Giving Direct Democracy a Chance

Ever think that the government is now dominated by political elites and powerful interests, with the decisions that affect your life increasingly made by technocrats and judges you never elected? If so, you are not alone: poll data over time reveal that more and more Americans believe that “people like me have no say in government.” This feeling is not confined to the United States. Surveys in other advanced industrialized countries likewise report a growing skepticism about politicians and political institutions. One manifestation of this disaffection is the election of populist politicians who rise to power by pledging to upset the status quo, whether it be the “deep state” or ties with the European Union. The challenge this democratic populism poses, John Matsusaka contends in his excellent new book Let the People Rule, can best be met not by less democracy but by more. To counter public dissatisfaction, he urges greater direct public involvement in policymaking, whether through advisory referendums (called by the legislature, the constitution, or popular petition), binding referendums, or constitutional amendments proposed via initiative. His book makes a formidable argument for direct democracy, backed by careful empirical research and case studies of Proposition 13 and Brexit, perhaps the two most famous referendums. Whether one favors or opposes direct democracy, one can learn a great deal from his analysis.

Matsusaka first describes the use of direct democracy both within the United States and in other countries. Although acknowledging that authoritarian governments have at times used direct democracy to provide a veneer of legitimacy for their policies, he focuses on its worldwide use in countries with democratic governments. Some countries reserve direct democracy only for highly consequential decisions, such as whether to amend the country’s constitution. Others, such as Switzerland, make direct democracy a fundamental feature of the government—as of 2018, the Swiss had conducted 641 national referendums, and all Swiss Länder permit initiatives, with many requiring referendums on all new spending programs. Many countries use referendums to resolve contentious issues—Ireland, for example, employed referendums to ban the death penalty and to legalize divorce, same-sex marriage, and abortion. And the United Kingdom famously held an advisory referendum on whether the country should remain in the European Union, with the government committing itself to abide by the outcome. Finally, in some federal countries, including the United States, direct democracy flourishes at the state and local levels, even if it is rare or absent at the national level.

Given the widespread use of direct democracy in other countries and in American states and localities, Matsusaka finds its absence at the national level a regrettable “anomaly.” He acknowledges the absence was intentional—James Madison in The Federalist 63 called “the total exclusion of the people, in their collective capacity, from any share” in governing the Constitution’s “most advantageous superiority”—but Matsusaka challenges that judgment. The Founders’ opposition to direct democracy, he claims, was rooted in a misunderstanding of what caused the failure of ancient popular governments, noting that recent scholarship has found that their democratic character helped the Roman Republic and ancient Athens to flourish. From this he concludes that the Founders’ antipathy to direct democracy was ill-founded and should not control current judgments about whether to institute direct democracy. But in making this claim, Matsusaka gives insufficient attention to the experience in the states in the decade after independence, which likely had a greater influence on the Founders. He is on much firmer ground when he bases his argument for reform on political and societal developments that have contributed to the failures of contemporary government and to the populist revolt against it.

Perhaps the most valuable part of Matsusaka’s analysis is his consideration of the arguments and evidence for and against direct democracy. Several potential benefits of direct democracy are obvious: it may allow the people to choose the policies they want, to communicate their preferences to government officials, and to settle policy disputes by their votes. Perhaps less obviously, direct democracy may eliminate the side deals and potential for corruption that sometimes infect legislative policymaking, and it may allow the people to change specific policies without having to change their representatives. At its best, direct democracy can promote citizen trust and engagement in the political process and can encourage policy innovation and governmental responsiveness. Matsusaka emphasizes that the value of direct democracy does not come from it promoting specific policy outcomes—he provides evidence that it does not have an ideological bias—but rather from it aligning public policy with majority opinion.

Opponents of direct democracy, however, fear that the unrestricted majority rule of direct democracy may threaten the rights of minorities. They also maintain that wealthy and powerful interest groups tend to dominate direct democracy, using their resources to sponsor referendums that bias public policy in their favor. Most fundamentally, they claim that the voting public is simply not up to the task of making policy choices, that voters’ choices will be neither as reasoned nor as well-informed as those of the people’s representatives. Matsusaka addresses each of these oft-repeated objections in detail, bringing to bear both previous studies and his own empirical research.

With regard to the rights of minorities, Matsusaka acknowledges that direct democracy, by enhancing majority rule, avoids some of the checks and balances inherent in the legislative process. But he points out that those checks and balances have hardly prevented the enactment of laws invading minority rights: Jim Crow laws, the disenfranchisement of African-Americans, and the internment of Japanese-Americans all proceeded through representative democracy. The issue, he insists, should be framed in comparative terms: does direct democracy pose a greater threat to minority rights than does legislation? Matsusaka tentatively concludes that it does not. In answering that question, he notes that the evidentiary record regarding referendums and minority rights is thin, because proposals restricting minority rights seldom arise in referendums, which in itself may suggest that the threat is over-estimated. He examines all 2609 initiative proposals in the states from 1904 to 2018, finding that only 70 (2.6 percent) dealt with the rights of minorities, with 1.9 percent seeking to restrict their rights and 0.7 percent seeking to expand them. Voters approved only 31 anti-minority initiatives (44 percent), and 20 of these were invalidated by the courts shortly after passage. As a second approach, he considers how members of minority groups themselves view direct democracy. Poll data from California, a state known for numerous minority groups and contentious ballot proposals, found that Asians, blacks, Latinos, and whites equally approved of having ballot propositions by a five-to-one ratio, so at least in that state the members of minority groups did not feel threatened by direct democracy.

Matsusaka notes that direct democracy in the United States began as an attempt to counter the organizational and resource advantages of interest groups, reducing their influence by taking decisions away from all-too-receptive legislators and giving them to the people. Yet today, critics charge that this effort has failed and that powerful groups now dominate direct democracy. To assess this claim, Matusaka once again examines all 2609 initiative proposals in the states from 1904 to 2018, identifying those that addressed specific industries. Concentrating on the most frequent targets of initiatives (the energy, finance, and tobacco industries), he found that 82 percent of the proposed initiatives burdened those industries, while only 18 percent benefited them. The targeted industries were often able to defeat the proposals they opposed—only 24 percent of them were adopted—but rarely were they able to secure favorable legislation through the initiative process. Interest groups do spend heavily in initiative campaigns, but the expenditures are almost always defensive, efforts to block unfavorable proposals rather than to enact favorable ones. Matsusaka contrasts these results with the much more favorable treatment accorded economic interest groups by state legislatures and administrative agencies. He concludes that notwithstanding alarmist claims based on anecdotal evidence, the channels of direct democracy have not been captured by interest groups.

Yet the most fundamental question is whether the people are up to the task of legislating—whether direct democracy promotes good public policy. There are two critical concerns. First, do voters have the capacity to make choices that reflect their interests—or, more charitably, their understanding of the public interest? Despite poll data showing that voters lack detailed knowledge of government, politics, and policy, Matsusaka claims that they do. Relying on decades of political science research on voting, he argues that voters make up for their lack of knowledge by relying on information shortcuts that enable them to make rational voting choices. Moreover, lodging policy choices in the institutions of representative government does not reduce reliance on such shortcuts. Representatives and chief executives, confronted with overwhelming numbers of bills, must likewise look to colleagues, experts, and interest groups in making their policy decisions.

Second, even if voters understand their interests, can they be trusted to be fiscally responsible? Or will they engage in excessive spending, voting themselves benefits without imposing the taxes necessary to fund those benefits? According to Matsusaka, the answer to these questions is reassuring. Over the past half century initiative states have generally spent less than non-initiative states, and they have had slightly lower tax revenues. Moreover, in jurisdictions both within the United States and beyond its borders, requirements of mandatory referendums for new spending reduce spending, and requirements of mandatory referendums for debt reduce borrowing. If anything, voters tend to be more fiscally conservative than their legislative counterparts.

Matsusaka’s volume does not address all the interesting questions about direct democracy. For example, although citizens may be able to vote rationally on the ballot propositions placed before them, they typically have no role in framing the issues on which they vote. Issue entrepreneurs can influence the political agenda by determining what issues come before the voters, and they may frame those issues in ways that are misleading. Indeed, Matsusaka attributes some of the difficulties associated with Brexit to the way in which the question was presented to voters. Nonetheless, there is certainly something attractive about allowing citizens to vote on the fundamental issues affecting their lives, and Let the People Decide makes clear with careful argument and a plethora of data that this is a viable option. It is a significant and valuable contribution.