What do the majority of Americans want their lawmakers working on? Check any legitimate poll and you’ll hear them saying clearly and consistently that they want such basics as middle-class jobs, health care for all, a fixed-up infrastructure, a government uncorrupted by corporate cash, a little less greed and, you know, the Common Good. And what have they been getting from their national and (most) state governments? Tax giveaways for the super-rich, a relentless shredding of the social safety net, union busting, privatization, a 2,000-mile border wall, racial and gender repression, dark-money politics, paranoia and xenophobia, voter suppression and the building blocks of an American plutocracy.
How can we get lawmakers to reverse that perverse agenda and produce public policies that serve the people? Not by pleading with entrenched incumbents. That’s as hopeless as trying to teach table manners to a hog. It annoys the hog and wastes your time. The tried-and-true way of “influencing” them is to target, expose, challenge and un-elect the bastards. That’s not easy, and it takes several election cycles, but it has been done periodically throughout our history by organizing and mobilizing big grassroots movements.
Recruiting, training and electing good reliable candidates, however, is not our only route, nor the surest route, to getting the policies and laws we want. Here’s another way: Have the people themselves be the lawmakers.
Why should congress critters, lobbyists and other political elites have monopoly control of the public agenda? That control allows them to refuse to introduce, debate and vote on measures that are crucially important to the larger public. A way around them is the dual democratic process of “initiative and referendum.” When a state or local legislative body obstinately ignores the people’s will, the initiative process allows grassroots citizens to step in and put a law up for a direct vote by the people. On the other hand, when a legislature passes a special interest law the people oppose, the referendum process lets citizens put it on the ballot, giving voters a chance to veto it. Both processes require a prescribed number of registered voters in a particular jurisdiction to sign petitions to put any of their wants and needs on the ballot, and bingo! Their measures will be there for a popular vote at the next election. It lets rank-and-file citizens bypass the middlemen, mitigating the power of increasingly autocratic and plutocratic elites.
Twenty-six states and over 80 percent of our cities have various forms of these direct democracy tools, and they’re becoming a major means for grassroots activists to produce progressive change. Washington remains locked down by corporate money, Trump pandemonium and right-wing intransigence; too many state governments are essentially controlled by cliques of corporate lobbyists, tea party nutballs and Koch-funded anti-government ideologues; the electoral system is tightly gerrymandered, money-clogged and repressive; and there is deep public distrust and disgust at the boneheads running our country. No wonder people are turning to do-it-yourself government.