NATIONAL REFERENDA FOR AMERICA
by Comandante Chispas
January 8, 1961. If you look on the Internet, you will see that on that day The Bollinger Prize for poetry was awarded to Yvor Winters.
No light went on? No bell rang?
Of course not.
The Algerian war for independence from France had raged for seven years. Thousands of dead and wounded. Till-death-do-us-part – and then some --hatred. Dante Inferno prisons, beatings, torture, treachery, murder -- you name it, it happened in Algeria.
The war was threatening to drag on … and on …
On the day you never heard of, French President Charles de Gaulle held a national referendum. He asked, do you want an end to the war and independence for Algeria?
In metropolitan France, 75% voted yes. The turnout was 92%.
De Gaulle’s government started negotiations with representatives of the FLN, Algeria’s independence movement. On March 19, 1962, a settlement was reached. On July 5, Algeria became an independent nation.
A national referendum on a war? Let the people -- many of whom would fight, kill, die, be mutilated -- determine the nation´s policy?
The 1960s equivalent for the U.S. would have been allowing Americans to vote on the Vietnam War. Today, it would be holding a referendum on the war in Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq -- who knows where else.
Leadership is why the world still talks about Charles de Gaulle; he died in 1969. As for President Lyndon Johnson, Vietnam War chief, who died four years later: who he? In the past 20 years, I heard his name mentioned once, when his widow Ladybird died.
France, Switzerland, England, Ecuador: numerous nations have national referenda. For a list, click here. The United States is not among them. The closest thing America has to something expressing the national will of the people on specific questions is the Constitutional amendment process. Unfortunately, as a vehicle for conveying public opinion, history shows time and again that constitutional amendments are woefully inadequate.
Public opinion polls consistently demonstrate that the majority of Americans want the constitution to provide for national referenda. For a Gallup poll showing a 68% favorability, click here.
Our core political position was given in the Ello post “A New Theory of American politics.” You will not find it anywhere else; academia and the mainstream media are censoring it:
It focuses on three American revolutions, i.e., changes of -- not in -- the prevailing political system:
The First American Revolution, 1776-1789, transformed the political system from a monarchy not into a democracy but a ´политей´ or polity, i.e., an oligarchy/democracy hybrid inclined toward democracy, which is moderated by a large middle class.
The Second American Revolution, 2008-2009, transformed the polity into an oligarchy with democratic residues, accessories, ornaments. That change was entirely normal, predictable; Aristotle analyzed it 2000 years ago.
The Third American Revolution will resurrect the polity, but with greater power for democracy, less for the oligarchy.
We advocate the Third Revolution.
If you want to revive the polity, you must revive its democratic component. To revive its democratic component, you must weaken the oligarchy; such is the correlation of forces. Any Third American Revolution that does not realize that weakening is a revolution born in a coffin.”
That revival and concomitant weakening of the oligarchy requires a Constitutional amendment providing for referenda. In 2017 and going forward, no national referenda; no democracy. No democracy; no polity. It’s that simple.
As indicated, referenda are a necessary but not sufficient condition for democracy. We will explore other conditions in future posts.
Oligarchs tremble, squirm, foam at the mouth, pound on the desk at the mere suggestion of letting you, the great unwashed, the little people, have a direct say in your nation’s destiny. That is why so many readers learned about the Algeria referendum for the first time here, two minutes ago, 56 years after it took place. You don´t have to look far to see why the news in America about the Algeria referendum was suppressed. De Gaulle set an example, and all examples are contagious.
Understandably, many readers worry about letting the people decide national policy. Their concern is as valid as it is old. Over 150 years ago, Alexis de Tocqueville nailed the underlying issue:
When the War of Independence ended, America found itself divided between two opinions. These opinions are as old as the world itself, and one finds them assuming different forms and called by diverse names in all free societies. One opinion wants to restrain the power of the people, the other wants to extend it indefinitely.*
The Third American Revolution is simultaneously both but neither of the opinions Tocqueville mentioned.
Our third option answers the question of expanding the power of the people this way: yes, but. Yes, an expansion, but not indefinitely.
France, Switzerland, England, Ecuador: I lived in all of them. I listened to countless discussions about their national referenda. A few initial concerns:
(i) The threshold for measures to be placed on the referendum ballot must be high enough to stop frivolous proposals from cluttering up and undercutting the process. The Swiss frequently complain they have too many questions to decide.
(ii) The president and congress should have the power to initiate referenda. So, too, should the people. The requirement of a high but reasonable number of signatures from registered voters in all 50 states is probative.
(iii) A time limit, perhaps a minimum of one year, should be stipulated to allow for sufficient public dialogue, as well as to establish the constitutionality of the proposed referenda.
(iv) Any referendum rejected by the voters should have to wait a specified time before being reintroduced.
(v) Referenda results must be legally binding. That would slam the stoppers on politicos who would toss out or ignore referenda results they don’t like.
(vI) To invoke a change in the status quo should require a consensus , i.e., a general agreement. I would argue that any referendum measure that receives less than 55% of the vote – as did Brexit – does not constitute a consensus, hence fails to pass. It should be difficult to make changes, but not impossible.
A plethora of issues must be addressed. Before pursuing the national referendum option for the United States, a study should be conducted of referenda in other nations as well as in American states that have referenda, e.g., Oregon and California.
What it comes down to:
Do you want to vote on getting rid of the electoral college and having a straight popular vote for president? I do. I’ll bet most Americans feel the same way. So, let’s get it on.
Does that change sound too good to be true?
Reality Therapy Time. No, we cannot have national referendum process. As noted above, the truth is we no longer live in a polity, much less a democracy. America’s system is now an oligarchy with democratic decor, accessories. That reality explains why neither Trump nor Clinton in the elections of 2016 mentioned national referenda.
There is nothing new whatsoever in anything advocated above. Alexis de Tocqueville summarized them in a little-known note:
The remedy is above all else, outside constitutions. In order for democracy to govern, there must be citizens, i.e., people who are interested in public affairs, who have the capacity and the desire to participate in them. One must always return to this fundamental point.**
You just saw 90% of the remedy to what ails American politics. An increase in the (i) capacity and (ii) desire to participate on the part of the populace: may any political candidate or party, government agency or employee, any policy, law or regulation be judged accordingly.
You also just saw the heart of The Third American Revolution.
Two closing notes:
First, to Doubting Thomases:
You are convinced the American people are irresponsible. I completely agree with you.
It is easier to despair, however, than to answer. And there is an answer. It is seldom used because it is extremely effective and thus changes existing power relationships. To wit:
To make irresponsible people become responsible, give them responsibilities. In this case, make them citizens truly, fully -- finally.
America´s polity, viz., its oligarchy/democracy hybrid of 1789, lit up the world. But the Founding Fathers died off. Their institutions not only fell behind those of other nations, they are proving more and more incapable of solving contemporary problems.
Removing the electoral college (see our post, “The Electoral College: The Suicide King”; installing a unicameral legislature (see our post “The Nebraska Fix”): the list is long -- and getting longer -- of needed changes. The constitutional mechanism for national referenda is the most important.
Our second closing note is to the American oligarchy:
Vexed, panicked by the possible contagion of De Gaulle´s example, you tried to suppress widespread knowledge in America of the Algerian referendum. You succeeded for over 50 years. You were hoping to continue that suppression indefinitely.
(« Lorsque la guerre de l’Indépendance [en Amérique] eut pris fin […], la nation se trouva divisée entre deux opinions. Ces opinions étaient aussi anciennes que le monde, et on les retrouve sous différentes formes et revêtues de noms divers dans toutes les sociétés libres. L’une voulait restreindre le pouvoir populaire, l’autre l’étendre indéfiniment.») Alexis de Tocqueville, De La Démocratie en Amérique I, in Œuvres, Volume II, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, Gallimard, Paris, 1992, p. 196. (II, II).
*(« Le remède est surtout en dehors des constitutions. Pour que la démocratie puisse gouverner il faut des citoyens, des gens qui prennent intérêt à la chose publique, aient la capacité de s’en mêler et le veuillent. Point capital auquel il faut toujours revenir. ») Alexis de Tocqueville, Notes et variantes, in Œuvres, ibid., p. 1,019.