This result in Maine makes me think about the complicated issue of popular initiatives and referenda. Any time marriage equality goes to the people for a direct statewide vote, it loses. The exception was one time in Arizona, but then the anti-gay side tried again and they won. Loss after loss leaves me frustrated and hurt, and I’m sick of these things getting onto the ballot. Popular initiatives are stupid, I tell myself, because the general public is too uninformed to vote on an issue directly.
But I don’t know. On the one hand, we are not a democracy, we are a representative democracy. We elect people to govern us and make policy decisions, because there are certain people who have a better grasp of the issues than Joe Q. Public does. It’s a principle of a representative democracy that you entrust governance to the representatives you’ve voted for.
But a hundred years ago, referenda and initiatives became popular. Why? Because legislative bodies were seen to be taken over by special interests. Obviously, this is still true today on many issues.
But shouldn’t you only resort to public initiatives when it involves an issue where the legislature is captive to special interests? This is often the case with economic issues, but how is it the case with gay rights? If anything, the people who oppose gay equality are better organized than those who support it. Aren’t they the special interest?
And yet, you can argue that it was the people’s decision to entrust most of its power to the legislatures, and that the people can choose to reserve certain issues for themselves if they want to. You can argue that if enough people feel passionately about a particular issue, rightly or wrongly, then the people can validly decide to reserve the decisionmaking power on that issue to themselves. Clearly there are plenty of people who are passionately opposed to gay equality, and even though they are guided by mistaken impressions of gay people, can provide no logical reason to prevent gay couples from marrying, and can provide no clear answer why other people’s marriages affect them, they are still the people. Or at least they are a portion of the people. And if they can get a majority of voters to agree with them, well, maybe we have to accept that this is a valid expression of democracy?
Except that individual rights should not be subject to democratic vote. Majorities should not be able to take away the rights of minorities.
Also, you can argue that legislators are better informed than the public, because they actually have to debate the issues, whereas the public is too busy with their daily lives. Except… there are plenty of stupid, uninformed legislators out there.
In the end, it’s pointless to argue whether the popular initiative process is valid or not. It’s a reality, and supporters of gay equality have to deal with them.
They can actually be a good thing in the long run, because they provide an opportunity for us to interact with voters — our fellow citizens — and to try to convince them that we’re right. Courts are sometimes necessary as a last resort, but achieving social change through litigation can lead to lazy activism. It’s one thing to convince four or five judges to rule in your favor; it’s another thing to convince your neighbors, and ultimately, the latter is more important, because it is more lasting. Court decisions can be reversed by amendment or by massive social resistance. Ten years after Brown v. Board of Education, virtually no schools in the South were racially integrated. It took the popular uprisings of the late 1950s and the 1960s to lead to real change.
Yes, there are plenty of people who just want the legal rights we are entitled to as Americans. When you’re out of work and in poor health and you can’t get onto your partner’s health insurance plan because the insurance company doesn’t consider you to be married, you don’t particularly care about winning over the hearts and minds of your neighbors; you just want your rights. But ultimately, because we live in a civil society, it’s important to have the support of your fellow citizens, or even just a grudging tolerance — if only to ensure that once a right is acknowledged, the people won’t decide to take that right away from you.
Popular initiatives may be a pain in the ass, and they may clash with the idea of representative democracy. But they give us a chance to change public opinion. And with public opinion on your side, you have a much stronger foundation for real, permanent change.