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2012 Democratic Candidate Harry Braun's call for more direct democracy should be heeded

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | JULY 28, 2011 7:20 AM

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Democratic presidential candidate Harry Braun's solution to the nation's problems is a constitutional amendment only 26 words long:
"We the People hereby empower the majority of American citizens to approve all federal legislation, executive orders, and judicial decisions that affect the majority of citizens."

Enacting this as the 28th Amendment would effectively institute direct democracy in the United States, allowing the citizens to directly vote on all legislation that has gone through Congress. Braun's Democracy Amendment in its current form is imperfect, but alternate structural changes — including a referendum system on major national issues — should be considered as a way to empower the American people and beat back our entrenched citizen apathy.

"We have never been a democracy," Braun told the DI Editorial Board Tuesday. "We are a republic." This is true: the American legislature is representative, and American citizens have no direct way of proposing or approving legislation.

Braun's democracy amendment would change that. Congress would still write laws, he said, but every law would face a referendum by the citizens; in other words, no major change would occur in the country unless it was supported by a majority of the public.

The downsides to this idea are obvious and perhaps overly touted: An exhausting process for change would privilege the status quo; in an increasingly bitter and vitriolic political culture, every minor issue would become a tedious campaign; and it's unlikely citizens have the energy or time to vote on every minor piece of legislation.

But there are upsides to direct citizen participation, including an elimination of the special-interest machine, greater voter turnout, and — most plainly — an actualization of the popular will. Braun is correct about the increased need for democracy in this country, and the popular discounting of direct democracy as valid political procedure is unfair.

Voter turnout in the 2010 midterm elections was only 40 percent nationwide, leaving elected officials' legitimacy in shreds. It's become a truism that Americans in general are apathetic about politics. Braun insists that's a direct result of powerlessness, and it's hard to disagree: If voters don't feel as though their vote actually counts, they're unlikely to be motivated to cast it.

Even worse, the primacy of voting for candidates serves to play down other methods of democratic expression. "Elections enact a kind of primal myth in which 'the people' designate who is to rule them, that is, who is authorized to wield governmental power," political philosopher Sheldon Wolin writes in Democracy Incorporated. "In the identification of democracy largely with voting, there is the risk that legitimation can become automatic, tantamount to a slippery slope ending in Tocqueville's submissive citizenry."

Direct policy votes — at least on some issues — would go a long way toward preventing docile acceptance of agendas pushed by elected officials. In Switzerland, the country that comes closest to a direct democracy, a citizen can challenge any law passed by Parliament to a referendum by collecting 50,000 signatures in a 100-day period (0.6 percent of the population). Citizens can also organize popular initiatives to directly change the Constitution.

The United States isn't ready for a referendum system of this type. But it would be fairly easy to institute referendums on issues of primary national importance. The decision to remain at war is one such example; war referendums have been pushed by various lawmakers in the past, although none recently.

The vision of a democracy is that the people, sufficiently educated and invested, are capable of governing themselves. This is fundamentally opposed to conceptions of elitist rule, including those advanced by America's Founding Fathers. With sufficient protection for minority rights (Braun noted that Switzerland approved by nationwide referendum rights for same-sex couples), there's no reason that more power shouldn't be given directly to the people.

Braun acknowledges that Congress wouldn't voluntarily pass such an amendment. Instead, he aims to invoke a little-used clause in Article V of the Constitution that would force Congress to propose an amendment requested by two-thirds of the state legislatures. From there, it would be up to the states — and their citizens — to ratify it.

"By the rules that I define a Democrat, we don't have any Democrats," Braun said. "We have Republicans who call themselves Democrats, but if you look at the way our government works, it's not of the people by the people."

That's a shame. And Braun's idea, while radical, is a welcome addition to the popular discourse.


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