James Madison

Populism, Youth Stoke Moves Toward Direct Democracy

With a contentious confirmation process just ended, it’s time to take a break and consider experiments around the globe with direct democracy and citizen engagement using online platforms to define public problems, suggest legislation and elect political leaders.

With a contentious confirmation process just ended, it’s time to take a break and consider experiments around the globe with direct democracy and citizen engagement using online platforms to define public problems, suggest legislation and elect political leaders.

With Brett Kavanaugh sitting on the Supreme Court and political ads flooding the airwaves before the November 6 midterm election, it’s time to take a deep breath and consider innovation in government, including the direct democracy experiment underway in Italy. It could be the next disruptive idea to invade our own political landscape.

Understanding the Italian political scene is not easy or obvious. At the moment, Italy’s ruling coalition government is led by a group of parliamentarians nominated and elected online under the political slogan, “Participate, don’t delegate.”  They are members of the Five-Star Movement (M5S), a political party started in 2009 by a comedian, a blogger and a web strategist.

In March elections this year, M5S won the largest share of votes (38 percent) because of its populist appeal and attraction to young voters. It is reportedly the first time an Internet-based movement has gained political power. Its success wouldn’t have been conceivable without the advance of technology

One of the new government’s first moves was to appoint Riccardo Fraccaro as perhaps the world’s first minister of direct democracy. As reported in the Washington Post, Fraccaro said, “Citizens must be granted the same possibility to actively intervene in the process of managing and administrating public goods as normally carried out by their elected representatives.” In a partyocracy, he added, elected officials hoard decision-making at the expense of the “public will.” 

Through referenda, public petitions and initiatives, Fraccaro sees direct democracy guiding policymaking alongside representative government “to give real, authentic sovereignty to the citizens.” The Five-Star Movement exists on an online platform called Rousseau, an Enlightenment-era philosopher who influenced the French Revolution and believed in citizen involvement in politics as a wedge against tyranny.

The Five-Star Movement appears to be more than a protest of governmental process, as reflected by its coalition partner, the right-wing League party, best known for its anti-immigration positions. The Five-Star Movement leader is Luigi Di Maio, who is 32 years old and the son of a member of the neo-fascist Italian Social Movement.

The early months of the coalition’s time in power have unsettled more traditional political players with calls for both a tax cut and universal basic income for Italians, despite Italy’s long-term debt that stands at 130 percent of its GDP. However, the direct democracy experiment has spurred the European Union to reduce the signature threshold for citizen-proposed legislation. The next step would be to institutionalize a role for citizen engagement, possibly a Citizens’ Assembly with a role in reviewing what is passed by the European Parliament.

Nathan Gardels, editor of The World Post, notes other direct democracy experiments around the world. One is crowdlaw, an intelligence gathering platform intended to help government officials engage with citizens in use in diverse countries such as Iceland and India.

Taiwan has employed an online platform to form citizen working groups that define public problems and identify possible solutions. “In more than 80 percent of cases, publicly defined issues have led to government action. So far, 26 national issues, including the regulation of Uber, telemedicine and online education, have been discussed with more than 200,000 participants.”

Steps toward direct democracy would undoubtedly alarm another Enlightenment-era political thinker, James Madison. He believed populist passions could overwhelm the cool restraint of deliberative reason. “In all very numerous assemblies, of whatever characters composed, passion never fails to wrest the scepter from reason,” Madison wrote in one of the Federalist Papers. “A pure democracy, by which I mean a society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person, can admit of no cure for the mischiefs of faction.”

Madison and other Founding Fathers lived in a time before telecommunications, jet airplanes and the internet, which have altered perceptions about representative government and direct democracy. The hot-plate Kavanaugh confirmation process, whether you view it as a circus or a sham, is likely to kindle more thoughts about the role of citizens in a government, of which George Washington once described the “senatorial saucer” to cool the passions of the directly elected members of the House. 

 

Constitutional Patriotism and the Threat of Tribalism

Examples of political tribalism abound in today’s America, raising the question of whether our democracy can survive. Two law professors say it can if we return to ‘constitutional patriotism’ and defend the principles that united us as a country in the first place.

Examples of political tribalism abound in today’s America, raising the question of whether our democracy can survive. Two law professors say it can if we return to ‘constitutional patriotism’ and defend the principles that united us as a country in the first place.

As a contentious confirmation hearing for a US Supreme Court nominee grabs the national spotlight, a more serious question looms about the state of American democracy. Is it fading? Does anyone care? Can democracy survive?

A pair of Yale law professors say the way for democracy to survive is to return to “constitutional patriotism.” “We have to remain united by and through the Constitution, regardless of our ideological disagreements,” they write in an article published in the October 2018 issue of The Atlantic.

The challenge, according to Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld, is that “Americans have come to view the Constitution not as a statement of shared principles, but as a cudgel with which to attack their enemies.”

That’s regrettable, they argue, because the Constitution was the vehicle that created a nation out of colonies, a mix of nationalities and diverse, often warring religions.

“The Constitution managed to overcome these divisions,” Chua and Rubenfeld said. “The way it dealt with religion is illustrative. Colonial America had not embraced tolerance; on the contrary, the dissenters had become persecutors. Virginia imprisoned Quakers. Massachusetts whipped Baptists. Government-established churches were common, and nonbelievers were denied basic civil and political rights.

“But in a radical act, the Constitution not only guaranteed religious freedom; it also declared that the United States would have no national church and no religious tests for national office. These foundational guarantees helped America avoid the religious wars that for centuries had torn apart the nations of Europe.” 

The Constitution created a republic, in large part because founding father James Madison feared “rule by mob” as much as rule by tyrant. The Constitution reflected the viewpoint of the Enlightenment that wise men (they were all men in those days), separated from “local passions,” would make wise decisions. That’s how we got the Electoral College.

Madison and other founding fathers also loathed partisanship, but the Constitution they created did little to prevent the formation of political parties and factions. The founders themselves became ardent partisans.

Many of the same animating issues of those days persist today: racial divisions, farm versus factory, South versus North, the elite versus working class. Tribalism seems more intense now, Chua and Rosenfeld say, because a white majority is coming to an end, income inequality is growing and the news media is omnipresent.

“In these conditions,” the authors explain, “democracy devolves into a zero-sum competition, one in which parties succeed by stoking voters’ fears and appealing to their ugliest us-versus-them instincts.”

Instead of serving as a uniting set of principles, the Constitution has become its own punching bag. Progressives attack it as “irredeemably stained” by its initial compromise over slavery. Martin Luther King Jr. demanded racial justice promised in the Constitution. Now, constitutional protections such as freedom of speech, religious liberty and property rights are dismissed as dehumanizing, discriminatory and structurally unjust.

Political conservatives are “beginning to reject core constitutional principles,” Chua and Rubenfeld note, pointing to President Trump’s declaration that the news media is the “enemy of the people.”

Even the concept of “being American” is up for debate. Some see national identity in racial, ethnic or religious terms, Chua and Rubenfeld observe. Birthright citizenship has been questioned. Being of European descent or being Christian are offered as marks of being American. Chua and Rosenfeld strongly disagree:

“This trend runs counter to the Constitution’s foundational ideal: an America where citizens are citizens, regardless of race or religion; an America whose national identity belongs to no one tribe.

“America is not an ethnic nation. Its citizens don’t have to choose between a national identity and multiculturalism. Americans can have both. But the key is constitutional patriotism. We have to remain united by and through the Constitution, regardless of our ideological disagreements.”

Chua and Rubenfeld say there are lessons for both the tribal right and tribal left. Defending the Constitution requires more than “flag-waving” by the right; it requires dedication to constitutional principles of equality. The Constitution can’t simply be dismissed by the left as a “smokescreen for oppression;” it must be seen as the “most inclusive form of governance in world history,” even if many of the Founding Fathers were also slaveowners.

The constitutional challenges facing the nation at this time are serious. But democracy’s only route to survival, Chua and Rubenfeld contend, may be through rededication to the constitutional principles that got us this far.

“For all its flaws, the United States is uniquely equipped to unite a diverse and divided society. Alone among the world powers, America has succeeded in forging a strong group-transcending national identity without requiring its citizens to shed or suppress their subgroup identities.”

You can be Irish American, Syrian American or Japanese American, but if you live in France or Germany, you can only be French or German. That’s a lot more than a semantic difference.

 

Summer Reading: What's in Our Constitution?

Know your Constitution. Listen to James Madison’s most important writings in a 37-minute audiobook.As of today (August 22), the 2012 Presidential and General Election is 442 days away. Do we have the “constitution” to make it all the way given what we’ve already witnessed?

Pun aside, how well do we and the many candidates vying for office understand the fundamental governing principles set forth by the Founding Brothers more than 200 years ago? The average American’s understanding of the U.S. Constitution is limited.

“Fewer people than you may think have actually read or heard the Constitution,” observes Deaver Brown, narrator of “The United States Constitution,” by James Madison.

So, add to your summer reading list this short reading of the Constitution and a few basic facts about the birth of the ”supreme law” of the land. “United States Constitution” (Simple Magazine, Inc.) may be downloaded for $1.95 through iTunes, Amazon and other book sources.

The audiobook may be listened to In almost the same time — 37 minutes ­— it takes a MAX light rail train to travel from the Beaverton Transit Center to Pioneer Courthouse Square in downtown Portland.