Much of the body politic is cynical and unsatisfied with American government. According to the study, Trends in Political Values and Core Attitudes: 1987-2009, published by the Pew Research Center for the People &’ the Press, more than three-fourths, 76 percent, of the people believe that "elected officials in Washington lose touch with the people pretty quickly." The majority of citizens, 51 percent, also believe that "people like me don’t have any say in what the government does." Citizens feel they lack efficacy because they believe their voices are outweighed by the influence that special interest groups wield over government policy. A Taubman Center for Public Policy Survey from 2004 indicates that 64 percent of Americans agree "the government is pretty much run by a few big interests looking out for themselves."
Many people believe that instituting direct democracy could change dissatisfaction with the government and the lack of political participation. Under the Democracy Act, donations to campaigns for initiatives would be limited to "persons." This would help negate the power special interest groups currently wield over elections and politics as a whole. As John Dewey famously declared, "the cure for the ailments of democracy is more democracy."
The heyday of direct democracy was during the Progressive movement. Out of the 24 states that have initiative and referendum, most received it between 1895 and 1943. With the coming of World War I and then World War II, the flurry of political reform began to die down. The supporters of the initiative and referendum envisioned a regeneration of American society that would be brought about by destroying the monopolies and trusts of large corporations.
While supporters were successful in legalizing initiatives in approximately half of all states, they have not managed to create a national initiative. After World War II, it was not until 1977 that the concept of a national ballot measure was again raised in Congress. Since Congress, as a whole, has never been receptive to the legalization of direct legislation, the National Initiative for Direct Democracy decided to institute a national initiative without Congressional consent.
Philadelphia II, a nonprofit organization, has been gathering signatures since 1992 for the National Initiative for Democracy, which is composed of the Democracy Amendment and Democracy Act. The National Initiative for Democracy would amend the Constitution and institute direct democracy throughout the United States. In the event this amendment gathers enough signatures to be enacted, the nature, composition and character of American federal and state government would be drastically altered. The National Initiative for Democracy is important since it will determine whether American democracy remains solely representative, or whether it will move closer to Jean Jacques Rousseau’s ideal democracy of direct citizen participation. The Democracy Amendment declares and affirms the sovereign power of the American people to create their own laws, while the Democracy Act details the establishment of the legislative procedures, which will allow citizens to create legislation.
Members in Congress are not eager to support the Democracy Amendment since it would weaken their power. Likewise, powerful special interest groups do not lend support to the National Initiative for Democracy because it would upset the status quo. Special interest groups are able to lobby Congress and pass legislation that benefits a distinct portion of the population. Under initiatives, legislation would come to reflect the median voters’ political preference. This would cause a shift away from the current status quo and thus it would negatively impact the established special interest groups. The National Initiative of Democracy has, for the most part, not been attacked or critiqued because it is not viewed as a legitimate threat.
Thus far, the National Initiative has flown relatively low on the nation’s political radar. It has predominantly been an Internet movement supported by the Democracy Foundation and vote.org. In order to be most effective the National Initiative needs to be brought to the attention of the general public. As individuals we may be unable to personally contact enough people to pass the amendment, but by raising awareness and encouraging deliberation we can educate people about the current movement for direct democracy.
Gordon Morrisette is a School of Arts and Sciences sophomore majoring in political science and history. His column, Progressive Offensive, runs on alternate Wednesdays.