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"A dead person is more powerful than me"

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"A dead person is more powerful than me"


Joe Mathews joined Democracy International's board in November 2013. He is a journalist and a profound expert of direct democracy around the world. Joe Mathews lives in South Pasadena, close to Los Angeles, California. I interviewed Joe yesterday after we had held our first board conference (by phone) with him together. Joe had told me that he was going to bed after the phone conference as it was midnight in Calfornia (and 10 am in Germany). I emailed him the questions and received the answers by him straight away eight hours later. Early morning in California, in Germany the night was just breaking. Amazing, this is an interview that has travelled around the world within 24 hours. This is communicating about direct democracy in the digital age.

Why do you commit to the cause of direct democracy?

I don't see myself as an activist. I'm a journalist, a writer and editor, who happens to live in a place with a lot of direct democracy, California. My work on direct democracy has been to understand how it's practiced not only here but across the country and the world, and then to share that knowledge with the public and others, who can make it better. At Zocalo Public Square, I write a weekly syndicated column about California, for Californians, and my message to the California audience about direct democracy is that California does direct democracy very poorly; our system is inflexible, dominated by money and reduces the power of citizens and groups.

It is next to impossible to change a law or amendment enacted by direct democracy. And since so many basic decisions that affect us today (tax rates, education funding levels), were decided many decades ago and can't be changed, we in California have very limited power. The decisions were alll made by voters who are gone or are dead. In California's system, a dead person is more powerful than me. Another way to say it is: We are governed by ghosts.

When I talk this way about California direct democracy, I am sometimes labeled as being against direct democracy. In fact, the opposite is true. I believe good direct democracy, deeply integrated with other branches of government, is essential to having a robust 21st century democracy. But it has to be good and integrated. Our system in California isn't. So I love direct democracy, like I love pie. But I don't like the pie from the California bakery, because it  is old and stale and will make you sick when you eat it.

You are an active observer of direct democracy in Europe. A couple of years ago you participated in a delegation to Switzerland to learn about direct democracy in the country direct democracy orginates from in the modern age. From a US perspective, how do you perceive the state of direct democracy in Switzerland and Europe overall? What is good, what should be changed?

I've visited Switzerland three times to observe its direct democracy, first on my own in 2005 (during the Schengen referendum), then later on tours. I believe direct democracy has challenges in Switzerland and in Europe, and there are profound differences as you look around the continent, so it's hard to generalize about a place as big and diverse as Europe (just as Europeans should be careful about generalizing about a place as big and diverse as the U.S.). But in general, European countries, and particularly Switzerland, have direct democracy systems that are far better integrated with other structures, and less costly to use, than the ones we have in California and other U.S. states. And yours are improving and evolving and expanding in a way that we envy. In the U.S., we're stuck with the same system, with few changes, that we had in the early 20th century. Ours is a fairly brutal system -- of nastiness, big money, inflexible methods that make it hard to fix errors in ballot initiatives or change things etc.

The Swiss system is far more flexible and human; so are the processes I see in German states. And across the continent, I'm impressed by your ability to adapt and expand the process, to make new treaties and constitutions. I live in a state that hasn't had a new constitution since 1879, more than 30 years before women had the right to vote. And when you suggest a new constitution for California, most people say you're crazy and that it's impossible to build new structures and new constitutions. You'd think no one in California has been to Europe.

As for things we do better than you, there are a few. We're far better at financial disclosure, at letting people know who is paying for campaigns. The Swiss have a problem with non-disclosure they need to fix, though they don't seem to realize it. Are they addicted to financial secrecy? The Swiss also have an issue at the federal level with citizens' initiatives only being constitutional amendments; that's a problem for a constitution, and I think they would benefit from having a statutory initiative option. California also does a better job of including all people, especially new arrivals and ethnic minorities, in the political process; my state produces ballot information in a half-dozen different languages, and sends a strong message of inclusion to all, in terms of voting and being informed. Europe could learn from us in this respect.

What is the biggest difference between direct democracy in Switzerland and the USA?

Swiss initiative and referendum create a conversation betweeen the government and the people - it's an integrated system that for the most part builds consensus. The American style of direct democracy creates a bitter contest between the government and the people - it's a constant gun fight, and it divides us.

You are a board member of Democracy International since November 2013. What do you want to achieve during your mandate?

I've just joined and right now I want to listen and learn, and support the terrific work you're doing in Europe. In the long term, I'd like to connect North American activists, journalists and scholars with their counterparts in Europe, Asia and around the world, so they can learn from each other. We are too cut off here in the U.S. and in North America from the experiences of the rest of the world in direct democracy. There is enormous untapped potential for us to learn and improve and enhance direct democracy here if we could just talk and learn. But we've done very little of that. That lack of connection is very frustrating.

What do you expect from Democracy International?

Communication and connection about the work going on around the world. And much more from beyond Europe in the years ahead.

Thank you for the interview. We look forward to working with you in the future.

Interview by Cora Pfafferott

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