The 2014 midterms are now just under two weeks (and thankfully) behind us. A lot of people are still confused about what the holy hell just happened.
On the other, GOP candidate Dan Sullivan ousted incumbent Senator Mark Begich (D-Alaska). Democratic candidate for Congress, Forrest Dunbar, was christened the 19th member of the “Beaten by Don Young Club.” Republicans still retain a nearly three-quarters majority in both chambers of the state legislature.
The two rivaling outcomes — an electorate that voted both for liberal policies and conservative representation — have left both sides of the aisle unhappy. The duality has been labeled the result of disconnect, cognitive dissonance, and the damage wrought by low information voters.
Such prescriptions might be dismissing something larger; beyond the typically rigid, left-right analysis.
Alaska is appropriately described as a red state. Conservative candidates enjoy a 22.5 point electoral advantage over opponents. Republicans outnumber Democrats two-to-one. Both parties are dwarfed by the number of undeclared and nonpartisans, but they still heavily identify as conservative. The underlying motives are understandable. Alaska’s population is a mix of longtime residents who have grown up with a Republican ideology — continually reinforced by a state largely owned by a federal government that restricts resource development — and a transient population of temporary residents who come up to work in the oil fields. Both segments of the population rely, as do the rest of us, on the oil industry, which creates the majority of (and, on average, highest paying) jobs in the state, and funds virtually everything.
The government regulations that impede growth to the oil industry have been effectively branded as a Democratic Party problem. Meanwhile, the interpretation of Republicanism has consistently featured a narrative where Alaska is constantly on the receiving end of federal government overreach, while emphasizing laissez-faire policies and buzzwords like freedom and liberty.
As a result, Alaskans are predisposed to electing conservative candidates who claim they want to slow down or altogether stop the federal government — hell, all government — from doing anything. Alaskans voted for Sullivan because he said he’d do less than Begich. An even larger number voted for Don Young, who has been doing very little for decades. Both said they would stop Obama, stop laws from being passed, and essentially serve as checks against themselves. Thus, Americans likely face two years of continued gridlock, with the president already threatening to veto conservative legislation.
But just because conservative voters don’t think that government is very good at passing legislation worth its weight in salt (which it hasn’t been of late) doesn’t mean that conservatives don’t want policy reform. Many do. And just as prevalent in Republican lawmakers’ speeches railing against federal overreach are objections to the status quo. More colloquially, we often hear about the need to “shake things up.”
The problem is that elected officials in the government — federal, state, and local — are increasingly distrusted. Alaskans especially highlighted this distrust over the past two years, repealing a labor law enacted by Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan, attempting to repeal oil tax policy passed by the legislature, and creating enough of an outcry that lawmakers killed legislation that would have prevented the minimum wage initiative from making it to the ballot.
The gap in confidence is prevalent among all voter, but it’s an epidemic among younger voters, who are staying home during elections.
In Chris Hayes’ 2012 book, Twilight of the Elites, the political commentator spoke of a paradigm shift toward this civic disengagement:
We operate in a world in which we can assume neither competence nor good faith from the authorities, and the consequences of this simple, devastating realization is the defining feature of American life at the end of this low, dishonest decade.
Hayes describes a deepening chasm between the people who retain at least a modicum of faith in our existing political institutions, and those who want to either reform or replace them entirely.
The latter, historically, have been most representative of youth through protests, demonstrations, and the repudiation of law. College students who offered themselves to arrest during the Civil Rights Movement, or those who protested the Vietnam War. These sorts of major disruptions of natural patterns affected change.
In present day, this subset of the citizenry has not necessarily grown up with any living experience showing the U.S. government to be reasonable, practical, or even functional. Our country has been at war and in various stages of decline for over a decade. Our government’s dysfunction has become both the domineering and defining factor for millennials, and many younger voters look at political parties as antiquated and irrelevant.
This year’s election in Alaska suggests a vehicle where that younger voting pool of disaffected voters could effectively assert itself: direct democracy.
A century ago, when Roosevelt challenged Woodrow Wilson in 2012, he formed a new party. The Progressive Party — often referred to as the Bull-Moose Party — ran on a platform rejecting partisanship and promoting the people’s right to appeal legislative action. Founding editor of The New Republic, Herbet Croly, wrote at the time: “Increasing direct popular political action is coming to have a function in the political organization of a modern society, because only in this way can the nation again become a master in its own house.” He described the necessary expansion of citizens’ direct democratic rights to assert control over legislative decisions, saying that it was necessary for the state’s “purpose of keeping control of the increasingly numerous and increasingly powerful agencies of its own life.”
If Alaskans’ deteriorating trust in representative government wanes to a degree in which they are no longer willing to try and reform via replacing elected representatives, this year’s election might point them in a new direction. The success of the three statewide ballot initiatives shows how dedicated groups can forgo the legislature and advocate policies that pluralities can agree on. With plebiscite serving as a ready vehicle, combined with the abomination we call campaign finance, amplified by technology and fueled by the increased generational distrust of political institutions, Alaska could develop a kind of Kickstarter government.
A social ill is identified; be it the prohibition of marijuana, stagnant wages, or Pebble Mine. If the issue has a constituency, the state’s provisions set a low bar to get it onto a statewide ballot — just ten percent of the last general election’s voter turnout. If the issue is popular it will be well funded and organized. And if it is passed, the elected officials in the Alaska State Legislature are constitutionally barred from substantially changing it for two years.
It’s a public process carried out independent of the institutions perceived to be failing to translate populism into policy. It can be used by Republicans to pass controversial policy that a good portion of their base supports (think marijuana) but they don’t want to attach their name or party to. For Democrats, it can be used for populist policies embraced by the bulk of society, but which would never be given serious consideration in the state legislature (the House and Senate Majorities haven’t exactly been receptive to proposals offered by the minority).
The fears of Americans in the early 20th century — the claims that partisan machinery had figured out a way to rig political institutions, rendering the people powerless, were absolutely valid. And they are equally valid today. The response, then, to overreach and corruption was to reclaim republican principles and democratize the system of redress so that it would be accessible by the people. This year, Alaska looked a bit like a resurgent Bull-Moose Party. And should the legislature prove unresponsive to constituents’ needs, this year’s successful initiatives will likely inspire increased calls for more.
Obviously, the initiative process comes with a lot of risks. Representative government is supposed to serve as a safeguard in times where the public is passionate, angry, or manipulated.
In California, for instance, special interests have figured out a way to exploit the system. The state requires just 500,000 signatures from a population of 38 million. That makes it relatively easy for groups with a lot of dispensable cash to craft, organize, and pass self-serving legislation. The average citizen, for whom the initiative process was designed to elevate, is often suppressed. One could argue that the oil companies played that strategy during the summer’s primary over oil tax policy.
Tenets of plebiscite vote also will inevitably result in a partisan arms race, with each party seeking to stack the deck with issues aimed at increasing voter turnout on their side of the aisle.
Finally, the popular vote is most dangerous when weaponized against minorities. Alaskans empowered the greatest abuse of majority rule when voters passed a ban on marriage equality in 1998. That mistake was ultimately adjudicated by Alaskans’ courts, which remain the most crucial check and balance to the will of the people and government alike. But it took a painful while.
Should the frequency of ballot initiatives and referendums rise, the already present and partisan calls to politicize the judiciary will follow suit.
There are few easy answers. But should gridlock continue, and should the legislature in Juneau over-or-under reach, it’s likely that Alaskans will begin using direct democratic tools with much greater frequency. This past election has shown how it can work where representative government fails.
Woodrow Wilson, when campaigning against Roosevelt in 1912, summarized:
If we felt we had genuine representative government in our state legislatures, no one would propose the initiative and the referendum in the United States.
But that is, very much, not where we are right now.