“Don’t forget,” warns USC Marshall Professor of Finance and Business Economics, John Matsusaka, “in 1787, American democracy wasn’t all that democratic. Just think about all the people who couldn’t vote.”
The Charles F. Sexton Chair in American Enterprise and Executive Director of the Initiative and Referendum Institute, Matsusaka says that things are much better today, but the country is still not as democratic as we think. “Everyone gets to vote today, but we don’t have much control over what the government does,” he said. “Congress makes a law and hands over the reins. The power to make policy has gone to judges and technocrats in the regulatory agencies.”
This situation is something Matsusaka has given a lot of thought. He attributes the recent international rise in populist ideology to people’s sense that they’ve lost control of their government. “One reason they think this is because it’s true,” he said. “It’s been happening for over 100 years. Now the question is, ‘What do we do?’”
"I’m afraid we Americans might have developed a blind spot about our democracy. We might have become a bit complacent."—John Matsusaka, Professor of Finance and Business Economics, Charles F. Sexton Chair in American Enterprise, and Executive Director of the Initiative and Referendum Institute
Power to the People
Matsusaka’s answer is to literally give power to the people. His new book, Let the People Rule: How Direct Democracy Can Meet the Populist Challenge (Princeton University Press 2020), advocates direct democracy through implementation of the referendum on a national level.
“Referendums are the best-known form of direct democracy,” Matsusaka said. “They are a way for voters themselves to indicate their position on a proposed law.”
In the United States, the referendum has been common on local and state levels. Voters approve amendments to their state constitutions, vote on bond issues, repeal existing laws by petition referendum, and propose and approve new laws via the initiative process. Matsusaka said the United States now makes more use of direct democracy at the state and local levels than any other country except Switzerland. But, he said, “at the national level we are way behind the times, one of only four established democracies that have never held a national referendum.”
Matsusaka argues that the lack of referendums and initiatives nationally prevents citizens from having a voice at that level. “We’re behind almost everyone else now,” he said. “While we are still running a system built in the 18th century, the rest of the world has innovated and gone more boldly toward popular rule, a path we first trailblazed. Rightly proud of our pioneering place in history, I’m afraid we Americans might have developed a blind spot about our democracy. We might have become a bit complacent.
“With a referendum system,” Matsusaka said, “we might find ourselves less polarized than we look. Politicians take extreme paths; people can reach compromise.”
Matsusaka said he isn’t suggesting a big revolution. He cites a 2017 Pew Research Center survey that finds two-thirds of Americans back the idea of “voting directly on major national issues to decide what becomes law.”
Other surveys show that a majority in every American state favors letting citizens propose and approve state laws by initiative.
“We can start with advisory votes at the national level and then move on to making laws,” Matsusaka said. “Inevitably, we’ll be taking national votes like this at some time. Small steps can show us how it works.”
He acknowledged not everyone will agree with him, but Matsusaka suggests we should all be able to agree the people ought to be in charge. He hopes the book is part of a general spark. “Even better,” Matsusaka said, “I hope some might come to see referendums as a way to meet the challenges of populism and make our aspirations for self-government more of a reality. Democracy is drifting away from popular control, but we have the tools to bring it back.”
For more information about direct democracy, go to the Initiative & Referendum Institute, a non-partisan educational organization dedicated to the study of the initiative and referendum, the two most important processes of direct democracy.