Here, The People Rule: A Constitutional Populist Manifesto

We Need Majority Rule

What we need now is majority rule. If that sounds frightening or risky, probably the best thing you can do is read “Here, The People Rule: A Constitutional Populist Manifesto,” by Richard D. Parker (1994).

This brilliant little book will convince you that our culture is full of anti-populist sentiment, and that it shouldn’t be. In my own work I have run into this problem. After the organization I work for campaigned to block the privatization of five New York City schools, and the parents voted 80 percent against privatization, mainstream newspapers said this showed the danger of allowing people too much power. After we raised the minimum wage in New Orleans by ballot initiative and then won a court case against corporations challenging it, those corporations denounced the judge as popularly elected.

Because I had been working on these campaigns with the people directly effected, I saw immediately the problem with the anti-populist reactions. But in other cases, I haven’t always done so. In the past I have even argued against the practice of electing judges and prosecutors. In retrospect, I see that my concern in this regard was largely over the question of legal bribery (campaign financing). But I also tended to think that elected prosecutors and judges would work for convictions at all cost, even of the innocent, because the public would want that.

I was mistaken. Of course bribery, legal or otherwise, must be removed from the electoral process of prosecutors, judges, legislators, and executives. And doing so will produce a different sort of candidates. But we need more public participation, not less. We need to recognize that most people are a lot smarter than they’re given credit for, that increased participation and responsibility makes them more so, and that the value of majority rule is huge enough to outweigh our disagreements with majority decisions.

Americans, even in their present disempowered cynical state with no decent candidates to choose from and a majority opinion in favor of not bothering to vote, still do a lot better on the issues than Congress does. Most Americans want to restore value to the minimum wage. Most Americans want universal health care. Most Americans want the government to do more for people on welfare. Most Americans want to leave Social Security the hell alone. Most Americans want tougher environmental regulations. Most Americans oppose corporate welfare. Most Americans oppose attacking other countries. Most Americans voted for neither Bush nor Gore, and the majority of those who voted didn’t vote for Bush. Ashcroft lost to a dead man.

If Congress were doing what people wanted, we’d be a lot better off. And yet we still think of the ideal statesman as someone who will go his own way despite foolish and overheated public opinion. I’ve debated a right wing radio talk show host on the topic of living wage laws who told me that it was wrong for people to engage in “extortion” by pressuring their local governments to set higher wage standards.

But isn’t the public unfair to minorities? Doesn’t the Constitution protect the rights of minorities against the excesses of majorities? Wouldn’t majority rule mean racial and religious oppression? No. We have had those things, but we have not had majority rule. Those who tend to oppress individuals and minorities are other minorities, including those who claim to speak for majorities. The only thing the majority of people do consistently in this country is avoid doing anything at all. The best way to protect abused individuals and groups might be to develop more power for the majority.

Again, I think Parker’s book is the best place to start in shifting one’s thinking to a populist point of view. The first half of the book presents two different takes on Thomas Mann’s story “Mario and the Magician.” The first way of reading the story that Parker outlines is to assume the narrator’s point of view, one of contemptuous remove and passivity. The second is to look at things from the point of view of those he dismisses as “the mob.”

The second half of Parker’s book draws on this shift in attitude to ask us to rethink our ideas on politics and politicians. Currently we tend to be revolted by politicians’ absurd attempts to appear ordinary. (Think of Lamar Alexander changing out of his businessman attire for a press conference in a flannel shirt that his staff had neglected to wash first, so that it still had the creases in it that it had had in the store.) But why are we resistant to the idea of electing someone truly ordinary (aside from the fact that most people can’t afford to run a campaign)? Why shouldn’t a candidate’s level of education be irrelevant? What sort of special skill is really needed in order to legislate what the people want?

The skill we should admire most is not the ability to “lead” the public toward a better opinion than the one it holds. When, after all, has this fantasy actually occurred? When FDR allegedly let Pearl Harbor happen in order to push a reluctant country into war? That’s manipulation, not “leadership.” The populist approach would have been to work for peace. The skill we should admire most is the ability to grasp what most people want and work to achieve it.