CELDF

Blog: 2016 – The Year Democracy Died?

The system is rigged for the Presidential election

On the opening day of the Republican National Convention, the “Never Trump” delegates attempted to get a roll call vote on the Republican Party’s new rules. The delegates proposed that every state have their vote counted.

What these delegates attempted to do sounds simple: actually count the delegate votes. In no way did a roll call vote pose a threat to the inevitable official nomination of Donald.

However, when the “Never Trump” delegates followed proper procedure to demand a roll call vote, an amazing display of political theater erupted, and the convention chair found a way out of actually counting the votes of the party’s own delegates.

Delegates at the Republican National Convention. Photo source: DemocracyNow!

The Republican Party is hardly unique in consolidating power at the top, as far removed from the grassroots as possible. Indeed, during the primary elections, Democrats learned that their own party elite had fixed party rules to ensure that “super-delegates” (Democratic party insiders and elected officials) determined their presidential candidate. From the start, the DNC had been busy loading the dice in favor of Hillary Clinton.

This, of course, is all about electing the next president of the United States. And so we could dismiss the lack of grassroots involvement by saying, “Of course big money and power politics will win out in the presidential nomination processes of the two major political parties. Haven’t we read Citizens United by now?”

But some people will justify the lack of grassroots participation in the presidential election by pointing to the people’s ability to participate in local government. After all, citizens can elect local representatives and use direct democracy tools like the initiative.

The system is rigged at the local government level too

In communities across the country, people are using the initiative as part of their organizing for local change. They are organizing to protect their communities from harmful practices such as fracking and pipelines. They are organizing to address key barriers that prevent them from exercising local democratic control. They are organizing to create the communities they envision.

They’ve conducted education and outreach. They’ve pored over the rules and regulations to meet all requirements for citizen initiatives. They’ve trained petitioners and spent countless hours gathering signatures. And they’ve qualified citizen-sponsored initiatives and home rule charter amendments to their local ballot.

Who gave the courts veto power over the people's lawmaking? The courts.

But even after communities follow all the rules, corporate and government interests challenge these duly-qualified proposed laws, seeing them as an affront to their own power. Then, the communities – and their initiatives – end up in court, where a judge can exercise veto power.

Who gave the courts that veto power over the people’s lawmaking? The courts.

Across the country, people are finding that even when they follow the rules, those who control local lawmaking and decision making processes have no qualms about changing them. The “Never Trump” delegates experienced this when they demanded a roll call vote. Communities across the country – such as Tacoma, WA, Lane County, OR, and Athens, Meigs, and Medina Counties, OH, – experience this as well. Those who control local lawmaking and decision making processes will do whatever it takes to prevent “we the people” from exercising our right to decide what happens in our own communities.

The judiciary polices the people’s legislative rights

It comes as no surprise that the courts say they have rules about what laws the people can propose by initiative. They say the proposed laws must be “within the scope of the initiative power.”

The courts justify this judicial veto of the citizen initiative by saying they are only looking at whether the “subject matter” is appropriate for a citizen-initiated law. They deny they are examining whether or not the “substance” of the initiative is legal or constitutional. The courts then prop up a number of examples, which they claim distinguish between “subject matter” and “substance.” Ultimately, however, the difference comes down to whether or not the judge wants to veto the people’s proposed law, denying citizens their right to vote on it.

Ohio residents protesting state denial of their right to vote.

Interestingly, the courts don’t stop state legislatures from passing laws outside the scope of their power. (The courts sometimes intervene later, after the measure is adopted and a case is brought by a party with standing.)

Local people making local laws: the death of participatory lawmaking

Local people making local laws is the most direct level of participatory lawmaking. Rather than it being a fundamental right, protected by our representatives, those representatives are executing it in obtuse legal documents – not during the spectacle of a major party national convention. Nonetheless, the process is the same.

Perhaps seeing this anti-democratic process play out in the public spectacles of the major party presidential nominations will help us to see that we don’t live in a democracy. And then, where do we go from here? That depends on when we think democracy died, or whether we ever had it at all.

Perhaps 2016 will be the year we stop telling ourselves that we live in a democracy.

The system isn’t broken – it was built this way

We should remember that after the American Revolution, the “Founding Fathers” took their Congressional authority to revise the Articles of Confederation, and instead proposed a whole new constitution. They gave themselves the authority to change the rules – not unlike the major political party elite and the courts change the rules today. During the closed-door constitutional-drafting deliberations, Hamilton said to his fellow “delegates” (none had been elected to write a constitution) that monarchy is the best form of government. No one blinked.

Out of that process, we got the United States Constitution. The elite succeeded in designing our system of governance to ensure that they retain control.

In the early 1900s, the Progressives created initiative power as a tool to curtail corporate control over lawmakers. Since then, the courts have expanded their authority to veto initiatives, endowing themselves the power to prevent the people’s vote. Indeed, at a time when super-delegates are selecting the next president, we should remember that one of the first successes of the initiative power was in causing federal senators to be elected by popular vote, rather than by state legislatures.

Perhaps 2016 will be the year we stop telling ourselves that we live in a democracy. Perhaps it will be the year we recognize the system is fixed against “we the people,” and has been for a very long time. It’s not that 2016 is the year democracy died. Rather, it’s the year we discovered the corpse.

Featured Image: Flickr Creative Commons, Election 2016 by DonkeyHotey

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