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Let the people decide.
November 10, 2002 5:09 PM   Subscribe

Let the people decide. There's lot's of initiatives trying to push Direct Democracy, like Philadelphia II, as a solution to all of the problems inherent in the political process. A few places like Switzerland, ancient Athens, and some New England towns already have it that way. A lot of them want electronic and phone voting to pave the way. Is it possible, or was Machiavelli right to believe that politics is best left to the politicians. That's what the electoral college is for.
posted by destro (39 comments total)

 
I think the experiment conducted in my home state maybe a precursor for things to come..
posted by GT_RULES at 6:14 PM on November 10, 2002


An opposition group is Americans for Representative Democracy.

Town meetings are effective because participants have the advantage of being involved in a debate prior to a vote; thereby ensuring that they have heard the opposing view and are making an educated decision.

Ballot initiatives, on the other hand, are not direct democracy. True, the issue is approved by a majority of voters. But the creation of the question itself is really a moneyed-interest process. For example, supporters of the Arnold Schwarzenegger ballot initiative last week outspent its opponents $10 million to $0.

What D.D. advocates want is for the public at large to compete with its elected legislators. This is schitzophrenic to say the least. Perhaps propenents of direct democracy may want to expend their efforts on promoting campaign finance reform; as we won't get anywhere until elected representatives reflect the will of the people.
posted by PrinceValium at 6:17 PM on November 10, 2002


Oh dear lord, don't give the people direct power to do anything important. People are ignorant and capricious. Most can't be bothered to vote, and those who do do it because they are either blindly loyal to a party, or because they have an even more blatant agenda than any special interest group. Direct Democracy merely moves power out of the hands of elected representatives and into the hands of people whose primary source for information on every issue is television. From the guy with 20 years of experience and a staff of advisors to the guy who ran out of gas on the freeway this morning.
posted by Hildago at 6:29 PM on November 10, 2002


And why shouldn't we vote on what is good for us? Congress (along with every other level of government) has been voting on what is good for them long enough!
posted by LouReedsSon at 7:03 PM on November 10, 2002


I have to disagree, I hope that with dd the stupid blind loyalties to party will disappear, you would vote for an issue, not for a party or politician. Do you want women to have the option to abort to save their own lives quickly moves people away from democratic and republican arguing and onto more substantive debate about the issue. That is my hope anyway.

I sounds nice to think that "our elected" representatives have all these resources so they can better serve us, but what they really are doing is using those resources to get re-elected. I can't really blame them for that, but I don't think the goal of representing your constituents and getting re-elected are completely synonymous.

I would like a system where you have to read a text produced by each group of people advocating a vote choice (like pro-choice text, pro-life text, any alternate vote text etc.) take an objective test on the issue and then if you pass you get to vote. If this could be done at home people would have more time for it, sure it's more work but maybe it would come closer.
posted by rhyax at 7:11 PM on November 10, 2002



>From the guy with 20 years of experience and a staff

Yes, the same guy who has campaign overhead, favors to return, engages in party politics, and who was voted in by the same ignorant people you decry above. How this solves anything is beyond me. Oh and lets not ignore the fact that advisors mean nothing if their answers are not politically endearing.

If DD was the norm, televised news probably wouldn't just be street crime, weather, and sports. The fact that we let Joe Congressman make decisions for us helps contribute to hands off politics, one issue votes, swing voters, etc.

If representational democracy is doable then so is DD.
posted by skallas at 7:14 PM on November 10, 2002


Representative democracy doesn't work if your representatives don't represent you.
posted by rushmc at 7:24 PM on November 10, 2002


None of this will make a difference until voting is made mandatory.

In many countries voting is one of the basic requirements for citizenship and it should be.

Don't get me wrong, people can still vote for "nobody" but to cast a vote should be a bare minimum for citizenship in my opinion.

Think about it long enough and I think it will be your opinion too.

-davidu
posted by davidu at 7:26 PM on November 10, 2002


In many countries voting is one of the basic requirements for citizenship and it should be.

I don't think the vote of someone who can't be bothered to show up except under penalty of law is a vote that we really need, do you?
posted by George_Spiggott at 7:36 PM on November 10, 2002


I don't know whether to be for or against this, I can see arguments either way (mostly against). But it is worth mentioning Canadian politician Stockwell Day, who ran on a platform of citizen-initiated referenda. Shortly after, the presenters of satirical TV show "This Hour Has 22 Minutes" started an on-line petition to 'force Stockwell Day to change his given name to Doris', which acquired over 1,000,000 signatures. As I recall Day was pretty much at a loss for words. It is rare that the flaws in a politician's ideas are so easily, and vehemently, demonstrated to him.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 7:43 PM on November 10, 2002


As for the main topic of this thread, given that McDonalds is the most popular place to eat, and Coca-Cola the most popular thing to drink, and films like Pearl Harbor are the most popular forms of entertainment, and Britney Spears is the most popular performer -- I don't want to know what the most popular legislation would be, and I certainly don't want to live under it.
posted by George_Spiggott at 7:43 PM on November 10, 2002


Two points:

1) I remember a Gallup poll taken during that Japanese-are-coming portion of the late 1980s that revealed that a majority of Americans favored the death penalty for those who sold trade secrets to the Japanese.
2) Despite what (1) implies, if anyone can convincingly explain to me how a voting mass would balance a budget, I'd rally behind that.
posted by argybarg at 8:06 PM on November 10, 2002


If you are familiar with Athenian democracy, or a citizen of Washington or Oregon, the perils of direct voting are clear.

1) People don't have the time to completely understand the limited issues on ballots now, nor should they be expected to understand those issues. That's why my elected official goes and looks at the issues, debates the issues, for months. That's why politicians have huge staffs to research this issues in a (hopefully) unbiased way. With DD, subtleties won't be understood by the voting public.
2) As much as politicians vote in self-interest, citizens do so more. In Athens, they voted that they be paid to vote. Then they voted that one should be killed for suggesting that you are not paid to vote. Then they raised the rate you're paid to vote. No joke. Pork-barreling on the largest possible scale.
3) Corrupt voters can't be voted out. If a voter is voting poorly in Congress, you can give them the boot. If they vote poorly in your town, you're SOL.

Further, mandatory voting has the same problems. Frankly, I'd much rather have only educated voters vote than have everyone vote. I leave many items blank on my ballot if I don't feel I know enough about the issue (and vote 'no' on all of Oregon's initatives, whether the cause is good or not).

Much like how America guarantees the opportunity to try and have happiness, it also guarantees only the opportunity to vote. I'd say that low voter turnout is a good thing - it means people think the country is doing a decent job. If the country were in trouble, I'd no doubt bet a lot more people would vote.
posted by Kevs at 8:09 PM on November 10, 2002


What if people think the country is in trouble, but not as much trouble as they are individually in; or that the voting system is not adequate to fix any of the perceived problems in the country.
posted by rhyax at 8:53 PM on November 10, 2002


Oh, goody. I've just been drooling for the opportunity to vote on the three 1525-page contracts for the new sewer connector running through the forest preserve behind the school. If I apply myself and skip The Sopranos, I just might get the chance to read them all!
posted by dhartung at 9:01 PM on November 10, 2002


The level of intelligence demonstrated by DD website is, in itself, a fairly strong argument against DD.
posted by MidasMulligan at 9:33 PM on November 10, 2002


Rhyax:
I hope that with dd the stupid blind loyalties to party will disappear, you would vote for an issue, not for a party or politician.

I hope it disappears with or without it, but of course it never will, so I'd rather keep direct power of legislation as far as possible from the madding crowd, including you and me.

Skallas:
How this solves anything is beyond me.

Yet since 1787 the Constitution has worked reasonably well. The referendum and initiative processes, at least in my neck of the woods, can claim considerably less success.

Rushmc:
Representative democracy doesn't work if your representatives don't represent you.

For sure. But does everyone else represent you?
posted by Hildago at 9:38 PM on November 10, 2002


As far as small things like sewer contracts go, DD may be somewhat cumbersome. But there are definitely issues where I'd trust the choice of the unwashed masses over that of political representatives.
posted by destro at 10:07 PM on November 10, 2002


I'm still guardedly optimistic that it will change. I hope for technology to force it to change.
posted by rhyax at 10:11 PM on November 10, 2002


For sure. But does everyone else represent you?

Touche.
posted by rushmc at 11:21 PM on November 10, 2002


The level of intelligence demonstrated by DD website is, in itself, a fairly strong argument against DD.

Not to mention the horrendous HTML. My first direct democratic action will be a petition forcing them to hire a web designer.
posted by iamck at 11:51 PM on November 10, 2002


I've always thought elections by lottery (warning: blatant self link) could be a solution to both the problems of representative and direct democroacy. Granted a lottery would introduce a new set of problems (electing a complete loon for example) so it isn't perfect. But it does get rid of money in elections (because there will be no elections) and the need for political parties.
posted by PenDevil at 1:18 AM on November 11, 2002


PenDevil...that was Plato's exact idea for governing, more or less. "philosopher dictator" and all that. In fact, many Greek posts were chosen by lottery. It has some big problems, as I'm sure you're aware.
posted by Kevs at 6:26 AM on November 11, 2002


I always thought Switzerland did fairly well on the directness of its democracy front (and cuckoo clocks, obviously).
posted by lerrup at 6:51 AM on November 11, 2002


What if people think the country is in trouble, but not as much trouble as they are individually in; or that the voting system is not adequate to fix any of the perceived problems in the country.

Well, then they should vote to change their representation. Our system is already set up to be changeable. If the voters feel that there is a bad enough problem with the system they can elect representatives who agree and want to also change the system. Its that simple. Unfortunately for those that do find problems it doesn't appear that a plurality of voters agree with you, and thus we have the more conservative (those who wish to conserve the status quo) party in control of all branches of our government.

Other than that, if you feel that DD will eliminate corporate meddling or the power of money in governance, just turn on your TV, I'm sure one of those scare tactic ads will pop up soon. "Don't let Congress take away YOUR Medicaid benefits" Who said anything about taking away someone's benefits? That would be political suicide!
posted by Pollomacho at 7:47 AM on November 11, 2002


Oh dear lord, don't give the people direct power to do anything important. People are ignorant and capricious

given that McDonalds is the most popular place to eat, and Coca-Cola the most popular thing to drink, and films like Pearl Harbor are the most popular forms of entertainment, and Britney Spears is the most popular performer -- I don't want to know what the most popular legislation would be, and I certainly don't want to live under it.

Frankly, I'd much rather have only educated voters vote than have everyone vote


It's amazing how hostile to the spirit of democracy some Americans can be.
posted by Summer at 8:34 AM on November 11, 2002


Sumner -

If some of us are hostile to the spirit of democracy, as you call it, maybe there's a reason. Kevs said it best. Do you LIVE in Oregon, or anywhere else that small experiments in direct democracy are taking place?

In Oregon, we have the most convoluded system in the nation. Every election year, we have dozens of ballot measures. I work for a college newspaper, and this year we had to figure out how to cover a total of 26 different state, city and local ballot measures and put them all in our newspaper. Twenty-six. I was so sick of it all by the time elections came, and it still took me two hours to read through the ballot pamphlet to figure out my yes/no/yes routine.

It bothers me that so many people are apathetic about politics. But I think the more you try to bring in issues like direct democracy, the less people will care. Keeping up with politics can be a full time job. And it will be under direct democracy. It's bad enough here in Oregon, where we can't even pass decent ballot measures lots of the time because a few years ago there was an initiative that required 50 percent of people to VOTE on money measures for them to pass.
posted by Happydaz at 9:07 AM on November 11, 2002


Unfortunately though Summer sometimes the people choose badly. They tramp on the rights of minorities and vote with their passions for the moment and don't think in terms of the long run. People tend to vote for things like cutting immigrants out of education and hospitals (as in California), not thinking about the waves of uneducated, sick people that will be crowding in around them regardless. They institutionalize racist and sexist institutions, such as exist in much of the world particularly infamous being those in the American South. Representatives of the nation as a whole had to integrate the schools in Mississippi, not the people of MS, these are the same people that just voted to keep the confederate flag as part of the state flag recently. Sometimes we need representatives that take a stand against what is the most popular, to emancipate the slaves or to say that appeasing Hitler is a bad idea, sometimes the people won't do those things on their own, I don't think that its necessarily hostile towards democracy to say that either. Good representatives stand for the best interest of their constituency, not what is most popular.

Oh, and I'd caution you not to specify that hostility towards democracy is purely an American trait. Your sentence could just as easily change the word American for any nationality, yes, even British. So maybe I should end by saying its amazing how hostile towards public discourse some Brits (or Americans, or Germans, or Chinese, or Hondurans...) can be.
posted by Pollomacho at 9:25 AM on November 11, 2002


Perhaps my experiences working in tech support have made me too cynical to properly address this issue, but I will say it anyway. The majority of Americans are too stupid and lazy to take part in any sort of direct democracy.
posted by monkeyman at 9:42 AM on November 11, 2002


Oh, and I'd caution you not to specify that hostility towards democracy is purely an American trait. Your sentence could just as easily change the word American for any nationality, yes, even British.

Yes, I realise that. I'm not saying it's a particularly American trait, simply that democracy as an ideal is meant to be closer to the hearts of Americans than those of other nations.

I'm no more an advocate for direct democracy than anyone else here - too messy, too bureaucratic - but the idea that uneducated people shouldn't have a say disturbs me. Surely the point is representation. Democracy shouldn't be about voting for people who exist in a higher plane dictating down what is in the people's interests in some kind of patriarchal way. It should be about interpreting the will of the people to your best ability, for good or ill.

In the UK, for example, I bet if there was a referendum on capital punishment the majority would be pro, yet it is very, very unlikely it will be reinstated and I'm happy about that. However, you have to question how democratic that is.
posted by Summer at 9:44 AM on November 11, 2002


If you'd held a referendum in in the colonies in 1776 it would have been very unlikely that there would have even been a United States to hold democracy so close to its heart!

That aside, no, democracy shouldn't be about some aristocracy imposing its will on the masses either, that is very contrary to the ideal as well. However DD or mob rule as it could be called is often just that, the will of the many to impose its will upon all people without regard to the rights of the few. Within a representative government the minority voice may not have control but at least their voice is heard. Your party of choice may not be in power in the majority in congress, parliament, reichstag or whatever you may call it or your specific district, county or prefecture may not be represented by your choice, but there are still representatives of your beliefs that are trumpeting your cause in the halls somewhere or they are at least trying to get into office.
posted by Pollomacho at 11:23 AM on November 11, 2002


It has some big problems, as I'm sure you're aware.

So does the current system, as I'm sure you're aware. As with any major issue like this, the question is not "which system will have no flaws" (answer: none), the question is "which system will have fewer (or less serious) flaws, X or Y." We don't know how DD would work, but the current system is pretty dreadful. And Summer is of course right that all y'all arguing against DD are making anti-democratic arguments; they may be correct arguments, but don't gloss over their nature. (And remember that the accusation of "mob rule" was thrown at every expansion of the franchise back to the (UK) First Reform Act of 1832 and beyond.
posted by languagehat at 12:13 PM on November 11, 2002


)
posted by languagehat at 12:13 PM on November 11, 2002


>Good representatives stand for the best interest of their constituency, not what is most popular.

So when a state is being muscled by the feds for its lax stance on marijuana laws or death with dignity laws, then who exactly is to blame here? Bad initiatives or bad representatives?

If DD does become popular it'll be as a check against federal muscling. Your entire post relies on the assumption that what is done on a local or state level actually happens. That is not the case. Sure the feds can pass all sorts of neato anti-discrimination laws, but at the same time push progressive state laws into the trashbin.

DD is workable. So far there are no good arguments, in my opinion, on why DD wouldn't work. All I'm seeing is that DD is wrong because it would empower lower classes and local opinions. DD can be anything really. It can be another branch of government. Perhaps a people's veto, like the presidential power. Or a full blown legislative branch.
posted by skallas at 12:22 PM on November 11, 2002


And don't forget that uneducated often = poor. Exclude the uneducated/poor from having a say and that correlation becomes even more true.
posted by Summer at 12:59 PM on November 11, 2002


I think at the level of many states we have a pretty good happy medium: representative government to handle the great volume of complex and subtle issues of government; and the ability to take it to the people via referenda when we need to make a simple and sweeping change.

The trouble with DD is that it's not amenable to the sort of debate and compromise that can work the kinks out of a difficult bill. Often a basically decent bill has so many defects that it can't possibly pass. In the legislature these get hammered out in committee. By the time it comes to a vote, they have a pretty good idea how its going to go.

Arguably this strength is also a weakness -- good bills can also be watered down or suffer parasitical riders; bad bills can be loaded with pork to get them passed anyway.

At the State level, we may have the best, if still imperfect system. But at the national level, I would like to see some kind of recall election mechanism instituted: put the fear of public wrath into some of our less representative representatives, to say nothing of the executive branch.
posted by George_Spiggott at 3:08 PM on November 11, 2002


If the voters feel that there is a bad enough problem with the system they can elect representatives who agree and want to also change the system. Its that simple. Unfortunately for those that do find problems* it doesn't appear that a plurality of voters agree with you, and thus we have the more conservative (those who wish to conserve the status quo) party in control of all branches of our government.

That is a rather simplistic view. *This point is critical, since it assumes some people find problems while others do not based on their preferences when actually it is probably more due to their education about issues. This view also ignores that the majority of conduits to education about issues are controlled by organizations with a vested interest in not changing anything drastically.

It's nice to pretend that when someone votes Green party, for example, they are doing something to affect change, and that everyone else who votes Republican is equally aware of all the issues and just has differing opinions, but that is not the case. It is this view in which our system seems inadequate to fix problems, if you think corporatism is fundamentally a problem how likely is it that people will be educated about these issues from corporations?
posted by rhyax at 7:45 PM on November 11, 2002


So far there are no good arguments, in my opinion, on why DD wouldn't work.

People are assholes. I've got nothing beyond that.
posted by Hildago at 11:17 PM on November 11, 2002


Let's see where to start?

So when a state is being muscled by the feds for its lax stance on marijuana laws or death with dignity laws, then who exactly is to blame here? Bad initiatives or bad representatives?

Bad voters, why is it that they can push through a "progressive" referendum but can't elect public officials that will pass them? Its up to the voters to make the choice for which person best represents their interests, just as in DD it is up to them to decide which side is in their best interest. Apparently the plurality of voters in this country feel that marijuana is best left illegal and that euthanasia is immoral, regardless if you agree with them or not, they have voted and the issue is closed for the time being, until representatives more sympathetic to these causes are elected, sorry, that's the breaks. It doesn't matter if you have representative or direct democracy, you still lose sometimes and you still have to deal with laws you don't agree with, that's part of democracy too.

That is a rather simplistic view. *This point is critical, since it assumes some people find problems while others do not based on their preferences when actually it is probably more due to their education about issues. This view also ignores that the majority of conduits to education about issues are controlled by organizations with a vested interest in not changing anything drastically.

Yes, it was certainly a simplified view, but not terribly off track. Just because someone reads about an issue in Mother Jones instead of the National Review, won't automatically and suddenly make them chuck off their Republican views. Are you suggesting that there are no educated nor well read conservatives, that if they only read more that they would suddenly rush off to a Nader rally? Let me remind you that W went to Harvard, an institution that many in his own party would call a hot bed of liberal thought, yet he doesn't seem to waiver far from his conservatism, he does so despite his education on the issues. Its also a nice thought that if the people decide issues that the corporate power structure would be somehow disrupted, however doesn't it just make it all that much easier, especially if you think that corporate education sways the public so much. Those that hold the money, the advertising time and control the broadcast media will hold the power, just look what they've been able to do to the world's waist lines and pocket books through the ultimate direct democracy, the capitalist marketplace!
posted by Pollomacho at 7:56 AM on November 12, 2002


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