Is This the End of Direct Democracy?

Republicans are refusing to respect the will of the people around the country. It’s time for a change in tactics.

Ron DeSantis, governor of Florida and opponent of the state’s latest controversial referendum. Source: Flickr

The past ten years of Republican dominance on the state level have led to a number of curious developments and overreaches. Depending on the state, Republicans have enacted most if not all of the policies that have driven the conservative movement for decades. There have been efforts to strip local governments as well as the occasional Democratic governor of power. Republicans have also consistently undermined the will of voters, particularly on referendums. In Maine, Republican governor Paul LePage refused to expand Medicaid even after a popular referendum passed with considerable support. The assembly in Michigan simply passed a law nullifying a 2016 referendum on the state’s undemocratic emergency manager law. Most recently, Florida lawmakers voted to gut a referendum that would have restored voting access to felons. As Mark Joseph Stern of Slate wrote in March, “It took years for civil rights advocates to pass Amendment 4 and remove the stain of Jim Crow from Florida’s constitution. Just four months later, Republicans are poised to cut the heart out of the signal voting rights triumph of the century so far.”

Direct democracy remains a popular avenue for activists and voters wanting to work outside the traditional party structure. But this form of government requires a certain level of trust that no longer exists in our political world.

Direct democracy was originally a technocratic enterprise born from the Progressive Era. The reformers of the Progressive era wanted to work outside of what they viewed as corrupt political machines and party bosses. Initiatives, referendums, and recalls would help to break up these institutions and allow the people to have a say on the country’s most pressing political issues. These rules worked for decades and were followed by the nation’s state legislatures. They helped produce some of the most dramatic political moments of the past 50 years. Some have furthered conservative causes, such as California’s Proposition 13 curbing property taxes and Amendment 1, a North Carolina referendum banning same-sex marriage in 2012. Liberals have gained from efforts by Colorado and Washington voters to legalize marijuana, and voters in other states who have banned excessive campaign contributions and imposed nonpartisan redistricting commissions.

The direct democracy project has failed to overcome our current hyperpartisan era, however. Direct democracy always depended on legislators working in good faith to implement the will of the people. But in recent years, numerous Republican lawmakers have simply ignored the mandates of direct democracy and passed laws that nullify their effects. This violation of norms has often resulted in little more than a few fiery speeches and critiques by Democratic publications. Notably, many of the lawmakers who proposed these violations of civic norms remain in power. There has been no subsequent polling drop after these referendums were violated. Ignoring a referendum apparently does not doom a politician’s chances at reelection, which means it will certainly continue to happen whenever Republicans think such a move benefits them.

Direct democracy can be useful for activists in states where their party holds control. It can be a clear signal that a party should take a particular action that they are reluctant to embrace. But in other states, activists simply cannot rely anymore on referendums and other tactics of direct democracy to accomplish their goals. They need to place their focus solely on the Democratic Party. Long-term Democratic victories are the only way that liberal activists will be able to implement the policy preferences they hold dear.

I’m a writer interested in the intersections of history, ideas, and politics. I publish every week.

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