In America as in the Mideast, a case of jitters over democracy

America still debates Jefferson's fear of "the tyranny of the majority," where the powerless individual can feel trampled. In Seattle, we wonder whether to trust those we elect or to rely on such direct expressions as initiatives and referendums.

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Crowds protest against the Mubarak regime in Egypt.

America still debates Jefferson's fear of "the tyranny of the majority," where the powerless individual can feel trampled. In Seattle, we wonder whether to trust those we elect or to rely on such direct expressions as initiatives and referendums.

The fiery death of Tunisia’s street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi has become a symbol for freedom in the Middle East.  The message of his death carried by the internet triggered a series of revolutions in other oppressive governments such as Egypt, Libya, and Syria.

Much of the world waits to see if the people shouting for freedom and democracy in the Middle East really comprehend what they are getting themselves into. It’s easier to shout “democracy” than to create one.  Governance can take many different forms and may not become the kind of republic imagined by John Locke in the 17th century.  In their search for freedom the people of the Middle East will likely make some of the same mistakes we have made in our nation’s 200 plus years — with their religious differences maybe more.

We had men like Thomas Jefferson and others who debated abstract notions like how to resist the “tyranny of the majority.” Fearful of full democracy, the Founders solved the problem of uneducated voters by allowing only the landed male gentry the right to vote.

As a nation, we went on to make almost every mistake you could imagine.  We fought wars for which we found all sorts of reasons to justify. We interfered in foreign governments; we allowed and encouraged robber barons in our own land; we oppressed native cultures and racial groups. Yet somehow we also managed to lead the world in wealth, opportunity, science, and invention — along with protecting and nourishing more freedoms than any nation has ever experienced.

Even so, the individual seems lost in a modern America, dominated as it is by powerful interest groups — unions, religious affiliations, environmental groups, corporations (newly empowered by the Supreme Court rulings), and subcultures that have gained enormous power. Their missionaries speak with the cadence of the all-mighty seeking true believers.

We have learned the simple cry for freedom and democracy has strings attached and sets loose forces that can mock these high notions.

People in revolt must ultimately form a government.  But what kind?  Elect representatives?  Use plebiscites such as initiatives and referendums?  Seattle is currently going through a perennial debate over whether the people should vote on each issue of their government or trust elected representatives with complicated decisions like building a solution for the Viaduct. In some states, notably California, the voting public has used hundreds of ballot measures to snatch power from its elected representatives.  It is estimated that the California state legislature has control of only 10 to 20 percent of the state’s budget.

Locally, the debate over the Viaduct/tunnel referendum revives the old debate about the “tyranny of the majority.”  We live in a political culture where big money buys media that can influence the public vote on issues where the people often have little valid information.  An example: Costco and other retailers are again preparing an initiative to allow private liquor sales.

In Washington, Tim Eyman is a self-appointed tribune of the people, claiming to speak for the majority. But is this a modern version of tyranny by a fickle majority? A good many of his initiatives pass and most address what he and his supporters perceive as excessive spending or taxation.  Eyman’s success is due partly to a legislative culture that has lost its way in a cloud of partisan politics that made the public lose trust in the system.

These initiatives often reflect the poorly written broad brush of popular slogans; they damaged or left unfunded essential programs; some are voiced by the courts, leaving the issues raised in limbo. Maybe the masses driven by tweets and Facebook will gain the upper hand and become the tyranny of the majority our forefathers worried about.

The conundrum for Americans is: Whom do you trust?  The politicians you elect, or the voice of the people as reflected in direct government by ballot measures?  Both are subject to media and the influx of money. Seattle’s elected officials can’t help but respond to campaign contributions and in-kind support from powerful local groups.

Public-sector unions, developers, the Downtown Seattle Association, the Chamber of Commerce; large corporations such as Amazon, Microsoft, Boeing, and Starbucks; nonprofits such as the Gates Foundation, Futurewise, Sightline, the Cascade Land Conservancy, the Cascade Bicycle Club, and the Sierra Club; and very influential individuals like Jim Ellis, Bill Gates, Sr. Jeff Bezos, Paul Allen, Howard Schultz, the Benaroya family and the McCaws — against such entrenched influence, the unaffiliated individual has a zero chance influencing government.

The road ahead for Egypt, Libya, and Syria is unimaginable.  It’s no piece of cake for us either.  Democracy is never finished. After so many years of experience, you might expect democracy would become easier. It seems almost the opposite has occurred. It’s a work in progress which demands the most difficult thing we have to give, trust.


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