Democracy has had a very good year. Citizens of country after country have lined up, often for hours and sometimes braving bullets, to cast ballots that changed their national lives.
Meanwhile, back in the U.S. of A., good-government types act like nagging parents, disappointed in their little American voter kids. Look at the good little Poles (or Nicaraguans, or Burmese), they say; they vote. Why can't you be more like them? We've given you every advantage—why are you so apathetic?
It's a good question. Americans like to think of themselves as the world's leading democrats, but, by the usual measures, we're none too pleased with our own democracy. Voter turnout is low and getting lower; around 40 percent is standard for a statewide primary. People intensely distrust the politicos who represent them. Given the chance—as on the California primary ballot—voters will support just about any "ethics" initiative that promises to control the people's supposed representatives.
Election-day America doesn't present a very pretty picture, especially compared to the edifying sight of all those Eastern Europeans flocking to the polls. But before we resort to the usual prescriptions for an ailing democracy—easy voter registration, tax-funded campaign financing, free airtime for candidates—we ought to contemplate what our real problem might be and what our democracy is supposed to be about.
One possibility is that the whole problem is imaginary. Americans don't vote because, unlike in Eastern Europe or Nicaragua or Peru, the stakes aren't very high. The country isn't fighting for its life or its freedom.
There may be real differences between candidates, but they're often subtle. More important, any successful candidate's individual power is modest. Hernando de Soto has said of Peru, "We elect a dictator every five years." When the president's powers are unlimited and unchecked, it is vitally important who gets elected.
American politicians do wield power but rarely as individuals. And the constitutional system deliberately constricts the power of the majority's representatives, even as a group. Ours is a system designed to protect electoral losers. It errs on the side of not getting things done.
Free-market advocates here often look longingly at Margaret Thatcher's Britain and rail against Congress for blocking Reagan's initiatives, or against Reagan for not pushing hard enough. They forget, however, that the same clotted politics that made the Reagan Revolution less than revolutionary also blocked once-popular socialist measures, from guaranteed minimum incomes to nationalized railroads and utilities. Hence, the frequent declaration that "the United States is the only Western nation that doesn't have…" Fill in the blank: national health insurance, mandatory vacation or maternity leave, a national family policy, etc. Reagan did less than Thatcher, but he also had less damage to undo.
This isn't to say, of course, that U.S. governments—federal, state, or local—can't get large or intrusive. It just requires more unanimity. That's why it's so scary when populace and politicians get whipped into a frenzy and all take off after the same problem, whether Communists in the State Department, drugs in the streets, or greenhouse gases in the air. When a system built on checks and balances overrides those protections, there's no telling what it will do. And once government does expand into new territories, the procedural safeguards make it nearly impossible to return to the old boundaries.
In his essay on political factions in The Federalist Papers, James Madison wrote of geographical divisions, "A rage for paper money, for an abolition of debts, for an equal division of property, or for any other improper or wicked project, will be less apt to pervade the whole body of the Union than a particular member of it." Over 200 years, we've managed to adopt most of Madison's hypothetical wicked projects, usually because political passions created supermajorities that overrode constitutional checks.
One of those passions is for democracy itself, rarely conceived as a Madisonian republic with lots of steps between the voter and the law. "The will of the people"—of the majority—becomes, in the popular imagination, justification enough for nearly any law.
That is why there is at least one place where Americans can elect a dictator. It is California, where ballot initiatives have all but replaced legislation. This Progressive direct democracy is a great system for winners—we tax cutters all love Prop. 13—but offers almost no protection for losers. For the sclerotic process of legislative deliberation and dealmaking, California has substituted a streamlined, modern system. And if you think that all democracy means is majority rule, it is a more democratic process as well.
But living and voting in California is a great way to gain appreciation for sclerotic government. Ballot initiatives have a nasty habit of setting up offices exempt from procedural safeguards: Californians have voted themselves an auto-insurance dictator; they seem prepared to install an environmental dictator as well. The only limit on such officials' power is aggressive intervention by the courts.
We don't have democracy for its own sake; we have it to protect ourselves from the tyranny of minorities. Liberal, or constitutional, democracy goes a step further. By limiting what kinds of laws the majority can make, and by interposing often-complex procedures between the public and those laws, it protects us from the tyranny of the majority.
It also guards us—imperfectly, to be sure—from our own ignorance. Ballot initiatives frequently lead Californians to vote on issues they know virtually nothing about—complicated reapportionment measures, for example.
Representative government may be subject to procedural inefficiencies, elitism, or potential corruption. But lawmakers do have a chance to learn about pending legislation. And legislative agendas aren't rigidly controlled the way ballot initiatives are. Once specified, an initiative can't be changed. But bills are easily amended, which dilutes the power of their drafters.
The legislative process also introduces a factor sorely missed in direct democracy: time. It usually takes a long time for a bill to become law—time for people to do research, to think, to change their minds. When it doesn't, as with the flag-burning prohibition, we can usually be certain that demagoguery is afoot.
Nagging people to vote without knowledge or deliberation trivializes political decisionmaking. That may be why citizens aren't especially likely to vote when important, but extremely complex, measures are on the ballot. They simply can't be sure what effect their votes might have. The initiative process also abrogates one of the most compelling features of liberal democracy—the notion that government ought not intrude so much into daily life that ordinary citizens must become experts or senators or judges.
Italian voters recently cast more than 90 percent of their ballots for three referendums. The measures failed—because fewer than 50 percent of registered voters turned out, thereby nullifying the election. Many people stayed home to block the referendums, which would have restricted hunting and pesticides.
Similar laws "are already under discussion in the Parliament," reports the New York Times. "But given the need for broad consensus in a country where no single party can get a legislative majority, the results are likely to be watered-down versions of what might have been possible had the referendums passed." James Madison would approve.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Democracy Blues".