Nathan Gardels is the editor-in-chief of Noema Magazine.
The core crisis of governance in open societies today is the distrust that has grown between the public and its institutions of self-government. The response to this breach of trust has largely been unfolding in two directions — the autocratic tendency toward decisive strongmen who fashion themselves as tribunes of the people, or seeking to re-legitimize democracy through greater citizen engagement and participation.
Now, a new and concerning hybrid is emerging that exploits the tools of citizen engagement and participation (such as the recall of elected officials, the referendum and ballot initiative) either to affirm autocratic leanings or to protect and promote the very special interests these tools were meant to challenge.
Two cases of this wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing approach to governance come to mind:
In Mexico, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who continues to maintain a popularity rating near 60%, has audaciously proposed a recall referendum against himself! In part, this move plausibly fulfills a pledge he made to submit to what he calls popular accountability. But, combined with incessant attacks on the independence of the highly regarded elections commission that organizes and oversees voting, including budget cuts, it is seen as a populist antic to bolster his power halfway through his constitutionally enshrined one-time six-year term or, perhaps, as some critics suspect, beyond.
According to Mariana Velasco-Rivera, the Mexican constitution stipulates recall referendums as a citizens’ process in which political parties or public resources under control of the government should play no role. Yet López Obrador’s ruling MORENA party and its allies were responsible for proposing the measure, gathering the qualifying signatures and now campaigning for a “no” vote against the recall.
The measure, scheduled for a vote in April, is designed and expected to “succeed by failing” since it requires a highly unlikely turnout of 40% of all eligible voters to be valid. (It is interesting to note that California is less democratic in this respect since no such threshold of registered voters is required. Even if only 20% turn out, a vote is valid and a small minority legislates at the ballot box for the majority.)
Until 2000, the PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party) won every presidential election for some 70 years. This led the Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa to mock Mexico as “the perfect dictatorship,” which perpetuated one-party rule through the ritual of rigged elections. This method of government is being perfected today by the so-called “electoral autocracies” such as Hungary, Venezuela, Nicaragua and Russia.
Mexico under López Obrador is not yet in that same category, but going one step deeper through abusing the tools of direct democracy only camouflages in even brighter feathers a new way to perpetuate and consolidate the power of a president and his or her ruling party. A “perfect autocracy,” as Vargas Llosa might say.
In a similar vein, one might ask whether California is becoming “the perfect plutocracy,” where direct democracy, as the former chief justice of the state’s Supreme Court puts it, “has become the tool of the very type of special interests it was intended to control, and an impediment to the effective functioning of a true democratic process.”
In 2020, Uber, Lyft and other companies placed a referendum on the ballot in California through a front group posing as citizens who favored flexible work. The real aim was to overturn a law passed by the elected state legislature that made contractors into employees. The gig-economy companies laid out a record $224 million for the persuasion industry to inundate the airwaves and social media sites to sway voters, successfully repealing the legislation at the ballot box. For the chump change they spent, their stock valuation was up $13 billion the next day.
In a survey of citizen groups I conducted recently for California’s secretary of state, a common theme expressed was that “the central problematic issue [in state politics today] is the ability of ultra-wealthy individuals and corporations to dominate with hundreds of millions of dollars to legislate through the referendum and initiative process.”
The lessons from these two cases are clear: Participatory democracy unmediated by impartial institutions of deliberation or guarded against manipulation by the powers that be poses as significant a risk to citizen control of government as unchecked executive power or rule by those with the most gold. When plebiscitary practices are deployed from the top down to affirm the rule of a present regime, or hijacked by the most monied, instead of initiated from the bottom up, the very notion of citizen empowerment is nullified.