To make democracy work, in spite of or because of poor choices by the people, we have formulated a variety of antidotes. Most commonly, we hire professionals, called lobbyists, to protect us from those we elect. The favorite current proposal to protect us from the influence of interest groups and the people we elect is term limits — a capitulation of republican government and responsible citizenship to a permanent bureaucracy.
The Founding Fathers addressed these potential problems of unfettered democracy by adopting a complex arrangement of checks and balances that essentially said, don’t trust anyone but include everyone. The intent was to establish a republican government with limited powers that protected minority interests, was deliberative in action and overall difficult to enact new laws and programs.
For decades, however, we have moved away from republican government to more direct democracy. The Electoral College and party conventions have long since effectively been replaced with direct nomination and election of candidates through party primaries and general elections. U.S. senators, originally selected by state legislatures, are elected. The referendum, recall and petition all move legislative and governing processes closer to direct democracy and further from republican government.
A challenge for more direct citizen participation and action is that it depends even more on an informed voter, just like the private market depends on an informed consumer. Democracy is in peril when an uninformed or misinformed electorate is coupled with more direct democracy and a misuse of and an antagonism toward fundamental democratic processes of representative government and associated checks and balances and deliberation.
The current Alabama Legislature is an example of the failure of both. After more than 100 years of Democratic Party control, but never with a super-majority coupled with top-down rigid party discipline, the 2010 election produced unrepresentative (95 percent male and 100 percent white), super-majority, Republican Party control that substantially diminished the checks-and-balances structure designed to provide a deliberative legislative process that enables the enactment of sound public policy.
With little time to organize, with many new legislators, with limited orientation, with antagonism to collaboration with the minority, with a score-to-settle agenda, and with a new set of rules that required adherence to top-down party caucus control and party discipline, the historical and fundamental elements of democratic governance were abused and, in some instances, abandoned. The legislative results reflect the makeup, organization and processes that characterize the new Legislature.
The ethics laws enacted in the special session allow large business and corporate interests to continue to wine and dine members of the Legislature while school children are forbidden to give their teachers end-of-year gift cards. The public-employee payroll deduction ban enacted in the special session has since been stayed by two federal courts. The immigration act, opposed by most major groups in the state from churches to farmers, has been stayed, in part, by court rulings and the remainder of the law is still in the courts, while Honda and Mercedes executives have been arrested under the law. The rolling-reserve budgeting act will assure under-funding for public schools for the next several years, regardless of improvements in the economy.
State Sen. Gerald Dial, a long-time Democratic Party and legislatively wise senator now a part of the super-majority Republican Party, stated that mistakes were made in the last legislative session because there was not enough time. The fact is, as Dial knows, not enough time was taken. In the 2011 session under the rule of the new Republican super-majority, a petition for cloture was filed 44 times and adopted 39 times — a 1,000 percent increase over the average of previous sessions. Cloture cuts off debate of a bill immediately — there is no deliberation. Historically, cloture has been used with reservation and with care for the values of deliberation and minority participation in enacting sound public policy.
While most elections in Alabama over the past several decades made little difference in the lives of most Alabamians, the 2010 Alabama election made a difference. While some items that had not been addressed in decades needed to be addressed and, while some productive measures were enacted, they were done so at a very high cost — poor major legislation and the abandonment of basic values of the democratic legislative process — checks and balances, deliberation and representation of both minority and constituent interests.
The 2012 session of the Legislature hangs ominously over the state as a whole new set of proposals — from un-earmarking education taxes to government intervention in the private market to remove or reduce market risks — have been introduced. Enactment of sound public policy incorporating these ideas is dependent on the re-establishment of fundamental democratic legislative processes. Those elected members who recognize and value deliberative and democratic legislative processes, and they are in both the newly elected super-majority membership and in the minority, are in more than sufficient numbers to break top-down, rigid, party discipline control of the process and allow democracy to work.
The result will be not only affirmation of our fundamental values of representative democracy, but also better, sounder and more productive legislation that will serve the public interests of Alabama and all of its residents.
Gerald W. Johnson is Emeritus Professor of Political Science at Auburn University. He lives in Auburn.