Tuesday, May 26, 2009
California Daze: Direct Democracy's Disadvantages
Today presents another blow to the dream of direct democracy. The idea of having the citizens vote on the issues, not just on who represents them, suffered another setback when California's Supreme Court allowed Prop 8 to stand. The process of targeting one segment of the society and reducing their rights was, apparently, within the hands of the people of California. I have always been uneasy with the idea that a thin majority can result in sweeping changes. Up here, the example is always the Quebec referenda, but in the US, it is California propositions.
I lived in California for five years and got to vote on a number of propositions in my short time, including the famous set where different interest groups offered competing and conflicting proposals to re-regulate the auto insurance industry. Voters would get a booklet with both short and long explanations of the proposition with statements by prominent individuals and groups on both sides of each proposition. One of the UCSD profs at the time, Skip Lupia, who has since moved on, worked on this issue--that people really didn't vote on a deep understanding of the issue but on who was associated with which proposition. Being endorsed by the insurance companies or the lawyers was, if I remember correctly, a kiss of death. Kind of like being endorsed by George Bush or Dick Cheney. Direct democracy had lost its quaint idealism by that time (the early 90's), and instead became a process by which the mobilized interests could overwhelm the regular political process and make laws that were simply bad--bad for the people, bad for the government and clearly bad in the long term.
Anyhow, the tale of direct democracy in California is a series of emotionally laden but dubious ideas becoming law. Prop 13 on property taxes and subsequent fiscal measures passed by proposition have hamstrung the California political system, leaving it incapable of responding to the economic crisis (abetted by the remaining Republicans that make the 2/3s rule for tax increases a real barrier). We should not be surprised that Prop 8 came to be--that it was pushed by a well-funded group, that its opponents failed to organize as well as they should, and that now California is stuck.
The only good thing to come out of this is to remind us that institutions, such as specific forms of representative democracy, can be and should be designed to prevent tyranny of the majority. The tradeoff is that we then see tyranny of the minority, as the Republicans in the California state political process have demonstrated. I guess I see the risk of tyranny of majority to be greater and more likely than the dangers if tyranny of the minority. Perhaps that makes me an American more so than any other belief I hold. Or not.