Our Swiss Cheese Democracy

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Any person who is remotely aware of the state of our political system knows we’re in deep trouble.  One doesn’t need a PhD in political science to believe that the “representatives” part of our “representative democracy” increasingly do the bidding for the wealthiest 1% of the wealthiest 1%, as well as for corporate entities that flood elected official’s offices with lobbyists, political campaigns with cash, and our sensibilities with insulting negative political ads that are paid for but, in many cases, don’t have to be disclosed.

A majority of the 99% are political PhDs in their own right – well schooled and experienced in having their political voices drowned out by the political voices of those with money who use the first amendment’s “free speech” provisions as a constitutional titanium shield.

If money is speech, then those with the most money have the most speech. This isn’t just a slick saying, but devastatingly documented recently by formal PhDs from Princeton and Northwestern. Their report “Testing Theories of American Politics” concludes the U.S. is more an oligarchy than a democracy. “[T]he preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy,” the authors conclude after examining the public’s role in 1779 issues from 1981-2002. This was eight years before the Citizens United vs FEC Supreme Court decision, which expanded the ability of the wealthy and corporate entities to contribute to political causes.

The lack of authentic democracy, representative or otherwise, precedes Citizens United and even 1981. It goes back to day one of this nation – to the undemocratic U.S. Constitution and the many laws since passed insulating a political and economic power elite.  For evidence, see this, this and this.

Further proof of our undemocratic political system is unmistakable – at least in terms of elections — when comparing it to that of Switzerland.
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The Swiss are going to the polls next week.The election is next Sunday, as in a weekend when more people are off work. Not so in the U.S. when elections are always on Tuesdays.

Swiss voting procedures are much more convenient and democratic than in the “Land of the Free. “Every Swiss voter can cast a ballot if (s)he prefers by mail, which is done by a majority. There are no voting machines. All votes, whether in person or by mail, are counted by hand by citizens who are randomly chosen by each municipality.

The real democratic difference, however, concerns the voting subject matter. This is where our so-called “democracy” is Swiss cheese with holes galore comparatively.

Nation-wide voting in the US is strictly for officials – President, Senators and Representatives. Check that. Technically, we don’t directly elect the President. Only members of the “Electoral College” choose the President.

Swiss voters elect people to represent them at different levels, but they also vote on issues. Many issues. Several times a year. Since 1848, in fact, they’ve voted on more than 550 issues. Since 1798, there have been roughly three times as many referendum elections (voting on issues) as there have been Parliamentary elections (voting for people and parties).

That’s direct democracy!

The issues are of two types:
–    Legislative referendums – to overturn a law passed by their legislature.
–    Constitutional referendums – to modify or amend their constitution.

Initiating a national legislative referendum to repeal a law requires the collection of 50,000 signatures of Swiss voters within 100 days after the law becomes official. That would be the equivalent of 2 million signatures in the U.S. For a constitutional modification, 100,000 valid signatures are needed – the equivalent of about 4 million signatures here.

If a simple majority of voters support the legislative referendum, it passes. A constitutional referendum requires both majority support from all voters and a majority of voters from a majority of the 26 Swiss “cantons” (the equivalent of our states).

Imagine if such a system existed in the U.S. Amending the Constitution to end corporate “personhood” and money as speech would be infinitely easier. Rather than circulating a symbolic organizing petition or working to pass local and/or state council resolutions or ballot initiatives as vehicles to pressure 2/3rds of both Houses of Congress to pass a constitutional amendment, which if passed, would still have to be ratified by ¾ of state legislatures, We the People could completely eliminate “the middle man” – Congress and state legislatures – and solicit signatures directly from fellow citizens.

Additionally, national policy questions like climate change or the proposed trade agreements like the Trans Pacific Partnership could be put up for a national vote.

We could do democracy directly.

That may be exactly why our constitution is not like Switzerland’s. It wasn’t designed to empower people. All three branches of government were meant in their own way to shield the power elite directly from the populace.

Referendums are, of course, insufficient by themselves to achieving a real democracy – even if our own Constitution permitted them.  The power and/or rights of elected officials, of the Supreme Court, of zillionaires, of corporate behemoths and of our constitutional rigged ground rules are major democratic hurdles.

While not permitted at the federal level, populists and progressives more than a century ago amended state constitutions to supply citizens with these direct democratic tools – as well as the recall to throw elected officials out of office before the end of their terms. They have permitted citizens to do an end run around corrupt elected officials and judges.

Like any tool, popular initiatives and referendums can be harmful rather than helpful in the quest for justice, peace and self-governance – depending on the cause.

Still, these few direct democratic tools at the state and local levels remain threats – despite their limited effectiveness in the face of an entire tool shed of the power elite. Efforts are periodically made to slice away these powers in various ways (i.e. raising signature requirements, reducing the time for signature gathering, restricting who can gather signatures, how petitions are to be certified, etc.).

These constant threats by the power elite indicate why they are so important to protect and expand. In the course of doing so, we should be obligated to plant the educational seeds for federal equivalents. A federal initiative and referendum are constitutional ground rules that would dramatically expand our democratic tool kit.

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