Our Democracy

Republished from February 2016.

Lindsey Schromen-Wawrin works as a lawyer, focusing on issues of government authority and accountability, and the relative power of the people, corporations, and government. He can be reached at lindsey@world.oberlin.edu or (360) 406-4321.

The policy debate over water fluoridation in Port Angeles has evolved into a debate over our form of government.

Last fall, the city council polled City of Port Angeles utility customers about water fluoridation. A super-majority responded against water fluoridation. In December 2015, four of seven city council members voted to renew the water fluoridation contract.

In response, in January 2016, opponents of water fluoridation started a petition to change the City of Port Angeles’ form of government to a form that would allow a recall of city councilors. In response to that, proponents of water fluoridation started a petition supporting the current form of government in Port Angeles. This petitions says “[w]e, the undersigned residents of Port Angeles, understand that our democracy, from national to local, is based on representative government.”

It’s healthy for us to debate the form of government that we have. That is fundamental to practicing democracy. In such debates, we use words as weapons. “Democracy” is one of those words, because it is generally considered a hallmark of good government. Thus, it is important that we understand what “democracy” means.
The ideal of Democracy

The word “democracy” comes from “demos” and “-cracy” which are, respectively, Latin/Greek for “people” (in the community sense; the body politic) and Greek for “power” or “rule.” Thus, “democracy” is people power.

Classical Greek philosophers understood democracy and freedom to be intertwined, in the idea of “public freedom”: that equality of political decision-making eliminates the division between government and society, between ruler and ruled.# We’re a long way from that ideal, but so were (and are) the Greeks.#

Democracy from below

For our purposes here, briefly discussing democracy in 21st century United States and Washington State, our theory of democracy started around the 17th century in England. The monarchy was on the outs, and the debate in England was over what form of government should replace it. The debate was between Parliamentarians (who favored representative democracy, but without necessarily overthrowing the King) and Levellers (who favored direct democracy).# In a pamphlet addressed to their elected legislators, the Levellers explained their theory of democracy.# Parliament (the legislature) existed “to preserve the commonwealth in peace and happiness.”

“Parliamentmen” (elected legislators) got their power from the people – which is “the same power that was in ourselves.” In other words, the people had the authority to govern directly, but chose instead to elect representatives as it is more convenient.

Notably, the Levellers characterized the power the people had given to their elected officials as “a power of trust, which is ever revocable and cannot be otherwise.” The relationship between the people and their elected representatives is one of authority delegated from the people to their government: “We are your principles, and you our agents.”

If you’ve never heard of the Levellers, it’s because they get a short shrift in history: they lost. The Parliamentarians won, and representative democracy (with a King) reigned in England. But the Levellers’ ideas should not sound completely foreign, as they are embodied in our Declaration of Independence.

Over a hundred years later and an ocean away, the settlers in the American English Colonies felt that they were getting the short shrift from England. Namely, Parliament and the King wouldn’t allow them to govern themselves.# In response, throughout towns in the colonies, the people declared independence from England.# Thomas Jefferson borrowed from these local declarations when he drafted the Declaration of Independence on behalf of the Second Continental Congress.

We all know the line in the Declaration about how people have “certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” But we don’t remember the sentence that immediately follows that: “That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men [sic], deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, – That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”

Our democracy rests in the idea of the “consent of the governed”: that government exists to protect the people’s rights and effect the people’s safety and happiness, and the people may change their form of government when it fails to meet those ends.

Over a hundred years later and a continent away, “the people” of Washington Territory drafted a constitution for forming Washington State. Their concern, like before, was aggregated power. But unlike the 18th century Revolutionaries or the 17th century Levellers, this power was not held by the King. At the height of the Gilded Age, the problem was corporate power.# The populists and progressives who drafted the Washington Constitution implemented a number of measures to attempt to curb corporate power. For example, they wanted a larger legislative body, so that corporations would be less capable of influencing legislation.# They also implemented Home Rule for larger cities, so that the people of those cities could decide their own form of government. Wash. Const. Art. XI, § 10.#

The principle of “consent of the governed” forms the heart of “democracy” in our political tradition. Grassroots social movements, from the Levellers to the Progressives, have advocated – in the name of “democracy” – for a form of government that gives more direct power to the people to provide for their own lawmaking against concentrated and remote power holders, whether the King or corporations.

Supervised democracy

Let’s turn to the claim that “our democracy, from national to local, is based on representative government.” As the Levellers expressed, representative legislators are a matter of convenience, and those civil servants should always be answerable to their principals: the people.

James Madison, in his pamphlet encouraging ratification of the United States Constitution, Federalist No. 10, drew a distinction between “republican government” and “democratic government.” Madison, ever concerned that poor debtors constitute the majority and would use their majority status to pass legislation to strip rich creditors of their wealth, advocated for representative government (which he called “republican government”). Representatives – at least the scrupulous ones who “may best discern the true interest of their county” – were a solution to the problem of “democracy,” namely, that the people would legislatively redistribute the excess wealth of the 1%.#

It would be fair to say that our current form of government under the United States Constitution is based on representative government (Madison, at least in Federalist No. 10, didn’t think the United States Constitution created a democracy). Our current form of government under the Washington Constitution is a combination of representative and direct government, as the people have had legislative initiative powers since 1912. See Wash. Const. Art. II, § 1. Our current form of government in the City of Port Angeles is prescribed by state statute as the people of Port Angeles have not elected to ratify a charter and create our own form of government. See generally Chapter 35.22 RCW.

To say that “our democracy” is based on representative government ignores the heart of democracy as a political idea. It’s not about representatives, but rather about the people’s collective consent to the form of government (which may be a representative government).#

Democracy in Port Angeles
It isn’t surprising that a debate over an issue like water fluoridation has turned into a debate about our form of government. Government exists to protect our rights, health, safety, and welfare. Some believe water fluoridation does this, and others believe it does not.
A majority of city utility customers voted against renewing the fluoridation contract. If our form of government were a “pure democracy” (to use Madison’s term), then the water fluoridation would end.
Instead, under a representative government, Madison’s theory is that our elected legislators can act for the public good in a way that avoids the factious temperament of a particular cause. A majority of the city council believe that they act for the public good in continuing water fluoridation, despite the popular will.
Whether water fluoridation is a temperamental debate that will die away, or an issue that calls for a change in our form of government, is a question that we, the people of Port Angeles, will answer. This is what democracy looks like.

Lindsey Schromen-Wawrin works as a lawyer, focusing on issues of government authority and accountability, and the relative power of the people, corporations, and government. He can be reached at lindsey@world.oberlin.edu or (360) 406-4321.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *