Archived Story

Should we let the people decide?

Published 9:19am Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Column: Notes from Home

The leaders of our country in all spheres — political, social, economic, and religious — seem conflicted, or at best ambivalent, about a basic principle that underlies our system of governance.

Democracy is good, they often will say, like in their opposition to the attempt to raise sales taxes in Ramsey County (for the proposed Vikings stadium) without a levy referendum. In situations like that, our leaders fall over themselves talking about how it’s wrong to deprive voters their role in decision-making.

Beyond that, presidents, governors and legislators of all political parties praise the rule of the people in speeches and memorialize it in legislation. They read the Constitution at public meetings. Elections are celebrated, looked forward to with pride and joy; the people can be trusted to build a better society through more direct participation.

Go, democracy!

But then you have other examples.

The Vikings owners and their political allies seem perfectly fine with a more limited view of democracy, as do investors who breathed a huge sigh of relief when the Greek government canceled its referendum on austerity measures imposed by the EU. Please note the irony of that decision, given Athens’ place in the history of democracy.

Or watch how our leaders — and we ourselves — react when the Occupy Wall Street mob shows up, or Tea Party protestors, or anti-war protestors at Kent State, or the Bonus Army back in 1932, or a labor union asking for a fair share of the millions given to the big bosses, and it’s a different story.

Oh dear, those in power whine. Look at the mob. They’re just too dangerous, too out of control. Listen to their threats! Their puppets in the media howl: The mob is ill-informed and only knows how to destroy. And the jack-booted thugs working for the state get called in to clean up the “mess” for society. At times like those, too much democracy is dangerous, seems to be the message from the actions of those in power.

Democracy is messy, even when it’s as indirect as the way we implement it in our republic. It’s unwieldy. It’s inefficient. It’s also a demonstrated fact that mobs can be dangerous and can just as easily become a force for destruction and evil as they can for positive change.

But without the messy inefficiency of democracy, of voters making the most important decisions, all we’re left with is a choice between authoritarian rule or anarchy. It’s one of those times where there really are only two other alternatives, both of which involve violence: the strongest ones make decisions for everyone.

In ancient Rome, the republican form of democracy was undermined from within, by people who wanted to shift decision-making to the executives — the proconsuls, then the temporary dictators and then finally the permanent dictators. They were successful, and the Emperors replaced the elected assemblies.

When presidential candidates clamor for “leadership” in debates, they often sound like those ancient Romans calling out from their podiums: We need strong leaders!

The thing is, we have a strong leader now, and a dysfunctional Congress that is unwilling to compromise. When Obama makes recess appointments, because the Senate won’t hold hearings on his nominees, democracy is weakened — even if it’s Congress’s own fault. When he has to use the executive branch to make decisions that Congress should be making about jobs programs and regulatory changes, the democratic process is circumvented.

Certainly the attempts to turn President Bush into a temporary dictator when it came to security, and support for the president into a question of patriotism, damaged democracy. Paradoxically for Republicans, Obama benefits from the way that Republicans expanded the powers of the presidency.

When legislators wait around for a president or a governor to create every proposal, so they can decide whether to support or oppose them, democracy is undermined. Legislators, the people’s representatives, are supposed to be the ones coming up with proposals, debating them, and passing them. The executive branch is supposed to implement them.

Democracy is untidy and inefficient, and it often requires cooperation and compromise between political opponents when the balance of power is evenly divided. But it’s still better than random violence of anarchy or the efficient violence of an authoritarian system, like China’s version of capitalism.


David Rask Behling teaches at Waldorf College in Forest City, Iowa, and lives with his wife and children in Albert Lea. His column usually appears every other Tuesday.