What do the workaday majority of Americans want their lawmakers working on? Check any legitimate poll — or just listen to most any barstool conversation down at the Bottoms Up pub — and you’ll hear them saying clearly and consistently that they want such basics as middle-class jobs, health care for all, a fixed-up infrastructure, a government uncorrupted by corporate cash, a little less greed... and, you know, the Common Good. And what have they been getting from their national and (most) state governments? Tax giveaways for the superrich, a relentless shredding of the social safety net, union busting, privatization, a 2,000-mile border wall, racial and gender repression, dark-money politics, paranoia and xenophobia, voter suppression and... well, the building blocks of an American plutocracy. In short, our elected “representatives” have been bluntly ignoring what we want and routinely delivering precisely what we don’t want.
How can we get lawmakers to reverse that perverse agenda and produce public policies that serve the people? Not by pleading with entrenched incumbents. That’s as hopeless as trying to teach table manners to a hog: It annoys the hog and wastes your time. The tried-and-true way of “influencing” them is to target, expose, challenge, and un-elect the bastards. That’s not easy, and it takes several election cycles, but it has been done periodically throughout our history by organizing and mobilizing big grassroots movements, including in the New Deal years, the 1950s and ‘60s civil rights struggle, and the anti-war movement of the 1970s.
Don’t look now, but we’re in the midst of another progressive political uprising that’s been coalescing since about 2010. And, ever since Bernie Sanders showed the way with his barrier-busting run in 2016, this movement has been steadily expanding, maturing and gaining electoral strength. Indeed, in November’s congressional, state and local elections, hundreds of the plutocracy’s servile officeholders were defenestrated by progressive forces — and some promising new voices for the people were added.
Recruiting, training and electing good reliable candidates, however, is not our only route — nor the surest route — to getting the policies and laws we want. Here’s another way: Have the people themselves be the lawmakers.
Why should congress critters, lobbyists and other political elites have monopoly control of the public agenda — control that allows them to refuse to introduce, debate and vote on — much less pass — measures that are crucially important to the larger public? A way around them is the dual democratic process of “initiative and referendum.” When a state or local legislative body obstinately ignores the people’s will, the initiative process allows grassroots citizens to step in and put a law up for a direct vote by the people. On the other hand, when a legislature passes a special interest law the people oppose, the referendum process lets citizens put it on the ballot, giving voters a chance to veto it. Both processes require a prescribed number of registered voters in a particular jurisdiction to sign petitions to put any of their wants and needs on the ballot, and bingo! Their measures will be there for a popular vote at the next election. It lets rank-and-file citizens bypass the middlemen, mitigating the power of increasingly autocratic and plutocratic elites.
Twenty-six states and over 80 percent of our cities have various forms of these direct democracy tools, and they’re becoming a major means for grassroots activists to produce progressive change, as 1) Washington remains locked down by corporate money, Trump pandemonium and right-wing intransigence; 2) too many state governments are essentially controlled by cliques of corporate lobbyists, tea party nutballs and Koch-funded anti-government ideologues; 3) the electoral system is so tightly gerrymandered, money-clogged and repressive; and 4) there is such deep public distrust and disgust at the boneheads and greedheads running our country. No wonder people are turning to do-it-yourself government.
For America’s CEOs, my gift is a beautifully boxed, brand-new set of corporate ethics. It’s called the golden rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”