Popular Initiatives

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.

10 thoughts on “Popular Initiatives

  1. I don’t think there is any justification for submitting decisions about the private life of individuals to a popular vote. Of course, I don’t think the government should be involved in marriage at all, but since it is wishing it away won’t help.

    Referenda like this take advantage of the fact that the majority of Americans are ignorant, bigoted sheep who follow the dictates of the superstitious religion as interpreted by self-serving demagogues instead of reason, common sense, and enlightened self-interest. The masses have not yet been liberated from the mental slavery they have been bred into, and so cannot be relied upon to vote in favor of the further emancipation of humanity.

    I suppose it is small consolation that the we have made enough progress that the worst we have to be disappointed about is the denial of an elective legal benefit. Sodomy laws are gone, non-discrimination laws are commonplace, AIDS research, prevention, and treatment are well-funded; a handful of states either have marriage or something similar. Compare that to 20 years ago.

  2. I agree that the majority should not be able to take away the rights of anyone. The “majority” of Americans (at least, that proportion who were able to vote) denied rights to my African-American ancestors for almost 200 years. But in this case, politics is clashing with religion, and religion is not rational. Gay rights are bumping against Conservative Christianity (and Islam and Judaism), and the religious feel that they have God on their side. It’s going to be a tough job to convince them otherwise…

    Good blog–but when do you sleep?!?

  3. Ya know, I feel the same way…tired of seeing it go to a “vote” and losing. I feel that we will never win marriage equity that way, only the courts can do it. Just like the civil rights battles in the 60’s, it was laws passed, and challenges in courts that progressed that movement. I have a feeling that the Prop 8 challenge will be in the courts for years, and we will have the up and down decisions along the way. I want to believe that most of the non-supporters are dying off, but I think that is false hope. There are plenty of younger people out there (Carrie Prejean, Matt Barber, dare I say it, Sarah Palin) that aren’t going to die off soon…and will be towing the line of the older generation that oppose gay marriage.

    What do you do? I laugh at the “rallies” being organized for tonight for Maine’s vote as worthless…great, the gays are mad again…oh well, just like Lisa Simpson mentioned once at Springfield’s Pride Parade: “You do this every year, We are used to it!! We have to do something different…I don’t know what that is. Until religion is out of the marriage business it’s going to be an uphill battle. Until then, I live with my partner, out in the community, living like a married couple. We both wear typical simple gold wedding bands as a silent sign of protest (?). Sure, we can’t have the legal aspect of marriage, but until then, we plan to act like it.

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  5. I honestly believe this country is headed for another civil war and, sadly, I am coming to the regretful conclusion that that is the only way that all of these issues are going to be resolved.

    What disturbs me, though, is that right now all the guns are on the other side, the enemies of the Republic and of human rights and freedom. As much as it appalled me, the Tea Baggers who brought guns to protest Obama had a point. Political power does not grow out of a protest sign.

  6. This is a loss, but is it really some macro_level loss across the nation? Hardly.

    And CivilWar? Hardly at all.
    When our gay-society cares less about consumerism, partying, and abandons the fun-fun-more-fun-dammit! mentality then we’ll see true civil progress of our rights.

    Maturity matters.


  7. Rob:
    I’m sorry, but having studied history I am just not that optimistic about humanity as you seem to be.

    Your indictment of gay society certainly has a lot of truth behind it, but it is really no different from the general social mindset that late-stage capitalism has by necessity bred into the population at large. Profits can only be realized by consumption, thererfore partying and fun-fun-more-fun-dammit is essential to the bottom line of the ruling class.

    This system cannot endure forever and it will eventually collapse. The present economic difficulties are harsh, but they are not yet as bad as things could be and as bad as they inevitably will be.

    Maybe we won’t have a civil war; as I said, right now all the guns are on the other side. What is clear, though, is that if present trends continue the Republic will not survive. Almost all the possibilities of what will replace it are terrifying.

    Sarah Palin, Glen Beck, the Tea Baggers — these are the shape of things to come.

  8. No other group has ever had their civil rights placed before the voters in a referendum. But the right-wing think they have license to practice bigotry openly against gay people. I have long argued about how ridiculous and demeaning it is to have to convince enough average voters to do the right thing regarding equality and civil rights. No one else had to do it this way. If the inter-racial marriage matter had been up for a vote in each state can any one tell me how that might have fared in the south? The only thing left to do is fight like hell, and not let the conservatives have an inch. I know the tide of history is on my side, ( inspite of some setbacks) and the conservatives do to, but until there is an all-out victory these types of battles will be waged, and we must react with all the vigor and determination we can mount.

    Each of us has seen so much in our life. We have found new galaxies due to Hubble, witnessed the end of the Cold War, the use of stem-cells to prevent diseases is around the corner, even anti-matter is no longer a dream.

    So in that context gay marriage is not hard to believe is coming.

    Because it is.

    Recall that folks like Rosa Parks lived to see so much of what she never had at one point in her life become the law of the land, due to fighting and demanding.

    So shall we.

    Never lose faith.

    I haven’t.

  9. If anything, history has shown us that civil rights ultimately always prevail; Perhaps not within the system we anticipate or currently enjoy (e.g., federal republics), but housed in some social system only now starting to re-emerge (e.g., syndicalism!). I, too, think we’re on the verge of revolution — but, yep, i’m not so pessimistic. Fascism, be it western or eastern, died. Totalitarianism did too. And so does laisez fair capitalism before our eyes. If society continues to brightly hope and embrace positivism, and doesn’t become mired in some intellectually vogue nihilistic pessimism of the day, then we do have a chance.

    I care less about the loss of Maine, or the forces of doom’s designs on NewHampshire, than i do, for example, on the optimism and assertive hope that, say, Massachusetts exemplifies. Embolden the example and it’ll trample over the fear.

    It’s examples such as that State’s that will ultimately prevail — not some mechanistic gloomy nay-saying response that we see above.

    Gaydom needs to learn about hard work and sacrifice, and less about quick-n-easy, over-night results. We need to grow up.

    The future is very bright, but not easy.

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