Politics & Other Mistakes: A less-than-perfect union

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There are lots of good arguments against democracy.

As Oscar Wilde put it, “Democracy means simply the bludgeoning of the people by the people for the people.”

Al DiamonGeorge Bernard Shaw offered this insight: “Democracy substitutes election by the incompetent many for appointment by the corrupt few.”

And Benjamin Disraeli observed: “The world is weary of statesmen whom democracy has degraded into politicians.”

Still, the alternatives – Putin, the U.S. Supreme Court, the Portland City Council – offer government by frightening morasses of incompetent asses. A little democracy from time to time can, perhaps, clear the way for something to get done.

Even if it’s the wrong something.

In this state, referendums (a pure form of democracy) have resulted in bigotry (repealing a law allowing same-sex marriage) and progress (approving a law allowing same-sex marriage). For every positive (supporting abortion rights), there’s a perplexing negative (rejecting a state Equal Rights Amendment). Referendums have set policies that require more nuanced solutions than any political campaign can offer (tax reform), more scientific understanding than the general public possesses (bear hunting), and more legal skills than an outraged citizenry can muster (the Central Maine Power Co. corridor). And some ballot questions were simply ignored for years by the governor or Legislature or both (Medicaid expansion, state funding for 55 percent of local education costs).

There’s much to be said for less public participation in the public’s business.

Even so, it’s hard to work up any sympathy for an anti-referendum group in Portland called Enough is Enough.

In November, Portland voters will have to deal with 14 referendum questions. Enough is Enough (composed mostly of people who stand to lose money or political power due to one or more of those ballot questions) wants all of them rejected.

“Political activist groups are manipulating Portland’s referendum process, pushing policies so poorly designed and ill-conceived, they can’t pass them through our elected City Council, so instead they’ve put them on the ballot,” Nick Mavodones, a former mayor and Enough is Enough leader, told an August news conference.

Not exactly true.

Of the 14 questions, eight were placed on the ballot by the city’s Charter Commission, a body approved by voters and whose membership is mostly elected. Those measures are going to a public vote because that’s what the law requires to amend the municipal charter.

Some of the commission’s proposals are sensible (a new police review board), while others are highly contentious (replacing the city manager with an executive mayor). Voters, many of them with no grasp of municipal management, will have to sort them out. Then, Portland will have to live with the results imposed by a majority of confused citizens.

Of the other six referendum questions, four were proposed by the Maine chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America. They’d place new limits on short-term rentals, raise the minimum wage, restrict cruise ships, and increase tenants’ rights. A group of landlords is proposing a much less restrictive short-term-rental ordinance, and the City Council has a proposal to make the charter gender-neutral.

A rational person (at last count, there were 11 of them in Portland) could find good reasons to support or oppose any of these. Less-than-rational voters might decide to support both versions of the short-term-rental changes, thereby rendering the two laws unworkable. Undoubtedly, they’ll be randomly voting yes or no on the other ballot items based on a complete misunderstanding of whatever they’re about.

These two groups will still be taking a more intelligent approach to democracy than Enough is Enough.

Rejecting all the referendum questions because of frustration with an abundance of democracy is just plain stupid. Some of these ideas have obvious merit, others are more dubious, and a couple are outrageous. Dividing the questions into appropriate categories is one of the responsibilities of those suffering under the weight of public rule.

Nobody is holding Portland up as a shining example of quality governance. But the same could be said of Auburn (maybe we should pollute our drinking water), Dixfield (let’s ban some books), or Fort Fairfield (we’re not going to enforce gun laws).

Democracy is a fantastic, hot mess.

To vote on my opinions, email [email protected].

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