this venerable American tradition of initiative, referendum, recall or repeal to bypass institutional rigidity and put justice into law through a direct vote of the people, a vote that avoids gerrymandering, partisanship or the opposition of elected representatives wandering from their principles. Direct democracy cannot be primaried by an intimidating political bully, or by a corrupt cabal of entrenched power brokers kept well fed by campaign donations and skilled lobbyists.

This essay advocating direct democracy comes from my concern that rational public debate in the present context of the divide between Trumpists and anti-Trumpists cannot be resolved without access by all to a common set of facts from accountable, trusted sources. That condition is not available today. No rational and sober discussion of the kind that could lead to a resolution can come without control of all news sources from the press and social media. Our history tells me that such control is unlikely. We do have a First Amendment that protects news sources, though not absolutely, and we do have reputational limitations on identified sources and to a limited extent on the “platforms” that facilitate the worldwide dissemination of content at no cost to the unidentified source of the false and malevolent message. This is allowed because our liberal traditions permit it as the cost of democracy. That would have some credence and some purpose if we were still living in an age where we could get at the publishers, if only to regulate them as their price for access to our citizens, residents and voters. As it is, we are in that proverbial role of the one who comes to a gunfight armed with a knife.

This descent into information chaos is favored by the Trumpists, who are not above playing it for advantage. The anti-Trumpists do their best to keep up. Direct democracy cannot control or avoid this information warping, but if it could deter voter suppression at the state level, our system might produce representatives less likely to join forces with the Trumpists.

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