The Case Against Referendums
Referendums are all the rage in my neck of the woods. On April 4, Madisonians will vote to call for the withdrawal of troops from Iraq and in November they vote on a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. In between, numerous school districts will sponsor referendums to request more money for our children.
I'm going to vote "no" on both of the major Wisconsin referendums, but my opposition to them got me thinking about how I feel about government by referendum in general. Do I feel so negative about referendums because I oppose the specifics of the latest batch, or do I think referendums are a bad idea in general?
After much thought, I'm coming out against referendums in general. I've supported greater public participation in government before. I read Strong Democracy, by Benjamin Barber in college and I was intrigued by the idea of participatory politics (side note: for those of you concerned about left wing college professors, please note that I graduated with a Political Science degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Madison! The liberal professors weren't able to turn me into one of them because my father actually discussed the issues of the day with me. The lesson: bitch less about your kids' teachers and actually talk to your kids). But now, I think referendums are a threat to the rule of law.
Contrary to popular belief, America is not a democracy. It's a representative republic. There's a world of difference between the two. At its essence, democracy is rule of the majority. A republic, on the other hand, is rule of law. In a democracy (or through a referendum), the law is determined by the wavering passion of the people. In a republic, that passion is filtered through elected officials. Those officials are not bound to public opinion, they're bound to the law. It's funny to me that so many people mock politicians who govern according to the polls, but then turn around and support various referendums to "send a message to Washington". We send messages to Washington all the time. They're called elections. And, believe me, politicians pay attention to them.
I see three big problems with a reliance on referendums. First, they can create a tyranny of the majority. The gay marriage ban amendment is a great example of this.
Second, they polarize and simplify debate. For an example, I'll once again turn to Wisconsin's gay marriage ban. The referendum is a yes or no question about whether to amend the constitution to ban same sex marriages and contracts that mimic marriage. Lots of people think that marriage is a sacrament that should only be shared by a man and a woman, but they think gay couples should have some legal recognition of their relationships. What do these voters do? Referendums eliminate the middle ground where most of the governing is actually done.
Finally, the public is ignorant. I mean that in the nicest way. The truth is that we the people do not have all the answers. We're busy living our lives, not vigorously analyzing all the issues of the day. That's why we hire people to do the governing for us. In the aftermath of the Dubai port debacle, it's easy to imagine a national referendum passing that prohibits certain US businesses and government agencies from brokering deals with Muslim nations. Would the public, ruled by their prejudices and insults, have any idea of the consequences of their actions? I don't think so. I think they'd place their vote and then leave it to their representatives to deal with the mess they created.
Referendums are the public's way of micromanaging their elected representatives. Lately it seems like we're in danger of turning into a nation of pointy-haired bosses.
Posted by at March 19, 2006 08:49 PM
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|# March 24th, 2006 11:21 AM BVBigBro|
|I must say, I disagree on all levels. Your three criticisms, a tyranny of the majority, polarization and ignorance are all applicable to the legislature at least as much as they are to the public as a whole.
Protections are in place to prevent a tyranny of the majority already. Referendums cannot amend the constitution with a simple majority. Further, what is more likely to produce tyranny, a ruling body of one person or two? Two or three? Several hundred, or several million?
As for polarization, the political system has produced rule by two parties. It produces at most two choices, when in fact, many may exist. That pretty much defines polarization. The referendum process transcends the politics of two parties to allow the consideration of other alternatives.
As for ignorance, politicians demonstrate on a frequent basis that they are very ignorant. Is the legislature better qualified than the average citizen to discuss firearms issues? Is your average legislator more informed than you about matters like free speech and blogging? The referendum process allows input to government by applying everyday common sense possessed by most people, but frequently missing in politicians, by allowing input from people affected by legislative decisions who have no pre-existing lobby, and by allowing input from people whose knowledge on the subject exceeds that of the legislature and the various lobbying groups.