Broken Contract? Changing Relationships between Americans and Their Government

By Stephen C. Craig | Go to book overview

14
Who's the Boss? Direct
Democracy and Popular Control
of Government

JACK CITRIN

The populist spirit animates the current era in American politics. Soured on pluralism, voters are voicing anger and resentment at how representative democracy is working. Populism divides the political world into Us, the People, and Them, the professional politicians and bureaucrats who actually rule. 1 Deeply suspicious of the politics of compromise, the populist's constant fear is that They will betray Us. The populist indictment is that those whom we elect (and reelect) to represent us abuse this trust and serve the privileged and the special interests instead. Today's cast of villains thus includes not just elected officials but the lobbyists, political consultants, political action committees, and media experts who influence them. More generally, the populist outlook is hostile to any institution, including the political party, that impedes direct communication between citizens and decisionmakers.

What can repair the frayed ties between the American people and their political leaders? If an arrogant, unresponsive political class is the problem, what is the solution? How can We control Them? One proposed procedural remedy is to give voters the power to decide public policy directly. The growing use of ballot initiatives to settle controversial issues, the passage of tax and spending limitations, and the movement to limit the terms of local, state, and national legislators are current examples of the drive to curb the authority of elected officials. Some futurologists among those frustrated with the perceived gulf between the public and its leaders are even proposing a high-tech version of direct democracy through the use of electronic mail, on-line synopses of congressional debates and voting records, electronic absentee ballots, and a continuous process of advisory referenda via interactive television (see Herbst 1994).

In this chapter I ask whether more direct democracy would help soothe the public's anger about the deficiencies of decisionmaking by elected officials. First, I

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