The Lure of Direct Democracy Radical Bleeding Heart image

The Promise and the Reality

The reasons that we have a representative democracy, in which citizens elect executives and legislators to handle the day to day business of governing, are fairly obvious. Millions of citizens cannot sit down together and make the many and complex decisions that must be made. Even if we could, we have our own lives to live; we do not have the time or expertise to make those decisions. That is why we call on experts. We do it in our daily lives. We call on plumbers to handle our water supply and drainage problems, and mechanics to fix our automobiles. And we elect people to govern our country according to our wishes and values.

But ever since the founding of the United States, with its promise of government by, for, and of the people, that ideal has been subverted by powerful elites. One way or another, they manage to corrupt or coopt our elected officials.

As much as we might like to imagine an idyllic past when democracy flourished pure and unsullied, it has been ever thus. The struggle to make government serve the people is never-ending.

Thus the appeal of direct democracy: it is an attempt to bypass the corrupt politicians with what, essentially, is legislation voted on directly by the people.

During the Progressive Era in American political history several innovations in direct democracy were introduced which are still with us. First discussed in the 1890s, they were adopted by many states during the first two decades of the twentieth century. Thomas Goebel did an extensive study of this movement:

The initiative gives citizens the power to place a proposition on the ballot subject to popular vote. Some states allow the use of the initiative for both constitutional amendments and statutes; others limit its application to statutes only. The referendum, which is much less frequently used today than the initiative, gives citizens the power to either accept or reject specific legislation that was enacted by a legislature. The recall compels an elected official to face a special election before his or her tenure in office has come to an end. (3)

All three are still in use in many states, but the most important is the initiative, which in effect allows the citizens to directly vote on legislation. Sometimes, as in Florida, this takes the form of amendments to the state constitution. The purpose of all three was to reduce or eliminate the influence of big money special interests on the political process. It did not work. In fact, they have been taken over by the big money special interests.

Direct democracy campaigns are hugely expensive. Gathering petitions can rarely be accomplished primarily by volunteers; it must be done by petition firms and can cost more than $1 million. To succeed, many more millions must be spent on TV ads.

Christopher Georges, in an essay about Ross Perot's proposed “teledemocracy” in the 1990s, pointed out that “More, not less, money is spent in direct democracy politics than in representative politics.” He argues that voters are more likely to be conned by direct appeals from special interests than elected representatives are to be corrupted by them. This is how he puts it:

Look at it this way: If you are a salesman trying to sell a car to an 80-year-old woman, would you rather deal with her, or her representative — her son the lawyer? For the monied interests, that's a no-brainer. (42)

The problem is that direct democracy does not eliminate the need for tremendous amounts of money. It is just spent to determine individual issues rather than on the election of politicians. And then you still have the fundamental problem with direct democracy: the fact that individual citizens have lots on their minds and must rely on impressions to decide about issues. Expensive television campaigns are the most effective way to create those impressions.

Goebel provides some sobering facts about money spent in California initiatives:

Campaign expenditures commonly run into the millions for opponents and advocates alike. Behind the headlines generated by individual campaigns lie the stark figures that reveal the truly staggering costs of initiative campaigns. A commission investigating direct democracy in California estimated that $127 million was spent on these campaigns alone in 1988; in 1996 that figure, according to the California secretary of state, had climbed to more than $141 million. Most of the funds are contributed by business interests. Of the eighteen most expensive petition campaigns between 1956 and 1990, 83 percent of the funds came from business, 8 percent was donated by individuals, 3 percent was raised by labor, 2 percent by officeholders, and 1 percent by the political parties. In 1990, 67 percent of all the money raised came in donations of over $100,000, and 37 percent came as the result of contributions of over $1 million. Small contributions of under $1,000 accounted for 78 percent of the total number of contributions but for just 6 percent of the money received. Business interests clearly dominate the initiative process in California and other states. (194)

Direct democracy is not the solution.

[Back to Fix Democracy First]