This is the first of a series of occasional editorials on the state of democracy in America. Subsequent editorials will look at the courts, ballot initiatives, new electronic media and civic journalism. Democracy has triumphed over all other political systems. But there is a certain malaise in the working of the world's greatest democracy.
The triumph is easy to find. Democracies have replaced dictatorships from Chile to Poland. At home, the Internet and C-Span democratize news gathering. Election ballots grow as long as books, as voters from Missouri to Oregon consider ballot initiatives. A "civic journalism" movement seeks to draw the press closer to the people.
But one need not look past the headlines to find the darker side of self-determination. Consider: The spontaneous combustion of nationalistic hatreds in places like Bosnia and Chechnya. The angry tinge of the initiatives seeking to end affirmative action in California and to limit the rights of homosexuals in Colorado. The anarchy of the World Wide Web, where anyone has the power to repackage rumor and conspiracy as fact. Witness the preposterous stories about Flight 800, the UFO near the Hale-Bopp comet and the death of Vincent Foster. People are disenchanted by the way democracy works. Leaders seem at once too pliant and too unresponsive. Trust in the media and government is at an all-time low. Everyone trusted Walter Cronkite; only one in four trusts Dan Rather. Many believe campaign contributions buy government officials, as well as entitle the givers to stays in the Lincoln bedroom. Yet neither the public nor Congress can rouse itself to reform campaign finance. Many voters are apathetic and alienated; about half the registered voters cast a ballot in 1996. A century ago, 80 percent did. America stands as a monument to liberty, equality and democracy. But we contend with license, intolerance and tyrannical majorities. Is democracy threatened? No. Does it need to be renewed? Yes. Madisonian Democracy We celebrate the Constitution as a triumph of democracy. Yet the Founding Fathers worried about too much democracy. By today's standards the Constitutional Convention was a spectacular failure of democracy. It was closed to the public. It was limited to the white male elite. It produced a system designed to check democractic urges. It left blacks enslaved and only wealthy white men voting. But, through the forgiving lens of history, the Constitution was genius. The hot passion of the popularly elected House was cooled in the "saucer" of the Senate. Checks and balances guarded against presidential monarchy and congressional tyranny in this Madisonian democracy. American democracy is constantly expanding. Suffrage was progressively extended to poor white men in the early 1800s, to some black men after the Civil War and to women in 1920. Direct election of the Senate was adopted in 1913. Poll taxes were barred in 1964, and the 1965 Voting Rights Act made the franchise a reality for blacks. At the turn of the century, reformers gave voters the power to write their own laws and constitutional amendments. Today, half the states allow ballot initiatives. In 1996 the number of ballot propositions grew to nearly 100. This form of raw democracy has gotten so out of hand that Oregon voters got a 240-page book last fall explaining ballot measures. As a result, the Oregon constitution has become a hodgepodge of poorly drafted, ill-considered provisions. At the turn of the century, the initiative process served progressive causes - child labor and minimum wage laws. Today's initiatives on tax caps and term limits reflect a more conservative populism, which defines government as the enemy. The Hancock Amendment and the Scarlet-A term limits measure in Missouri reflect the trend. Tax caps in California have starved the public schools. Frustrated California voters have passed measures opposing fair housing, blocking school desegregation, denying benefits to illegal immigrants and ending affirmative action. …