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Don't fear the voter

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Don't fear the voter


John Matsusaka is Charles F. Sexton Chair in American Enterprise in the Marshall School of Business and the Gould School of law at the University of Southern California. He also an expert in direct democracy and he serves as the executive director of the Initiative & Referendum Institute. In his new book, Let the People Rule, he looks at the populist challenge and proposes direct democratic tools as a remedy. We spoke with him about the use of direct democracy as a solution to the democratic drift and disconnection between people and their government. We also discussed the challenges for democracy during the pandemic crisis, the reliance on experts and the lack of citizen involvement in the response.

By Sara Orcalli

In your book, you challenge the traditional explanation of the populist argument and suggest that one should look at the growing distance between the government and the people. Therefore, direct democracy might be a valid option to address the problem of democratic drift. What is the status of the governments in our democracies?

There are two things I would like to touch upon. The first thing concerns the way people are thinking about populism. There is a lot of discussions going on about populism but a big part of the story is missing. What the book is saying is that when people have been talking about populism, they've been viewing it as something coming from fairly recent developments. For example, something that has to do with either economic or cultural anxiety. The book suggests that it is likely that it has much deeper roots than that. Moreover, it has to do with things that have been going on for possibly as long as the century just in the way that we have changed our governments in Western democracies for the better.

I think we have increasingly come to rely on experts. We created agencies, we turned over a lot of power to judges or technocrats. There are a lot of good reasons for that but what is the unanticipated side effect? We have created governments that are not very responsive to the people. They have turned over power to experts.

We are seeing to some extent the great importance of experts in governmental behaviour and so we need experts, but this has created disconnection in many cases. In this case, ordinary people feel like they do not know how to control the government, they sometimes do not know how decisions are made. They feel that it is slipping out of their control.

There is a lot of data in the book that shows that this is what people have been saying for a long time and there is a lot of history in there, which is showing you how governments have actually evolved to be less controlled by the people. I think this is a big part of the book because until you frame the question that way, it is less obvious why you would want something like more direct democracy.

I think a lot of people in response to populism go in the opposite direction. They say well the voters are turning to these candidates, who threaten our basic values. Why would we want to give voters even more power? I think that once you start seeing it from the perspective of why the voters are turning to these candidates - that they do not have enough power, then it starts to make a lot more sense why you would give them more decision power.

The second half of the book covers the argument of how you would actually give the voters more power and it really goes through all the arguments that are traditionally raised. These are serious arguments made by serious people and what the book tries to do is say "Okay let's take your argument very seriously. Let's go through the data, let's look at what researchers have found." What I suggest is that a lot of the arguments that are made are probably not as serious as people think but they are just not that familiar with the evidence. I want to put it out there for people who really want to grapple with this issue so that they can see what we actually know as social scientists.


In the second part of the book, you present direct democracy as the solution to the disconnection of the government from the people. What is the situation of direct democracy across countries? 

It is very common for almost all democracies to hold referendums now. They do not do it every day, they do not do it on every issue, but it's very normal. Almost every country thinks about it from time to time. In fact, it seems like there are maybe three or four democracies in the whole world that have never actually had a national vote. So, it is very common for people and for countries to do this. The US does it all the time at the sub-national level, Switzerland is famous for it. But, if you just look across Europe there have been more than 50 national votes on European integration issues. For example, countries like Germany are making efforts to have all kinds of direct democracy at the sub-national level. I mentioned in the book that Taiwan is an interesting case since it is a very young democracy, which is trying to do all kinds of interesting things with direct democracy. We are seeing a lot of countries increasingly trying to use more direct democracy. However, it is not the norm.

Nevertheless, I think it is increasingly seen as when you, as a society, have a really important issue that is impacting our central values, it seems natural that we should collectively decide.


Are there differences in the use of direct democracy?

A lot of the book is about the US, which is an interesting case because it is in many respects the pioneer of democracy and it is seen as the central place for the development of democracy. However, it has never had a national vote on an issue. I think that it is fair now to look at the US and argue that in the 18th century it was in the vanguard of democracy, but now it is not. It is actually behind the curve in terms of letting people vote on issues and there is a lot that goes on the sub-national level.

Direct democracy can include a lot of concepts: the oldest one - thinking of Athens - is a bunch of citizens getting together in an in a room or an amphitheatre and voting on issues like in a  town meeting. There are still little vestiges of that in some smaller Cantons in Switzerland. But, for the majority of people, direct democracy is the referendum. It is a proposal on the ballot where citizens go in and vote “yes” or “no” - this can take a lot of different forms. For example, there can be advisory measures for which the government asks for people's opinion to make decisions, like Brexit or European integration.

There are also votes that actually make laws. For example, Switzerland does this and in the United States at the sub-national level, California is very famous for it. There is also variation in what issues get voted on and who gets to decide. One of the most common versions is that the government decides the topic. In this case, it calls for an vote on an issue believed to be of sufficient importance or urgency, or which it feels should go to the people (like Brexit). Sometimes governments are required to call votes on things they want to do, for example, to amend the Constitution.

The other form of direct democracy, in some ways the most famous form, is called the initiative process and that is where the ordinary citizens themselves make proposals. In this way, the government does not get to control what gets voted on: the citizens do. It works by petition - people have to go collect signatures of other citizens. There is a target number, and once you reach the target number then you call for a vote. The European Union has a version of this, which is a citizens’ initiative process where if you can collect enough votes from enough different countries, you can get some action. It is not a great process so far because the European Commission does not actually have to put it to a vote, but they just have to consider it and they can ignore it, which they do. However, it is the first step toward a more full process.

There is a spectrum of types variations like how many signatures you need or what does it take to pass: usually in a democracy we have the majority rules - but sometimes for really important issues, we need to get more than a simple majority, like 60%. There is also variation in subject matter, sometimes you can vote on certain things while other topics are restricted. In the US, in Massachusetts, you are not allowed to vote on issues like religion or the State's budget. Like representative democracy, you can run it a hundred different ways. And that makes perfect sense because people want to customize to their particular situation: different countries, different localities, different traditions and cultures. Nevertheless, the basic idea is always the same: let the people vote directly.


Why should governments enhance the use of direct democracy tools at the national and local level?

I am gonna take as a given that we all agree that we should do democracy. So, if somebody wants to say, “Well we should not trust the people at all,” that is a different discussion. I am going to assume that we all agree that self-government is the right way. Typically, self-government is when we elect representatives to make decisions for us and we elect them under certain conditions. Then, they have to stand for election and sometimes we can remove them.

Why should we make some decisions directly? Why shouldn't we turn over every single decision to our elected representatives? There are a couple of very simple reasons for that. First of all, the people who we elect might not understand our preferences correctly. It is a small group of people in a typical Parliament or legislature, they do not know what people think. It might be better for them to say "Just ask the people directly, let the people decide." The other reason is that our representatives might have different preferences or values then the people do. Of course, we elect them so at some level they are responding to things that you care about, but not 100%. They may be influenced by interest groups that are very powerful. Even if they are not, elections are not a very fine-grain way for voters to indicate what their preferences are. In the US, you can choose between two parties, in other countries, it is maybe 2/3/4; it is still a very small number of choices. The number of issues that governments have to decide is hundreds, for example, the US makes it really clear. You might have preferences on tax, foreign and social policy and you have to pick either Democrat or Republican. There is no way you can indicate the richness of your preferences by pulling one lever or the other, you inevitably have to make a trade out and vote for somebody who you agree with on some issues but you disagree with others. Direct democracy allows you to get a more directly targeted notion of what people want. You can have a vote on a particular social issue; you let the voters decide that directly, and then put the party that they want to govern the fiscal side.

Those are the two simplest reasons why you would want direct democracy. First, our representatives do not know everything, so they might not know what people want. Secondly, they might not be good representatives on some issues, and so we want to have the option to make decisions directly because they do not do what we want them to.


Is there potential backlash in the use of direct democracy forms, such as the referendum, and giving people more control over policy issues?

Sure, there are always risks with any kind of democracy. Even if you have representative democracy there are things that can go wrong. With direct democracy, it is the same. There is a list of things that people have criticized and you can mostly boil them down into three. The first one is the question of whether voters will be sufficiently informed and knowledgeable to make policy decisions. This is the most prominent concern that is raised about direct democracy by people who do not like it and do not trust the voters. On the contrary, there is a lot of evidence in the book that suggests voters actually make pretty good decisions by a lot of different metrics. Sometimes, they are accused of being short-sighted. For example, that they would do crazy things like cut their taxes and then award themselves a whole bunch of spending - which of course does not work - as they do not understand the budget balance.

There is really good evidence to suggest they do not do stuff like that. For decades now people have been looking at how competent voters are. Do they make mistakes? Yes, they do. They have passed some laws that in hindsight were bad ideas, but it is really important to realize that they make mistakes when they elect representatives as well. There are some people who want to say that because voters screw up things sometimes, we do not want direct democracy. However, a lot of those arguments, if you take them very far, ultimately become arguments against democracy in general, and not against direct democracy.  If you are going to do democracy you have to trust the people, you have to recognize that they are going to make some mistakes. But, what I find really encouraging ultimately is that many countries have been doing democracy for a long time now, the US has been doing it for 250 years, and they are doing pretty well. I would say that it held up better than other forms of government over long periods of time.

The second thing that people are concerned about is the problem that majorities might actually tyrannize minorities: so the uncontrolled exercise of majority power. The rights of minorities is a problem with representative democracy too. There is no real way to stop it. We have checks and balances in systems, we set up constitutional rights and put courts in place to hopefully defend all; and those things continue to operate with direct democracy.

But ultimately there is a risk that the majority will use its power to do things to minorities that are not good. How big a risk is it? That is really the question. In this regard, we do not have as much data as we do on some of the other things. I look through my readings and the evidence suggests that the record is not a great cause for concern. I think others are gonna read that evidence and think maybe it is a little more than that. We have seen that democracies have done very bad things to minorities. However, most of the instances of really bad things happening have been by representatives of representative democracy.  

The third and final thing is that people are concerned about is the possibility of interest groups’ influence or an outsized role of money. There is a fear that wealthy groups might get too much power through this process. I think this one is a little more a concern that is raised in the American context, since you actually have a lot of evidence on that. However, it is pretty clear that it does not help interest groups, in fact, it seems to hurt interest groups. Corporations and labour unions and those sort of groups do not like to have democracy generally speaking. In some ways, this is all you need to know about that.


To whom is the book addressed? What would you like that your readers will take from this book?

I wrote the book for an educated non-academic. One of the most important things is that it is not a bunch of statistics or jargon. It is written to be conversational so that it can be interesting, it is not supposed to be hard work. It is supposed to be fun and hopefully interesting for somebody who is interested in politics, which I think is a lot of people right now. It is particularly for educated people who are not professional economists or political scientists, but they follow politics and they have this feeling that something is not working right. They do not quite know why or if they are right, nor if they should be worried. But they have this deep feeling that has been growing on them for years that something is wrong and they do not know what it is or what they can do about it. They have tried voting for a different party or different candidate, but they are frustrated because the feeling just seems to still be there and they do not understand that. 

What I am hoping is that the book provides them with an answer for what is actually going on. There are a lot of people out there who try to explain what is going on especially with regard to populism and, as I try to suggest in the first part, they are missing a big piece of the story. I am hoping that I might put another part of it out there and people will read through it, see the evidence and say "Oh maybe that is a piece of the story." 

The second is a kind of a pessimistic part. In fact, I was going to call the book "Democracy adrift", which is kind of how I feel: our democracy is adrift and it is floating out of our control in some kind of way. But, that was a bit too pessimistic and people want to have hope. So, I am proposing a big change that is not going to happen overnight, but we have to start talking and thinking about it before it can ever become plausible. A lot of people are going to find it more of a curiosity than an action plan but this is not as unrealistic as some people might think. A lot of people talk about how we can fix our democracies, and they never even consider the possibility of giving people more power. So, I am hoping maybe to nudge the discussion a little bit to add another idea. 


What is the situation of direct democracy in the US during the pandemic? Are there possible positive and negative outcomes in the short and long term? 

In the US, direct democracy requires signatures, which is the initiative process. These are going to be very challenged by the quarantines because you need to go out and physically get signatures. We should be able to collect signatures electronically but the government in the states and cities have resisted that. They have not provided that, they are hostile to that notion, and they have claimed there would be too much fraud. Hopefully, as people get more used to doing things remotely, one positive thing that might come out of all this is that we will see a little movement toward allowing people to collect signatures electronically. Now, we have to physically sign a piece of paper! We are pretty backwards and how this works is crazy in the 20th century. This is a 19th-century technology that had people standing, write their name on a paper, which is not the way anything else in the world works. So, there is definitely going to be a negative side, but maybe it will be the start of something better.


Is there anything else you would like to add?

We have all been thinking about the current virus recently, but one of the issues that has been making me think is the role of the expert. The government responses have been very much expert-driven and not very executive-driven, not driven by the more democratic parts of government. This is a microcosm for the way governments look today. Across Western democracies, we built governments, which heavily rely on experts. There is a reason why we do that. This is because we are dealing with really complicated problems now. Sometimes, time-sensitive problems where we cannot go through the business of having a vote. Or things where just ordinary voters do not have any expertise and it does not make sense to be involved in those decisions.

What is interesting though is that there is a line of thinking that we should just start phasing out democracy in general and turn government decisions over more and more to technocrats; like in Singapore, which is not really a democracy. I think this whole situation is bringing up some of the many tensions that we, as democracies, are going to have to grapple with because we are committed to both concepts. We are committed to the concept that we want experts to be involved in decisions, we do not want everything to be partisan. But we are also committed to the notion that people have to be the ultimate designers. Populism has made us start to think through how to do that. I think the EU has in some ways a really crystallized version of that. There was a great desire to integrate the various countries and break down barriers, and there is kind of no way to do that except by turning over some of your sovereignty to somebody else. But, if you turn over your sovereignty to somebody else who are neutral parties, how do the people control them? This is the underlying trade-off that we are facing: how do we retain control but still rely on experts? Part of the answer is to keep the experts there but to make sure that you have voters directly involved in the big decisions. In this way, the experts automate the technical decisions but where it becomes dangerous is when the experts start making value decisions. I think that with the coronavirus, obviously, we have to get through it right now but it is bringing to the fore a lot of positions, and you are starting to see some tiny pieces of push backs against experts. Are they really good? Should we trust them that much? What point of view are they speaking from? Those are really difficult lines for us to navigate.

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