‘A republic if you can keep it’

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Next Tuesday’s ballot includes a transportation bond and five referendum questions that ask Maine people to make major policy decisions that have far-reaching implications.

Question 1 changes where we draw the line between legal and illegal recreational intoxicants. Question 2 raises taxes on people making over $200,000 a year in order to support public education. Question 3 requires background checks prior to gun transfers. Question 4 raises the minimum wage. Question 5 establishes ranked choice voting for Congress, governor and state legislator.

These are big, important policy decisions with far-reaching implications. Referenda are a bad way to make them. This proliferation of referendum questions is another indication that our system isn’t working. Our system is a republic, not a direct democracy. It’s supposed to legislate through elected representatives.

But, our society is suffering from a crisis of legitimacy. People have lost faith in our system and institutions. It’s not that our system and institutions are bad. It’s that we have lost sight of how they are designed to work.

The solution is not to replace them with other systems that are bound to have their own problems. The solution is to restore faith in our existing system and institutions.

Our large, complex, diverse, specialized society is part of the challenge. Everyone has their thing to do. We focus on that and lose sight of the larger context in which we live, work and play.

We get the impression that living in a democratic republic is all rights and privileges without any obligations and responsibilities. We lose sight of the most basic duties of citizenship and principles of government. We seem to think that they are irrelevant at best and unreasonable impositions at worst. The irony is that the less we demand from ourselves the less satisfied we are with our government.

One of the fundamental principles of governing in a democratic republic is that, individually and collectively, we govern ourselves by compromising.

There are several corollaries to this. We make the laws we live by, so we have to live by the laws we make, and we have to make those laws work.

At the individual level, we have to participate, stay informed and be reasonable. We are not entitled to have everything our way. Because we are not alone in this and we are all human. We may be wrong and they may be right.

At a minimum that means making sacrifices: voting, paying our taxes, obeying the law even when we don’t agree with it, giving evidence when subpoenaed to be a witness, serving as a juror when summonsed, and defending our country when called upon to do so.

Many of us feel these things don’t matter or they are an unreasonable imposition or they are unfair because not everyone is following the rules. But they do matter and they’re not unreasonable. We just don’t believe it. We need to be reminded and those corollaries need to be observed.

At the collective level, we have to delegate some authority to our elected representatives. Give them a chance to form majorities and get something done before we evaluate them.

To get back to the referenda, while our system provides for them, they are supposed to be the exception, not the rule.

In the case of ranked choice voting in particular, it holds out false promise. We don’t need leaders who are more popular, or who think they are more popular, than the ones we have been getting lately. We need representatives with good ideas who understand that their ideas are not perfect and who can compromise with other representatives with different good ideas. That’s not a bunch of people who get to the legislature thinking that they have a mandate to rule.

Two hundred and twenty-nine years ago, a woman in Philadelphia is supposed to have asked Benjamin Franklin about the type of government he and his fellow delegates were secretly constituting for her. Franklin responded, “a republic, if you can keep it.”

As University of Pennsylvania professor Richard Beeman explains, “The brevity of that response should not cause us to under-value its essential meaning: democratic republics are not merely founded upon the consent of the people, they are also absolutely dependent upon the active and informed involvement of the people for their continued good health.”

To that I would add that our democratic republic’s health depends on the right involvement of its people.

Halsey Frank is a Portland resident, attorney and former chairman of the Republican City Committee.