Political Paralysis – or Power to the People?

When Americans vote for president they do not actually vote for president. Instead they select presidential electors who, in turn, select the president. Moreover, we have scant chance directly to register our policy preferences. Instead we are obliged to leave this to our legislatures, including at the federal level, where Congress decides, or not, on our collective behalf.

By and large this is typical of democracies: legislators pass legislation intended to implement particular policy choices. One could argue that this works well when the legislature works well. But when it does not, when it is polluted by money and infected by dysfunction, as is the case now with Congress, the system itself must be corrected.

There is no obvious comparison between the United States and Switzerland. The two countries are different in nearly every important aspect – save one. Both are functioning, or supposedly functioning, democracies. The Swiss, however, have long had a tradition in which they themselves – not their elected officials – decide on political outcomes. In Switzerland no measure becomes law unless its citizens explicitly approve it – which explains why on average the Swiss go to the polls four times a year. Four times a year they vote on several issues at a time. Similarly, there is a procedure by which they can propose their own public policies. As a recent piece in USA Today pointed out, all it takes for this to happen is a petition with 50,000 signatures presented to the proper authorities. (Link below.)

I am hardly the first to suggest that America would benefit from more direct political participation. In fact, doing away with the Electoral College is a frequently proposed political reform. Which raises the question of why Americans are so resistant to change – even now, when 21st century technology would enable direct democracy to be easily tested. Historically have been two clear reasons. First, we are loathe to tamper with our own history. Every time anyone proposes a constitutional convention we break out in a national sweat. Second, direct democracy seems to us unwieldy. This country is so large, and so populous, and so diverse, governing by increasing participating seems a recipe for chaos.

But what we have now is just not good enough!  Truth is that unless we do something nothing will change. Truth is that to be paralyzed by the present political fecklessness is to be doomed to perpetuate it.



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