Whatever’s the rage rules us. Referendum, revoking mandates, and popular initiative are grandiloquent words that enthuse politicians and scholars. The idea of constructing a direct democracy holds enormous allure because it allows one to imagine an engrossed citizenry and immense respect among political actors, all at the service of the citizens. It would appear unnecessary to declare this notion ludicrous in our reality. It is with difficulty that we are able to abide, and often not that well, democracy’s first echelon: the electoral. At present, incorporation is being proposed of a composite of mechanisms oriented, in an ideal world, toward providing the citizen with instruments for more active participation. Is it possible for us citizens to believe that everything will change all of a sudden?
The difficulties in establishing a direct democracy are mammoth, chiefly for a country that is so large, diverse, and disperse as ours. It is not by chance that, save exceptions (some cities and very few nations, such as Switzerland), the manner embraced by all nations that call themselves democratic is that of the representative democracy, which is none other than a way of delegating decision-making required to take a society to a group of dedicated professional politicians devoted to this. Some countries have endorsed measures oriented toward limiting the potential for abuse or for excesses into which popular representatives could incur, above all through means such as the referendum (that submits determined decisions to the consideration of the population) for these to be supported or rejected by those who would be directly benefitted or affected.
If one studies countries that have adopted forms of direct democracy, the first notable thing is the manner in which these are divided into two groups: those that possess a consolidated democracy, and those that feign being democratic. The first group includes countries such as Denmark and Switzerland, while the second unites such bastions of democracy, like Venezuela and Libya. It is not difficult to appreciate the differences and contrasts: the first are nations in which politics serves the citizenry and the citizenry in turn maintains the right to exact accountability from the politicians, from their representatives. The second group comprises nations in which politicians control the decision-making processes and utilize diverse mechanisms, that is, forms of direct participation, as means to legitimize their modus operandi. The first are accountable to the people; the second serve themselves. The first see the citizenry as their raison d’être, while the second negate their existence and manipulate the citizenry at whim. The difference is not slight.
The question for us is, who are we more alike: The nations with a consolidated democracy, or those in which the politicians do not desist in their zeal for exploiting the population? The response seems obvious, which permits a doubt to arise concerning the ulterior motives or objectives, undisclosed, of those promoting this type of initiative.
Bet let us suppose that it is not like this: let us suppose that there is a deep conviction among those who promote this type of mechanism as a means for effectively democratizing our country. If one begins with this supposition, each of the proposals must be analyzed separately to evaluate the implications of adopting the set of initiatives under discussion in the Congress. The easy part is to dream of a good democracy and to suppose that, by the mere fact of ratifying a set of mechanisms that work in another area, Mexico will be transformed overnight.
To understand the complexity and possible implications of taking a route such as that proposed by the advocates of a direct democracy, it would be worthwhile to study the case of the state of California in the U.S. This state, as have others in that country, adopted diverse mechanisms of direct democracy at the beginning of the 20th century. California was a new state, sparsely populated, very homogeneous, with thoroughly entrepreneurial people and endowed with a colossal disdain for politics. The forms of direct democracy meshed well with the reality of a new frontier brimming with effervescence. In this way, a relatively small and disciplined population utilized instruments of this type to maintain its Governor and State Legislature under control. The situation changed during the second half of the past century. At the end of the 1970s, California was the state with the largest economy and population of our neighboring nation, and was characterized by huge demographic, ethnic, and ideological diversity. What had previously been a homogeneous and committed electorate was recast as a polarized and competitive space.
The problems began with a popular initiative in 1978: that of limiting property taxes. This initiative was as popular as it was irresponsible, not very distinct from those in Mexico who rally around the elimination of taxes, such as the new IETU (a control tax on income) or the excise tax on vehicles, without meditating on the consequences on the expenditure side: the voters in California succeeded in limiting property taxes without reducing the budget. The result was permanent fiscal disequilibrium. But the transcendental dimension was not this, but rather, the political effect that it wrought: from that moment on, an entire industry developed that was devoted exclusively to the promotion of popular initiatives and referenda and to obtaining the signatures of the citizenry. As a result, practically all of the legislators represent extreme groups in the ideological or political vernacular, with an exclusive commitment to the group that promoted them. We ourselves fell victim to this process in the form of Initiative 187, whose objective was to delimit the rights of the children of undocumented workers. The point is that the direct democracy that worked so well in a small and disciplined population has become a nightmare that impedes the act of governing.
Mexico must transform itself and create mechanisms of political participation that confer upon the population the capacity of supervising and demanding accountability from legislators. But the forms that are proposed would not have this effect; if adopted, even all of the provisions that the prototypical cases would recommend, we could easily end up like California. Our reality of political polarization guarantees this. It is more probable that endorsement of this type of initiative would end up creating new instruments of manipulation at the service of the worst interests. This is known by those who propose these mechanisms: The question is, why? What for? What is the true objective being proposed by advancing this? These questions are not irrelevant. The genie of direct democracy is hard to rebottle when released, even if the results are rotten.