June 23, 2018
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‘The people’ may not be smart enough

Peter Morrison | AP
Peter Morrison | AP
People prepare to cast their vote in the presidential election at a polling station in north Dublin, Ireland, Thursday, Oct. 27, 2011.

The future of the Greek economy, and maybe even Europe’s and the world’s economy, hung in the balance. The European Union proposed a bailout for Greece, which finds itself on the verge of default. On news that the EU approved the bailout plan, U.S. stocks rise.

But then Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou announced he would put the bailout proposal before voters in an up-or-down referendum. The vote would come in early December. Stock prices tumble at the news, as investors rebury their money and hunker down for the duration.

Thankfully, Mr. Papandreou dropped the referendum idea, but only after several of his cabinet ministers either resigned or publicly denounced the vote and many in his party discussed replacing him.

The “let’s-take-it-to-the-voters” impulse seems as if it would be unassailable, especially in Greece, the birth place of democracy. But what unfolded in Greece in recent days illustrates a basic problem with the way our form of governance has been interpreted in recent years. Those we elect to represent us shrink from tough decisions and instead punt to voters.

“The people should decide something of this import,” they say somberly, imagining, no doubt, they’re players in a real-life version of “ Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” But there’s a problem with trusting the people on matters that are arcane and require a sophisticated understanding of a process that unfolded over a long time.

The people, frankly, aren’t up to the task. That’s why the people elect representatives.

In Maine, we’ve often seen the punt-it-to-the-voters strategy, including on the gambling proposals we will consider on Tuesday. Morally charged issues like same-sex marriage are appropriate for referendums, but not complex tax policy and other matters of far-reaching consequence.

It’s hard to say which came first. Did voters begin disdaining and withholding their trust in their elected representatives? Or did elected officials first start pandering to voters and acting according to their understanding of voter sentiment? Either way, a feedback loop is now established, drowning out intelligent dialogue between voter and representative.

One of the most dramatic examples of this dynamic was the summer’s debt ceiling debate. Republicans, more than a year from the presidential election, bet voters would be outraged at the size of the nation’s debt and side with the GOP. Never mind that the debt ceiling had been raised seven times while George W. Bush was president.

President Barack Obama has done his share of pandering, especially in recent months. His jobs bill is a better, deficit-neutral version of the stimulus. Why wasn’t this approach used in 2009? At the same time, he has subtly expressed empathy for the Occupy Wall Street movement, obviously hoping to fire up his base.

Representatives pander to uninformed voters. They work to persuade them that their common-sense-based views are as valuable — maybe more valuable — than those who are immersed daily in the details of policy. Voters, emboldened by the pandering, hold their representatives in even more disdain and extend even less trust.

The gulf between Democrats and Republicans may be less of a problem than the gulf between voters and representatives.

Why is political courage in such short supply? Why are ignorance and prejudice elevated and hailed as wisdom? There’s too much at stake to continue playing this game.

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