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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.