Short Circuit: Impatience with the Institutions of Democracy Grows

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Photo by Leonard von Bibra on Unsplash

Those who fear the loss of democracy tend to focus on Trumpland or Congress or Georgia or other countries. We overlook a lot going on under our local noses. Here, it’s not so much democracy that is threatened as a very important component of it — allowing elected officials the space to govern, make hard decisions, be accountable, and than face the voters.

These traditions are bedrock features of a republican form of government, which is what the Founders wanted to enshrine in the Constitution. They feared the tyrannous instability of democracy. Article IV, Section 4,  spells this out: “The United States shall guarantee to every State in the Union a Republican Form of Government…”

The famous quote comes from Ben Franklin, who was asked on the street by a prominent woman in Philadelphia politics, Elizabeth Willing Powel, whether the Constitutional Convention had created a monarchy or a republic? “A republic, if you can keep it,” replied Franklin, memorably as usual.

Well, can we keep it? Consider the following developments, all exhibiting a growing impatience with the structures of a democratic republic.

  1. The Charter Amendment proposed by Compassion Seattle that would stipulate the city of Seattle’s marching orders on homelessness. This is an end-run around a duly elected council and mayor, imposing budget priorities by charter (very rare), and making it impossible for elected officials to modify the amendment. It is also an ominous precedent for other groups who want to use this populist route to cement in policies and budget goodies.
  2. The Black Brilliance project for “participatory budgeting,” which would shift the budgeting for certain human-services areas to a citizens-defined community process, due to distrust in the council’s ability to pass an antiracist budget.
  3. Recalling Councilmember Kshama Sawant, despite her having been recently reelected by a good margin. Efforts to recall the Seattle School Board and Mayor Jenny Durkan, while abortive, indicate the same impatience with democratically elected (but entrenched) representatives. As does, of course, Trump’s effort to void an election he clearly lost.
  4. Eymanism. It may be stymied for now, due to court and electoral setbacks for the irrepressible Tim Eyman, but it is an outbreak of the same disease: mobilizing angry citizens to void laws and hog-tie the Legislature’s duty to pass laws and taxes.
  5. Taking to the Streets. The Left in Seattle, particularly the Sawant Swat Teams, now gang up on politicians who cast unpopular votes, packing council chambers and screaming, defacing and surrounding residences, and threatening duly elected figures and their families with violence. The CHOP autonomous zone on Capitol Hill was another example of seceding from local government and police, by occupying territory and nullifying civil order.
  6. Ignoring the Electeds. Tacoma parents were highly critical of the city’s school board and so formed a broad community coalition to focus on a single goal, increasing the graduation rate from public high schools. Graduate Tacoma, as it was called, worked in part because it politely ignored the elected school board and mobilized its own powerful citizens’ coalition for change. Much the same spirit animates the Compassion Seattle effort to ignore City Hall and impose a multi-party solution for homelessness.

Some of the results of these extramural efforts are commendable. They certainly release some pressure that is building from widespread fury over the failure of our democratic systems to solve big problems. In some cases the elected boards see which way the political winds are blowing and join the march for change. 

That said, it’s worrisome that the only channels for change that seem to be unclogged, locally as well as nationally, are channels that short-circuit deliberation and deny the chance to assemble a durable majority that can hold together against the coming storms of passionate citizenry.

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David Brewster, a founding member of Post Alley, has a long career in publishing, having founded Seattle Weekly, Sasquatch Books, and Crosscut.com. His civic ventures have been Town Hall Seattle and FolioSeattle.

7 COMMENTS

  1. David: you’re absolutely right. This “impatience” plays right into the hands of populist autocrats, demagogues, whether of right or left. I’d like nothing better than to see Sawant voted off the council, but she has committed no crime sufficient for recall; being stupidly irresponsible is not enough.

  2. David (and Fletch), I disagree with your characterization of the Sawant recall election as “impatience with our democratic process”. Justifying a recall election under Washington State law isn’t easy. If that weren’t the case special interest groups would constantly recall our elected officials – making it difficult for elected officials to get anything done.

    See ballotpedia (https://ballotpedia.org/Kshama_Sawant_recall,_Seattle,_Washington_(2020-2021)). It says that the Washington Supreme Court ruled that the recall election against Kashama COULD PROCEED based on four charges which were certified by Judge Rogers. They were: relinquishing the authority of her office to an outside political organization; misusing city funds for electioneering purposes; disregarding regulations related to COVID-19 by allowing people into city hall when it was closed to the public; and misusing her official position by leading a protest march to Mayor Jenny Durkan’s private residence, the location of which is protected under state confidentiality laws.

    EXCERPT: To get the recall on the ballot, petitioners would be required to gather over 10,700 signatures from registered voters, which is equal to 25% of the total votes cast in the last District 3 election held in 2019.

    QUESTION: Does anyone know whether the signatures from registered voters must come from Sawant’s district?

  3. David, surely you’re not characterizing of all state initiatives as Eyemanism? If you are, I disagree. Initiatives are not merely used to “void laws and hog-tie the Legislature’s duty to pass laws and taxes”. In fact, when it comes to consumer protection law (for example, privacy law), I would argue that initiatives are one of the few tools Washington consumers can use to counter big business behind-the-scenes lobbying efforts.

    Please read this report by a small organization of journalists which is investigating “Big Tech’s state lobbying tactics. Next, tell me whether the ACLU of Washington (or some other citizen action group) SHOULD, in fact, use the initiative process to push for California-style protections in Washington State. See here.

    Did California’s initiative process ensure that California passed a much stronger privacy law than the one the Washington State Senate (or House) has proposed? Based on my understanding of the following American Bar Association article, I would say “yes”. See here.

    Excerpt from Bar Association Article: In early 2018 a California real estate developer spearheaded an effort to include a new privacy law — the Consumer Right to Privacy Act of 2018 — on the November 2018 California ballot. By June 2018, supporters of the initiative had gathered enough signatures to earn a place on the November ballot. In response, California legislators, working with representatives of affected California businesses and other interest groups, quickly negotiated and passed a substitute bill — The California Consumer Privacy Act of 2018 – the CCPA — in exchange for an agreement to drop the more restrictive text in the Consumer Right to Privacy Act from the November ballot.

    • I didn’t include any initiatives in my list, and I agree that they can be good goads to get legislative action. Referendum, recall, and initiative were products of the Progressive Era, when railroads had captured the Legislature. They are aspects of “direct democracy,” except many initiatives have been taken over by special interests who have enough money to pay for signature gatherers. They can pose as expressions of “the people,” and they can often be very poorly drafted, since they don’t go through the usual legislative vetting and compromises. Voters should beware.

  4. Don’t miss the key notions in Brewster’s statement which focus the basic arguments he makes. What makes a republic valuable is deliberation by a durable majority which can mediate the storms of passionate citizenry.

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