- Caleb Walsh illustration
In the long run, it has never been a great political strategy to ignore the voters. Sure, temporary power can be gained through suppression, intimidation and parliamentary manipulation, but eventually, to paraphrase Jurassic Park, democracy finds a way.
Don't get me wrong. This isn't to argue for mindless, mob populism.
Engaging with voters doesn't necessarily mean always doing what they want. Sometimes it's the job of leaders to challenge us to do better — to pick an argument with us about how we might look beyond our narrow, short-term interests and fears to build a better world for all of us.
That said, what it does mean is taking a long, deep examination before countering the voters' will and never trying to avoid their judgment.
This, of course, isn't just a matter of political strategy, but morality. In a democracy, as the recently passed, legendary and longest-serving member of Congress John Dingell pointed out, politicians don't have power; rather they hold power in trust for the people.
I'm disturbed then by the approach taken by too many, mostly Republican politicians nationally and, to my great sadness, too often lately in my beloved Idaho.
After voters defied lawmakers in 2012 by overturning at the ballot box the so-called education reforms labeled the "Luna Laws," Idaho Republican lawmakers tightened the requirements to take an initiative to the voters. The requirements essentially made it either require a fortune or extraordinary grassroots effort to put a measure in front of the voters.
Nevertheless, voters managed to put forward two ballot measures last year. One, through a tremendous fortune, was to legalize slot machines at racing tracks. The money wasn't enough to convince voters (particularly with countering wealthy opponents). A second, though, to expand Medicaid, which made it on the ballot through extraordinary grassroots activism, was approved overwhelmingly.
Some lawmakers are now considering rolling back the voters' will, adding costly requirements that gut the intention of the initiative. But they aren't stopping there.
Idaho has long had some of the best voting laws in the nation. In part, this is due to another voter-approved initiative that requires a redistricting committee evenly split between the two major parties. This requires bipartisan support to determine how lawmakers' districts are drawn and largely eliminated gerrymandering in Idaho.
Now, some Republicans in the Idaho House are proposing a constitutional amendment to stack the redistricting committee in their favor and allow lines to be drawn based on partisanship rather than good public policy. Fortunately, the Idaho Constitution requires this change to go back to the voters, where despite their attempts to lean into the tribal politics of our age, I suspect the architects of this subversion won't find a receptive electorate.
It's unfortunately nothing new for politicians to wage war on their constituents. Under monarchies, dictatorships and fictional democracies, like Russia, the government's power relies more on fear than the freely expressed will of the People.
But I believe history suggests there is truth to that American principle, however flawed at its introduction, that the natural order is for people to be free and self-governed. Generations after the substance of that decree was drafted in the Declaration of Independence by a slave-owning Thomas Jefferson, Martin Luther King Jr. correctly observed, "The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice."
It's worth noting that Jefferson and his fellow Founding Fathers didn't trust the people either, a huge group of which they denied even the basic humanity of, blocking African-Americans, indigenous people and all women from voting. In fact, they even created a Senate that was insulated from the small crowd of white, male landowners they didn't disenfranchise.
History has made clear judgments about this imperfect beginning. So let's move into our future quicker and stop these regressive attempts to muzzle voters. Let's continue to progress towards a nation where every voice is heard and every vote is counted. ♦
John T. Reuter, a former Sandpoint City Councilman, studied at the College of Idaho and currently resides in Seattle. He has been active in protecting the environment, expanding LGBT rights and Idaho's Republican Party politics.