The United States should adopt a national initiative and referendum to give the people more power in the legislative process. In chapter six of Debating Reform: Conflicting Perspectives on How to Fix the American Political System, Ellis presents the cons of a national initiative and referendum, Donovan presents the pros. I ultimately agreed with Donovan for a variety of reasons. However, there are some cons to also consider. It was reasonable for the founders to have skepticism with regards to direct democracy during that time period, however, the times have changed. The progressive movement was right to say citizens should have more direct influence over government policy. The easiest way to do that would be to adopt a national initiative and referendum, which would allow people to have a form of direct democracy on some issues.
With any issue, there will always be pros and cons to consider. That is no different for a national initiative and referendum. Donovan presents many pros, one of the more obvious ones is that a national referendum would give policy more legitimacy. This is legislation that people have voted for would inherently be seen as more legitimate. Donovan also notes that many U.S. states and countries already have a functioning national initiative and referendums that work quite well, such as the state of Massachusetts or Switzerland. Donovan states, “Interest groups give money to members of Congress to encourage them to do things that serve the group’s narrow self-interests.... Spending on initiative campaigns, in contrast, involves to win the support of a majority of votes...” (Ellis and Nelson, 105). Donovan’s point is that interest groups give the public the that there is legalized corruption, and they may be correct. A way to fix this would be to adopt a national initiative and referendum in order to make Congress more responsive and representative to their constituents. Congress would be accountable to the people, rather than wealthy interest groups. Donovan also thinks that allowing for this form of direct democracy will lead to more legislation being proposed and passed, which could be helpful on many issues. He also argues that currently the United States lacks any mechanism for the expression of public sentiment on matters of policy and democracies require a means for giving voice to popular majorities while protecting minority rights. There should also be a way to counteract some of the veto power of each branch of government. A national initiative and referendum would be a mechanism to display public sentiment and give a voice to popular majorities while protecting minority rights.
Ellis presents various cons and many of them are valid concerns. One example he gives is that Switzerland’s model is not necessarily so great and plenty of the initiatives get rejected. In my view, it would be better to have the opportunity to have any initiative, rather than none. It also makes sense to have somewhat of a high threshold with regards to what initiatives are voted on anyway, given it does not make sense to have everyone vote on every single issue. Ellis also talks about how the founders thought the political process worked best if it was slow and that democracy is supposed to be about having a debate between qualified individuals. My view here is that it is going so slowly in some areas, such as healthcare and quite fast in others, such as tax cuts for the richest Americans. The government should everyone, not just wealthy people; a national initiative and referendum would allow for this change. It seems clear that big money interests do have a disproportionate influence over which policies Congress passes. Furthermore, debate still will occur, and the internet allows people to be more informed than ever. Another con Ellis notes is that in the initiative process, every person’s opinion is weighed equally, in the legislative process there is more room for debate and to change your mind. He also notes that democratic deliberation is important to consider the needs of minorities, the initiative process does not allow room to make a compromise for minority groups. To this I say that it is democratic for everyone's opinion to be weighed equally if minority rights are protected. As of now, we have the Bill of Rights, which will ensure the majority will not infringe upon the rights. It is also important to note that democracy is not always perfect, sometimes the majority will make the wrong decision. Our current system is getting us nowhere, I think we must acknowledge the imperfections of democracy and still allow for this form of direct democracy since the benefits outweigh the risks. The last con Ellis gives is that the initiative process does not belong to the people, it belongs to the individual who writes the measures to be voted on because the wording greatly sways the vote. I acknowledge this could be an issue and I think the best solution would be to have some type of internal vote or deliberation on the way each measure is worded to avoid any poorly worded or misleading questions.
In conclusion, The United States should adopt a national initiative and referendum given that the benefits outweigh the risks. The benefits outweigh the risks since minority rights are already protected and legislation can easily be passed or repealed if there is a majority consensus. It was understandable for the founders to be concerned over direct democracy, but times have changed, especially with the internet, people can easily become informed. Supporters of the progressive movement were right to push for citizens to have more direct control over governmental policy. Congress should everyone, not just wealthy campaign donors. There are many issues that have a majority consensus that Congress refuses to address, such as basic gun control laws. It is time for a change, the people should have more direct control over some of the policies coming out of congress.
Ellis, Richard, and Michael Nelson. Debating Reform: Conflicting Perspectives on How to Fix the American Political System. Sage, CQ Press, 2021.
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