Maine lawmakers’ open contempt for the will of the people is further evidence that true democracy in America is severely lacking.
Democracy in America has always been something of a joke.
As Vladimir Lenin wrote in his 1917 classic, State and Revolution, “Freedom in capitalist society always remains about the same as it was in ancient Greek republics: Freedom for the slave-owners.”
But the Maine Legislature’s blatant rejection of four citizen-initiated referendum questions passed in November brings the abject hollowness of America’s vaunted “democracy” painfully to light. Measures passed through Maine’s century-old referendum process—designed to give voters a voice on issues or legislation ignored by lawmakers—are supposed to be state laws.
Yet, both Republican and Democratic legislators have effectively decided these laws are merely suggestions to be enacted at their discretion. They have arrogantly dismissed the referendum process as a glorified opinion poll. And both parties have openly defied the will of the voters.
No wonder large portions of voters in Maine and the rest of the country do not even bother to vote. When politicians are free to flagrantly disregard the results, what is the point?
For background, Maine voters approved four out of five referendum questions on last November’s ballot. The referendums ranged on issues from legalizing recreational marijuana for adults (Question 1); taxing residents with incomes of $200,000 or more to fund public education (Question 2); gradually raising the minimum wage to $12 an hour and eliminating the “tip credit” for restaurant workers, which effectively allows employers to pay them an insulting sub-minimum wage as low as $2.13 an hour (Question 4); and establishing a ranked-choice or instant run-off voting system for all Maine elections (Question 5).
(Question 3, which called for strengthening the state’s background-checks for gun purchases, was overwhelmingly defeated.)
But, rather than honoring the will of the voters and implementing the new laws as the Maine Constitution requires, the Legislature has instead undermined the measures, re-written them, or repealed them entirely.
Here is where the referendums stand as of mid-July:
Question 1 (Marijuana legalization): Implementation has been delayed for “further review.”
Question 2 (Tax the rich to pay for schools): Perhaps the most contentious of the lot, Question 2 was at the heart of a protracted battle over the state budget, which led to Republicans and wing-nut Gov. Paul LePage shutting down the state government for three days during the Independence Day weekend. Maine Senate Republicans refused to accept any budget that included the three percent surcharge tax on wealthy Mainers intended to fund the state’s constantly underfunded public education system. And Democrats, naturally, caved with barely a fight.
Question 4 (Minimum wage): Re-written and watered-down. While the state’s minimum wage will still increase to $12 by 2020 (still not a living wage, but it’s something, I guess…), legislators voted to restore the tip credit under intense pressure from the restaurant industry.
Question 5 (Ranked-choice voting): Declared “unconstitutional” by the Maine Supreme Court. Its future remains uncertain, though repeal seems likely. As the Portland Press Herald editors opine in a recent editorial, “It’s safe to say that the least likely option will be for the Legislature to follow the will of the majority of voters, and make sure the new system is in place before next year’s election.”
Maine is the first state in the nation to pass a ranked-choice voting law—a bittersweet accomplishment, given that it is apparently meaningless.
Legislators have justified their attempts to undermine the will of the people by claiming voters were simply “confused” about what, exactly, they were voting for—particularly with regard to Question 4.
“Mainers did not understand the specifics of the referendum,” Gov. LePage wrote in a Nov. 29, 2016 press release announcing his intent to block and delay the new minimum wage law.
This claim—that voters are essentially too stupid to even understand the ballot questions they are voting on—has been echoed by Maine Senate President Mike Thibodeau. It is in keeping with longstanding elite views–which date back to the United States’ founding–of the public as an “unruly herd,” that is incapable of managing its own affairs.
World renowned public intellectual and dissident, Noam Chomsky, in summing up the views of Walter Lippmann, an early pioneer in manipulating public opinion (or “manufacturing consent,” as Chomsky terms the practice), writes:
The public must “be put in its place”: its “function” in a democracy is to be “spectators of action,” not participants, acting “only by aligning itself as the partisan of someone in a position to act executively,” in periodic electoral exercises.
Other legislators, meanwhile, have justified their blatant disregard for the voters by quibbling that the constituents of their specific legislative district did not, in fact, vote for a particular referendum—and that their sole obligation is to those voters.
But this is nitpicky nonsense.
By this rubric, the people of southern Maine’s 1st Congressional District should not have to accept Donald Trump as their president, since his support came largely from the northern, 2nd District. First District U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree should just say, “Sorry, but my constituents did not vote for Trump, so we’re just going to ignore the election results. Voters clearly did not understand what they were getting when they voted for this xenophobic, Twitter-addicted, sexual predator.”
In fact, while we are at it, there are a lot of other recent elections I would like to revisit…
The fact is both Republicans and Democrats in the Legislature have long expressed disdain for the referendum process. Republicans decry the outsized spending by out-of-state advocacy groups on various ballot questions.
But unlimited campaign spending by Political Action Committees (PACs), unions or advocacy groups is hardly a new phenomenon–nor is it limited to the referendum process. (Citizens United, anyone…?)
Indeed, the Koch Brothers do not live in Maine, yet they have been influencing LePage—who is a member of the Koch’s free-market-legislation-pushing, American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC—since he rode the 2010 “Tea Party” wave to victory. Where is the outrage over the Koch’s undue influence over our elections?
Maine Democrats, likewise, gripe that the referendum process is “too divisive,” and make it difficult to “compromise” and find “common ground.”
But there is, by definition, no “compromising” in elections. They are (ostensibly) based on majority rule. The losing candidate or side in our “winner-take-all” system does not get to negotiate some sort of power-sharing deal or compromise after the vote. They are expected to honor the “integrity” of America’s enviable “democracy,” thank voters for their time, get the hell off of the stage and shut-up about the whole thing, already.
As bourgeois Trump supporters are so quick to snidely chastise liberals, “You lost. Get over it!”
Yet, when it comes to these referendums, it seems Maine legislators cannot “get over it.” Indeed, they preferred to shut down the government for three days, leaving hundreds of “nonessential” state workers without pay, to avoid implementing a measly three percent tax on Mainers who can most easily afford it to better fund education.
And there is more than a hint of elitism in both parties’ opposition to the referendum process. That is because, unlike traditional elections in which the candidates and issues are largely pre-selected by the capitalist parties, referendums allow citizens to bypass the state and place issues on the ballot that could actually improve their daily lives.
Furthermore, citizens typically go to referendum after becoming fed up with their state government’s inaction on issues like drug reform, raising the minimum wage, taxing the wealthy, school funding, etc. The increased use of ballot referendums speaks to Maine voters’ frustration with the lack of representation in government at both the state and federal level.
As such, the citizens’ referendum is the closest thing Maine voters have to an actual democratic process. And this is precisely why elite lawmakers on both sides of the aisle resent it. It is also why the Legislature is actively working to make the referendum process more difficult—increasing the number of voter signatures groups must collect before an issue can be placed on the ballot.
All of this should underscore the fact that we do not live in an actual democracy. We live under capitalism. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the two systems are not the same. Indeed, democracy is incompatible with a system based on wage slavery in which a tiny minority enjoys incredible wealth while the majority of working-class citizens live paycheck to paycheck. Not only is such an economic system inherently unequal and unjust. It is unfree.
The recent events in Maine merely highlight this sad reality.
George Carlin–still America’s greatest comedian, in my humble opinion–said it best: “The owners of this country know the truth. It’s called the American Dream ’cause you’ve got to be asleep to believe in it.”
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