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Opinion


How direct democracy helps US become a better place



By Bruno Kaufmann




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By Bruno Kaufmann

Poor America! At first sight the recent US midterm elections offer little relief. America’s traumatised society seems unable to find common ground on anything. But there is a way forward and it comes via direct democracy, reports Bruno Kaufmann, editor-in-chief of people2power.info.

The immigration official at the “Welcome” counter couldn’t believe his ears when I told him why I was visiting America. “What the h…, this is not a democracy, this is a republic!” he shouted at me when I told him I planned to engage in conversations on democracy. 

The public controversy around what kind of government and political system America has or should have is as old as the country itself. The Republican struggle over democracy and the democratic debate about the republic is the first of many traumas modern citizens in America (and beyond) have to struggle with. There are many other deep and traumatic divisions, including the Civil War, the Great Depression and violent wars around the world, which have antagonized the two main political parties of the country, the Democrats and the Republicans, something which the Founding Fathers worried about. ”There is nothing, which I dread so much as a division of the republic into two great parties,” wrote John Adams in 1780. 

In addition to historically grown divisions between ethnic groups, urban and rural areas, religious and non-religious groups, the American political system has been weakened by partisan efforts to gerrymander (adapting electoral districts to special interests), disenfranchise voters (by bureaucratising the registration process) and creating so-called Super PACs, or political action committees that engage in unlimited political spending independently of campaigns (equating free speech with money). 

As a result, in the November 4 elections just 5% of the House of Representative’s 435 districts were truly competitive and in 69 races there was simply just one candidate. In addition, the first round of elections in June (incorrectly named ”primaries”) only attracted 20% of the electorate, traditionally extremely conservative or liberal voters. 

While presidential elections may get much higher turnouts (up to 80% of the registered voters), only 40% took part in the 2014 “anti-Obama” mid-terms: a largely unrepresentative aging, white, wealthy electorate, which gave the Republicans solid majorities in both Congress chambers. An increasingly frustrated electorate acknowledges these failures by simply no longer participating in the many elections for political offices. 

At first glance American democracy offers little relief to concerned citizens inside and outside the country. And my recent field trip to 20 US states over the past 20 days provided considerable evidence that the US is still a tribal society built on divisions between constitutional entities, ethnical groups and donor-driven political parties. Just find one leading politician in this country who doesn’t want to take his extended family up on stage. 

Four out of five cities have direct democracy

Traditionally, US and international media focus their electoral coverage on the power games around the White House and Capitol Hill at the federal level or governor mansions and state capitols across the states. 

However, my intensive travels, meetings and conversations in places like South Pasadena (California), Carthage (Missouri), Birmingham (Alabama) and Manhattan (New York) gave a very different perspective on American democracy – and a possible way forward for the country.

This comes through direct democracy: the right to launch initiatives and referendums, an idea that arrived on the American West Coast in the late 19th century via immigrants from Switzerland. Today, these are possible in 82% of American cities and 27 out of 50 states (all but Delaware recognise the mandatory referendum for constitutional amendments). 

This modern feature of representative democracy allowing citizens to set the agenda and make decisions on issues has proven to have a balancing impact on political outcomes. Despite its many flaws in many places like California, overall direct democracy has had a positive impact on the economy and provides a more efficient check on special interests, as it is easier to influence a small number of elected officials than the electorate at large. 

The November 4 popular votes across the US  demonstrated – not for the first time – that the citizen law-making process, as direct democracy is often labelled, can bring much light on the gloomy bipartisan-multi-billion-stalemate in Washington and state capitals. 

Out of a total of 158 state-level popular votes, 146 were held in 41 states. The results, delivered by the same electorate that gave the Republicans a landslide victory, supported proposals like higher government spending, better environmental protection, stronger checks on gun owners, the protection of abortion rights and – most prominently – the introduction of minimum wage legislation in many states. Or, as Huffington Post journalist Justine Sarver put it: “Progressive policies on economic fairness, voting rights and gun violence prevention resonate with voters.”

Going federal a difficult task

In contrast to the rather depressing news from the various office elections, citizens across the US have indeed found some interesting common ground. In Alaska and Oregon voters legalized marijuana and Californians liberalized the state’s penal code. The same is true at local levels, where hundreds of initiatives and referendums were decided at the ballot box on November 4, including the Texas town of Denton deciding to ban fracking, a controversial method to produce oil, and Maui in Hawaii banning genetically modified food. [For a full summary of all popular votes across the US see here]. 

”I would love to see more and better direct democracy across the US,” declared Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach when I met him in Kansas City  on election day.

The conservative Republican politician wrote his doctoral thesis in 1993 on Swiss direct democracy. In his view the initiative and referendum process makes America a better country – and could make it even better, if it was permitted at the federal level. 

However, owing to the extremely high hurdles to amend the constitution (two-thirds of Congress and three-quarters of all states), such a reform ”will not happen during my lifetime”, said the 47-year-old chief election officer. 

But while few people would have expected the fall of the Berlin Wall, the growing disfunctionalities of partisan American politics may produce some real reforms sooner than expected. Or, as The Economist magazine wrote in its November 8 edition: “If gridlock continues in Washington expect more direct democracy.”

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