By Jim Brunelle
Published March 15th 2007 in Morning Sentinal (Maine)
The republic that the founders devised was more than just a democratically elected representative government. It was a careful balance of checks and separations put in place to abolish the tyranny of monarchy but also to prevent the exercise of democracy as mob rule.
Democracy was at the heart of it. At the local level there was the town meeting, a form that both predated and helped shape the Constitution. The newly drafted federal charter was debated at such meetings throughout the colonies, and it was here that people suspicious of central government insisted that a Bill of Rights be grafted to the document as a condition of ratification.
But that most democratic of political systems is not particularly democratic anymore. Participation in town meeting has dropped steadily over the years. Only a handful of diligent townspeople make all the decisions for the rest.
March is town meeting month in Maine. There was a time when just about every man, woman and child turned out for the event. It was a kind of spring coming-out party, a political and social event when neighbors shared the business of self-government, taking seriously their civic duty to the community at large.
Today, only a fraction of townspeople show up for the annual town meeting, which is rapidly becoming a quaint anachronism. Many Maine towns have converted to a council-manager form of government, while others have substituted a referendum system, allowing people to vote on budget proposals and other warrant items during all-day balloting, without actually having to spend time getting together with other residents to discuss the issues involved.
The steady decline in popular interest in public affairs coincides with a steady increase in popular contempt for elected public officials. It has become fashionable to ridicule those who volunteer for service on governing bodies at the local, regional, state and federal level.
Most of us haven't the slightest interest in taking on such responsibilities, but we have no hesitancy about treating those who do as incompetent dolts, power-hungry schemers and worse.
We hamper them with term limits, circumscribe them with initiative referenda, deny them adequate compensation and regularly ridicule their decisions. It has become a poisonous cycle that is making it ever harder to keep the republic.
The general dissatisfaction with existing governing forces has led to the emergence of third-party activity, which can be healthy but can also be destructive of the democratic process. We see this in the election of candidates for high office by less than majority votes.
None of the last five governors of Maine has been elected initially by clear majorities, a fact used by critics to undermine their legitimacy.
Let me put in a plug here for instant runoff voting, a proposal with bipartisan sponsorship before the current legislative session to ensure that winners in multiple-candidate races receive a clear majority of the votes cast rather than a simple plurality.
The instant runoff process allows voters to rank candidates on the ballot in order of preference. If there is no majority winner the first time around, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and the second-choice votes for that candidate are distributed accordingly to the surviving contestants. This process continues until one candidate achieves a clear majority.
We are at a point in our political development where imaginative reform such as this is desperately needed, whether it involves alternatives to the town meeting, firmly settled elections or legislative conduct that is accepted and honored.
Most of all, we need change -- a big change -- in popular attitudes.
In England, they are debating whether to overthrow hundreds of years of tradition by making the House of Lords an elected body. The arguments against it are the same we hear against almost any meaningful political reform: it's too complicated, too expensive and unnecessarily discards an arrangement that has worked perfectly well.
But the other day, one of the few members who favor the reform summarized the staunch resistance of the opposition by quoting Mark Twain: "I'm all for progress; it's change I can't stand."
Benjamin Franklin, with his assertion 220 years ago that self-government requires both keen appreciation and high maintenance by the governed for survival -- "a republic, madam, if you can keep it" -- would have cherished Twain's remark.
Jim Brunelle is a weekly columnist and has been commenting on Maine issues for more than 40 years. He lives in Cape Elizabeth and can be reached at email@example.com.