Here's what you need to know about democracy this week:
1 Do the parties represent the people?
Ballot initiatives in red and blue states alike have led to results which have surprised and annoyed the majority party. Lately, Republican-led states have been passing legislation to make these processes more arduous, and thus less likely to contradict their interests. But what does it mean that measures put up to a popular vote often run counter to the interests of the party running the state government?
2 Why is democracy failing in Tunisia?
This past Sunday, the president of Tunisia suspended parliament, enacted emergency powers, and removed the prime minister from his post. As the only success story of the Arab Spring, why is Tunisia’s democracy failing now, and what could have been done to prevent it?
Narration: Executive Director Uriel Epshtein
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1 Do the parties represent the people?
Two demonstrators against California’s Proposition 16 (Anda Chu/Bay Area News Group)
Mississippi is legalizing medical marijuana, Missouri is expanding Medicaid, and California won’t allow for affirmative action in college admissions.
Given that the first two states are Republican strongholds and the California state legislature is famously progressive, we wouldn’t blame you for being surprised. But state legislatures had no hand in these measures. Instead, all three passed because citizens voted for them directly, circumventing the legislative process.
In states across the country, voters are rejecting the pleas of the majority party and bucking the party line. In response, the Republican legislatures are taking action. In Missouri, the Republican state leadership declined to fund the Medicaid expansion approved by voters, until the state Supreme Court forced it to last Thursday. Now, many states are seeking to overhaul the ballot initiative process completely. Republican legislatures in states like Idaho, Oklahoma, Missouri, and South Dakota have passed 24 laws in recent months changing how ballot initiatives work, most of which make it more difficult for initiatives to appear on the ballot.
The recent squabbling over these initiatives has renewed debate on one of America’s oldest political flashpoints: should citizens’ votes directly determine the government’s actions, or should they be filtered through representatives?
What’s the problem with direct democracy?
A fear of direct democracy, or voters personally weighing in on legislation, was widespread in the Revolutionary era. Under the direction of James Madison, the Constitution took after the ancient model of the Roman Republic rather than Athenian democracy. In Federalist 10, Madison explained the need to do so: “A pure democracy, by which I mean a society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person, can admit of no cure for the mischiefs of faction.” Madison famously criticized the excesses of direct democracy, which could lead to the abuse of minority rights and factionalism, and the Constitution was set up to protect the country against those excesses. While the House of Representatives would be elected by the people, the Senate would be elected by state legislatures. Washington (perhaps apocryphally) described the Senate as the saucer that would cool the hot debate of the more rowdy House.
A less elite, democratic tradition ultimately took root, and by the early 20th century there was serious political impetus to give voters more power. Congress passed the 17th amendment in 1912, which empowered citizens to elect senators directly. At the same time, another measure was considered, 1907’s House Joint Resolution 44, to establish a national ballot initiative process so voters could pass federal legislation directly.
This never came to pass, of course, and probably for good reason. The ills of direct democracy aren’t just relegated to the annals of history; they’re a modern reality. In 1992, Colorado voters approved a ballot initiative to keep the state from extending equal rights to the LGBT community with the Colorado No Protected Status for Sexual Orientation initiative. It ultimately had to be overturned by the Supreme Court. Even more radically, in 2009 Switzerland voted to ban the construction of minarets, the distinctive towers used to call Muslims to prayer, in an affront to religious freedom. Now, as Yascha Mounk noted in The People vs. Democracy, the Swiss Constitution reads “Freedom of religion and conscience is guaranteed… The construction of minarets is prohibited.”
Should referendums be rolled back?
Given the mixed record of referendums, it would be reasonable to restrict their role in American government. But in doing so, we would obscure the very important lesson they’re offering us at the moment: Republicans and Democrats, even in states where they enjoy large majorities, are unwilling to support some widely popular legislation.
Take the case of California. Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom strongly supported Proposition 16 to make affirmative action possible in college admissions. After last summer’s racial reckoning, Newsom said that affirmative action was the best way for California to build on its history of “leading the way on fundamental civil rights and criminal justice reform.” Still, 57% of Californians voted against Prop 16, on the same day that 63.5% of them voted for a Democrat for president. The vote revealed a significant divide between the average California voter and the platform of the Democratic party.
There’s a long tradition and strong argument for representatives voting with their conscience rather than what a simple majority supports. Nevertheless, expanding Medicaid and legalizing medical marijuana are hardly affronts against civil liberties that need to be taken out of the hands of everyday Americans. Ballot initiatives are by no means a model of perfect governance, but they do have uses. In this case, they're revealing how far our parties have to go in legislating in accordance with what their constituents truly want.
2 Why is democracy failing in Tunisia?
Tunisian President Kais Saied (Reuters)
Tunisia was the rare bright spot of the Arab Spring: the only country to emerge with a functioning and somewhat durable democracy. Then, this past Sunday, President Kais Saied invoked Article 80 of the country’s constitution to declare a national emergency. He announced through state and social media that he had removed Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi, suspended Parliament for thirty days, and nullified the legal immunity of parliamentary members, appointing himself the Prosecutor General. The Tunisian military physically prevented members of parliament and government employees from entering the parliamentary building, as Mechichi declared his intention to hold a cabinet meeting despite his apparent dismissal. All the while, supporters of Saied took to the streets to celebrate.
President Saied is undermining liberal democracy in Tunisia, and he might be doing it with a popular mandate.
What’s kept democracy from flourishing?
The so-called Arab Spring began in Tunisia in December 2010, when a Tunisian merchant named Mohammed Bouazizi sparked sweeping demonstrations by setting himself on fire to protest the Ben Ali regime. The Arab Spring captured the world's attention as people across the Middle East and North Africa took to the streets and social media to call for human rights and democracy. Tunisia overthrew its autocratic government and held free parliamentary elections in 2011 for the first time ever. The United States and the European Union sent Tunisia billions of dollars to help it build democratic institutions and an open economy.
Over the course of the following decade, as countries like Egypt reverted to autocracy, Tunisia appeared to be the exception. Then this year, as crises mounted and the economic situation took a turn for the worse, the young democracy faced its greatest challenges yet. In 2019, youth unemployment reached nearly 35%. Thanks to Covid-19, the economy shrank by 8% in 2020. In addition, Tunisia has struggled to contain the virus, with deaths and infection rates overwhelming its public health system and the vaccine rollout plagued by chaos.
As Tunisia limped along without clear solutions to their significant problems, the parliament lost popularity. The president, on the other hand, has thus far been able to avoid blame for Tunisia’s woes. Saied was elected in 2019 on a platform that styled him as “the scourge of a corrupt, incompetent elite,” and has enjoyed a reputation of incorruptibility as a political outsider. While Tunisia’s government faltered, Saied has maintained his standing. Now, what the opposition is describing as a coup was met with jubilation in the streets of Tunis.
This week's Tunisian crisis reveals an uncomfortable truth about democracy: it will only last so long as it’s delivering a better life to the average citizen. For a new democracy to survive, it has to do more than resist invasion and collect taxes. Democracy must be effective––in protecting its citizens' health, promoting positive economic policies, and resisting terrorism. When it fails to meet citizens' expectations, it’s liable to fail completely.
Tunisian democracy is not dead yet, and there’s still hope that President Saied could restore parliament, walk back his emergency powers, and bolster Tunisia’s young democratic institutions. Unfortunately, it seems a significant portion of the public may be all too willing to accept his rise as an autocrat. Without a popular movement to protect democracy, its fate could be sealed, and the last hope of the Arab Spring could be lost.
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