One Reason for Slumping Confidence in Representative Democracy

March 13, 2019

The impact of laws on people vary, and some have such sweeping consequences that they ought to meet a higher standard of acceptance before getting adopted. It’s ill-advised for simple majority votes to result in controversial changes in sovereignty or that so affect everyday life in a way that will handcuff the future ability of government to function, thereby producing socially intolerable outcomes.

The U.S. constitution understands this concept by requiring a more difficult process for enacting constitutional amendments than a simple law. While ordinary bills can become law via a majority of support from each house of congress, an amendment to the constitution requires the support of two-thirds of the members in both houses, followed by ratification by three-fourths of state legislatures.

The process by which 11 original European nations merged their currencies into the euro set a high bar in one respect by requiring the governments of all signers of the Maastricht Treaty that created a common currency to ratify the agreement but then set a woefully low standard by leaving the ratification process up to each government. Very few of the governments subjected this profound change in sovereignty to the will of the people. One was Denmark, where voters rejected the euro by a 51.9% to 48.1% margin. The Danish government then rejiggered the terms for itself in a way that allowed the country to opt out of using the euro and to keep its krone. Once that exception was allowed, it became absolutely imperative that French voters, who also were allowed to decide directly about adopting the euro, to vote in favor. The French referendum on September 20, 1992 passed but by the razor-thin margin of 50.8% to 49.2%.

If just 1 percentage point more French voters had given a thumbs-down to the euro, there never would have been a shared currency or single central bank board to decide monetary policy for all countries using it. Over the last two decades, economic growth has been generally lower and unemployment higher in the euro area than it had been previously. Twenty years after the euro’s launch, the experiment remains half baked, with a lack of political and fiscal policy unification. The euro failed to give Continental Europe the political clout to stand up to the United States or challenge the dollar’s reserve asset hegemony, and the common European currency still faces existential risks all this time later. That the loss of sovereignty as pivotal as running one’s own monetary policy and controlling domestic interest rates could hinge on a 50.8% to 49.2% vote by the people of one country is inexcusable and tragic.

I’ve been thinking about the French referendum of 1992 a lot lately because of the Brexit mess in Britain. The Brexit referendum, the brainchild of former Tory Prime Minister David Cameron, only got approved by a margin of 51.9% to 48.1%, and now the country is staring into an economic abyss that would have been unthinkable three years ago. Way too much was at stake in that vote to have allowed a simple majority approval to have carried the day.

The United States is not exempt from ill-considered actions by the framers of its system of governance. Yes, the founding fathers made somethings very hard like the impeachment process. But they also contrived a convoluted electoral college for picking presidents and endowed rural states with way too much political influence that now neuters impeachment and pummels peoples’ confidence in the presidential selection process. Seven times more people live in California than Wyoming, giving each resident of the latter seven times more senatorial voting power than people living in California.

Only the House of Representatives, which unlike the senate is representative, has the power to impeach a president who’s taken bribes, engaged in treason, or committed other high crimes or misdemeanors. But two-thirds of the unrepresentative senate must vote to remove an impeached president, and that obstacle is deemed so formidable that leaders in the HoR are very hesitant to undertake its constitutional responsibility to impeach when appropriate.

The U.S. president and VP are the only politicians selected by the entire voting population. They are intended to embody the peoples’ choice. Twice since 2000, however, a republican has been elected president while getting fewer votes than his Democratic opponent. The election of 2016 in fact saw a popular vote margin that reached nearly 2.87 million votes. Democracy is not in a healthy condition when it doesn’t appear democratic.

All these wounds on the face of 21st century democracy are compounded by cyberspace advances that cast doubt upon the difference between fact and fiction and the accuracy of counted ballots. There is a need to correct quirks in the rules of democracy that allow results that seem undemocratic and therefore blemish the perceived legitimacy of elected government. A separate technological need is growing to not merely beef up cyber virus protection but to find ways to identify cyber crimes and automatically reverse the directionality of those attacks. If hacking criminals both at home and abroad are not brought to justice, the credibility of democracy will likely continue to erode.

Copyright 2019, Larry Greenberg. All rights reserved. No secondary distribution without express permission.

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