The Talisman of Direct Democracy

Posted: 20 August 2013 in Local Issues

The following concerns some issues in my local community.  FYI: The Vanguard is a local newsblog

In an April 2011 in-depth report The Economist catalogued the failure of California’s 100-year experience with direct democracy. And while it reserved special ire for ballot initiatives, it also questioned the way that referendums and even recalls (the two other forms of direct democracy in our state) have been implemented, concluding that the de facto “citizen legislature” has “caused chaos”.

Contrasting California’s approach to direct democracy with that of Switzerland, The Economist noted that while the Swiss model was designed to move opponents towards compromise, the California system was designed to create confrontation. The result, the report argues, is a fragmented and even contradictory legislative process, an ineffective and bound legislature, opaque budgeting and appropriations processes and a disjointed constitution.  What goes unexamined in the analysis is the effect of direct democracy on local political processes.

As the calls multiply for various issues to be placed on the ballot here in Davis (The Vanguard noted four possible initiatives on August 20th), I think it is important for us to take a critical look at the purpose of these calls, and examine alternatives that remove the confrontation inherent in them while providing us with what we as a community need to move forward on contentious issues.

I am not opposed to direct democracy—especially if it is deployed to hold elected officials accountable.  But in order to use it effectively for that purpose we must focus first on increasing accountability in a way that makes referendums rare—a kind of last resort for when the priorities of the community are disregarded.

I have two major concerns about the use of direct democracy—especially for initiatives or to contest ordinances that are, obviously contentious but consistent with community priorities:  First, direct democracy requires an informed electorate—one that can not only understand the pros and cons of a particular initiative but place its value within the context of the broader needs of the community.  Second, and related to this point, because a city is a complex (if adaptive) system, any significant decision will have knock-on effects and be in tension with other priorities. As a result, and by their very nature, initiatives tend to be very narrowly focused and framed without reference to competing needs.

The history of initiatives at the state level demonstrates that both of these problems have plagued our “experiment” in direct democracy and because of their confrontational nature they do not lead to the kind of community dialogue that could lead to constructive compromise.  Too often they are developed and promoted by narrow special interests that seek advantages for a limited group of citizens.

While Davisites pride themselves in being informed and aware of local issues, it is difficult to argue that even a majority of citizens are engaged enough to cast an informed vote on a given issue (as evidence I appeal the percentage of people who, though registered, do not participate in local elections). Further, we are naïve if we think that special interests will not come, over time, to inhabit our local direct democracy processes.

Ballot initiatives are taken hostage to demagoguery, misinformation and rank fear mongering as proponents/opponents seek to compel their co-citizens to vote.  These realities characterize nearly every ballot initiative I have been part of since moving to California nearly 15 years ago.

Obviously, I am not suggesting that Davis “go it alone” and somehow attempt to limit citizens’ ability to use the direct democracy tools granted us in our state constitution.  Rather, I am asking us to consider what we might do to increase our confidence in our representational form of government so that our local elected officials can get on with making the hard decisions of governing our city. Again, I feel this is important because the issues facing our city are complex—and we need an informed group of elected citizens to account for this complexity in the decisions they make. We need leaders who understand that it is their role to consider the “big picture” in their decisions and help citizens to understand this, even if said citizens passionately disagree with leaders about decisions leaders make.

What then do we need to assure the foregoing and move towards both greater accountability and trust?  I would suggest four steps: 1) develop, update and routinely appeal to clear “end” statements in our decision making; 2) eliminate money from local elections; 3) facilitate more opportunities for face-to-face interaction between elected officials and citizens; 4) challenge candidates to articulate the values and principles that will underpin their deliberations and decision making processes.

Before describing each of these in a bit more detail I want to note a reality we must all acknowledge. The truth is that we, like all Americans of this era, live in what Rick Perlstein calls Nixonland.  That is, we live in a time when our political discourse is characterized by intentionally constructing a deep sense of mistrust in our elected officials. “Nixonland” is a place in which the motives of politicians are known a priori and those motives are uniformly evil.  I am not suggesting that our elected officials are “pure” or above reproach, but what I am saying is that our default is to not give our leaders the space to lead because we are constantly questioning both their intentions and their fitness to lead.  It is hard to build trust in “Nixonland” but if we at least acknowledge that it is in the very air we breathe we may be able to curtail its worst excesses.

To build deeper trust through accountability we first need to be clear on the ends we are trying to achieve as a community.  I fully understand that conflict is more frequently found in the “how” than in the “what” but without clear ends towards which are agreed to collectively move, all decisions become subject to fundamental conflict over the objectives we are trying to achieve.  Several commenters on The Vanguard have noted that our General Plan is in need of updating and it is critical to do so because it functions as the key “ends” document of our city (there are others but we should be careful not to multiply them and assure they are grounded in the General Plan—a topic requiring further discussion).

However, we do not need to just create such documents (ideally through a citizen-centered process), but we must also actively use them.  Staff should be required to demonstrate how its recommendations are or are not consistent with our ends documents and that not in some perfunctory way, but with clarity and a critical assessment. City Council should expect the City Manager to utilize the ends documents as key guideposts and any goals it sets should be made in clear reference to it.  We must actively use these documents to frame the debates of this city and update them in a routine way. Commissions (a critical way citizens speak into our decision making processes) should be challenged to frame their actions in relation to these documents.

Part (or even a great deal) of the mistrust concerning our elected officials concerns money: who gives it, in what ways or amounts (notwithstanding locally-accepted limits) and to what ends.  I fully understand that we cannot legislate taking money out of local politics (it is apparently now enshrined as part of our free speech rights).  However, we can expect and even demand that our candidates run campaigns without it.  Raising money has become a kind of proxy for “support” or the “seriousness” of a given campaign but it comes with costs: both opportunity costs (how else could those resources be deployed?), and the cost to our degraded discourse because of the doubt its mobilization casts on the entire process.

Getting money out of our local electoral process is linked to the need to find more creative ways for our candidates and leaders to meaningfully engage with the citizens they represent.  Money does permit candidates to “connect”—albeit indirectly—with residents so eliminating it means we need to find ways to create connections—hopefully more meaningful connections. This leads me to believe that some form of regional election process is necessary for our city.  Connecting with 70,000 residents requires a mass marketing approach.  Connecting to a fifth of that number, while challenging, may allow for more personal, face-to-face interactions especially if that fifth is geographically defined.  I have lived here long enough to know that this idea has been (softly) batted around on and off for years.  I am suggesting it as a means to create more personal connections, more accountable encounters, and a greater sense of connection that leads to deeper trust between citizens and elected leaders.

Finally, we need to engage (in these more personal spaces) our candidates and elected officials in a different way.  We must spend more time helping them tease out for us the values, principles and motivations that underlie their decision making processes.  The more we understand the motivations the more we can challenge leaders about how their decisions are or are not consistent with them.  The more we understand them the less prone we will be to accept the gratuitous mudslinging that characterizes Nixonland.

We face complex choices and decisions that must account for the complexity while staying true to the “ends” we seek.  Direct democracy is poorly suited to deal with the complexity and, though promises are made to the contrary, does not lead to a better informed debate and dialogue on the issues.  We need to allow our leaders to lead by knowing them and their motivations better, by keeping them focused on critical ends with a deeper assurance that they are not unduly influenced by unseen forces.

Representative democracy is not a talisman but it is the best-suited approach to moving our community ahead as we face the continuing complex challenges of our age.  Strengthening it should be our priority.

  1. Lisa Schirch says:

    Fascinating blog… thanks for writing this!

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