Democracy – politics – oligarchy – … We wouldn’t have those words without the Greeks of over 2000 years ago. The Greeks have been at this governing business for a long time, though the rest of Europe now wants to tell them what to do.
The recent Greek nationwide vote was properly a plebiscite: “a direct vote of the qualified voters of a state in regard to some important public question.”
Under the Roman republic, plebiscites were laws passed by the Plebeian Council, which (in contrast to the Senate) represented the vast majority of Romans who were free non-patricians.
For some reason, our press prefers another Latin word, referendum, “the principle or practice of referring measures proposed or passed by a legislative body to the vote of the electorate for approval or rejection.”
The Greek word used today is Δημοψήφισμα (transliterated dimopsifisma), literally “decree of the people.” And “decree of the people” is the underlying meaning of both plebiscite and referendum today.
On July 5, as their leaders recommended, the Greeks voted No to the austerity program imposed on them by Europe and then the government went ahead and implemented Yes, so go figure.
The French have used national referendums at various times in their history to approve constitutions or for other purposes. In 1969, the negative vote in a referendum caused president Charles de Gaulle to resign.
Scotland held a referendum earlier this year on the question of independence from Great Britain, which in turn will soon be holding a referendum on its membership in the European Union.
Puerto Rico held a referendum in 1952 to approve its constitution and more recent plebiscites to determine if voters wanted to change their current status.
But no question or crisis is great enough for the US to consult all its people directly. We do have an occasional local referendum, such as to see if voters approve a county bond issue, but our system of government is basically indirect: we elect people to make decisions for us (except in some towns small enough to make decisions at town meetings).
Voters in West Chester may soon have the opportunity to vote in a referendum to add a “Community Bill of Rights” to the Borough’s Home Rule Charter. See more information and text here. The organizers are aiming to gather 500 signatures by August 4 to put the measure on the November 2015 ballot.
The text starts out:
We the people of West Chester Borough, Pennsylvania, find that reliance on unsustainable sources of energy, and allowing continued expansion of infrastructure that supports that dependence, prevents us from creating and maintaining the kind of healthy community that is our right…
and goes on to take aim at fossil and nuclear fuel production and transportation, among other threats to local quality of life. Three particularly noteworthy “statements of law” are:
(5) Right to Water. All residents, natural communities and ecosystems in West Chester Borough possess a fundamental and inalienable right to sustainably access, use, consume, and preserve water drawn from natural water cycles that provide water necessary to sustain life within the Borough.
(6) Right to Clean Air. All residents, natural communities and ecosystems in West Chester Borough possess a fundamental and inalienable right to breathe air untainted by toxins, carcinogens, particulates, and other substances known to cause harm to health.
(7) Right to Peaceful Enjoyment of Home. Residents of West Chester Borough possess a fundamental and inalienable right to the peaceful enjoyment of their homes, free from interference, intrusion, nuisances, or impediments to access and occupation.
The overall intent, as I see it, is to give the citizens another layer of protection against state, corporate, and institutional intrusion. What do we need protection against? Three examples:
1) West Goshen recently went through a hard-fought battle involving a corporate plan to carry gas through a pipeline from the fracking fields in the western part of the state to Marcus Hook for redistribution and sale elsewhere. Though the township reached an agreement with Sunoco Pipeline, L.P., in May, requiring shut-off valves and limiting the use of the Sunoco property, there will still be a pumping station, a gas flare, and a big pipeline subject to accident.
If West Chester passes the Community Bill of Rights, it could help protect the Borough against, say, a large-scale gas-related use of the Wyeth-Pfizer property on the east side of town.
2) The horrendous House Bill 809, the recent subject of a hearing in West Chester, is now before the state House of Representatives. See my highly negative view in The Times of Chester County and another vociferous local view in the blog Chester County Ramblings.
Having a fraternity move in next door or a 7-bedroom house become the abode for 14 unrelated individuals would clearly violate people’s “right to the peaceful enjoyment of their homes.”
3) Some states in the dry West have actually decreed that rain water belongs to the state. Thus, surprising as it seems, residents can be fined for setting up barrels to catch rain falling on their own roofs or creating ponds on their own property (even where no water ever flowed away in a stream).
The Community Bill of Rights would go against such state dispossession of individuals.
I think our country could use some more direct democracy. Suppose citizens had been able to say whether or not the US should invade and occupy Afghanistan and Iraq: whatever the result, at least we would have had some meaningful discussion and more chance to seek out accurate information.
Suppose the politicians today posturing to instigate military action against Iran knew that their statements would be scrutinized in a national referendum and that ultimately the people would decide? It sounds like a very good idea to me.