When the Republic strays, people demand more democracy

Essay by John Clayton

Politics – May 1999 – Colorado Central Magazine

When the Republic strays, people demand more democracy

by John Clayton

“Are we gonna get to vote?” comes the refrain from the crowd. “Why won’t you put the issue up for a vote?” “People throughout the county deserve a vote.”

I am moderating a public meeting. It’s a question-and-answer session; my job is to keep information flowing, civilly. On a panel sit elected officials and a consulting engineer. In front of us sit 80 citizens, expressing varying degrees of frustration and anger.

The topic — well, the topic isn’t important. The topic is a potential new airport for my tiny Montana town. But the crowd’s anger and frustration would have arisen (in fact, has arisen in the past) over several different issues. The problem is the process.

At great length, the engineer explains the Federal Aviation Administration’s requirements for new-airport studies: data to be collected, public input to be gathered, alternatives to be identified. It almost sounds like overkill for a small, noncommercial landing strip — which must only fuel the suspicions that this project is something bigger.

This study has not yet commenced. The first of four phases won’t begin until next month. But already it’s the hottest political issue in the county.

People know how this process works. They’ve seen enough federal Environmental Impact Statements. The process, they believe, is all a charade, a blizzard of documentation to support the oligarchy’s foregone conclusion.

We’re fed up with this process, they’re saying. We’re fed up with edicts from Washington bureaucrats and multinational corporations and now even local city-council people. We want something more closely approximating democracy.

One questioner insists on pinning down each of the three alderwomen present: would you support putting this issue to a public vote? Two consent, but the third, perhaps best versed in political science, tries to explain.

“Well, assuming we’re able to successfully address all of these issues, I wouldn’t see any need for a public vote.”

I hear in that answer an understanding of the theory of our republican form of government. We elect officials to make decisions for us. They hire consultants to inform those decisions. If the decisions turn out wrong, the officials get voted out and the consultants fired.

BUT THE CROWD, at least some of them, react much differently. They seethe with fury. “How can you deny us the vote?” One fellow almost jumps out of his chair. This is the critical moment for my moderating role: to calm tempers and return discussion to the airport (a task which, in my surprise, I perform imperfectly).

A half-hour later, the event ends. I do not know if it has been successful. I do not know if citizens have come to understand the airport planning process and their role in it. I do not know if the elected officials have come to understand their constituents’ frustration that anyone had even conceived of a new airport in the first place.

I do know this: the frustration is not so much with airports or individual alderwomen. It’s with how the republic has strayed.

Earlier in the week, our state legislature gutted last November’s voter referendum banning cyanide mining. The same week, courts struck down another referendum — this one requiring a public vote on all tax increases. All this in the wake of the impeachment trial of a wildly popular President.

Myself, I don’t want to vote on the airport. I don’t want to vote on tax minutiae, or acceptable mining practices, or the President’s sex life. I want a republic that listens, and understands, and makes decisions based on the public will.

I suspect these people would be happy with that, too. But to them, that trust has broken down, at the federal level, the state level, and — tonight, I’m forced to admit — even the level of the smallest community. And so they call for a direct vote, a different system they think might work better. It strikes me as a desperate hope.

John Clayton is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News, based in Paonia, Colo . He lives in western Montana.