There’s a mournful Peggy Lee song that asks the existential question: “Is that all there is?” Some progressives are asking that when looking at whether to vote this year — Biden or Trump … is that all there is?
First, for me, that’s an easy choice if we want to have even a small chance of making any little-d democratic progress in the next decade or two. Second, no, that’s not all there is. Just scroll down the ballot in most voting districts and you’ll find a choice of solid progressive contenders in congressional, state legislative, city council, sheriff and school board races, and other races for grassroots offices, all of which offer tremendous potential for both big policy changes and for expanding America’s progressive movement.
But wait; there’s more! Scroll a bit lower and you’re likely to discover direct democracy allowing ordinary people — you and me — to make our own policies and laws, rather than hoping that legislators and lobbyists will do right by us. These are “ballot initiatives” — policy ideas and procedural changes that are put directly to voters in a state, county or city. Most are put on the ballot by groups that get enough voters to sign petitions demanding that a particular proposal be listed.
It’s not an easy process, but it has become a more common legislative tool, as shown by the number and variety of propositions on next Tuesday’s ballots. Just counting statewide initiatives, voters in 32 states will be making their will known on a total of 120 ideas. They include such solidly progressive actions as Arizona’s proposal to raise taxes slightly on the superrich to cover an overdue raise in pay for schoolteachers. They also include such blatantly regressive schemes as California’s Prop 22, the attempt by Uber, Lyft and other gig giants to strip health care from their low-wage workers.
Especially prominent in this year of pandemic disease, mass job losses and ever-spreading inequality are citizen initiatives to start restoring worker rights and income. These illustrate the importance of direct ballot lawmaking: When public officials and corporate hierarchies snub people’s needs or carelessly harm them, the initiative is a democratic path for asserting The People’s will. If lawmakers don’t act, the people can!
Here are some big public policies people clearly want but lawmakers consistently ignore: Pay for family leave time; restrict the power of Big Money in our elections; stop rent gouging by greedy corporate landlords; assert real public oversight to stop police abuses.
Now the good news: You don’t have to vote for Sen. Foghorn or Gov. Blowhard in the futile hope that they’ll ever work to pass such progressive policies. Rather, each of the above ideas is on the ballot next Tuesday in various states across the country — do-it-yourself democracy in action!
Of course, democracy can be messy, and bypassing the backroom chicanery of legislative bodies doesn’t necessarily bypass the insider power of Big Money. But at least ballot initiatives force moneyed interests to do their avaricious dirty work outside, allowing us commoners to glimpse their greed.
That’s certainly the case of a money-soaked mega-fight underway in California over Prop 22. Uber, Lyft and other multibillion-dollar behemoths have amassed their billions by claiming that their hundreds of thousands of workers are independent contractors, not employees. Therefore, say the corporations, they don’t have to provide health care or comply with basic labor protections. This year, though, a new California law rejected this blatant corporate ruse, at last allowing employees to get the essential benefits due to them. However, rather than do right by the people who do their work, a cabal of these giants has ponied up more than $200 million to try ramming through Prop 22. This self-serving corporate ballot measure openly asserts that they’re above the law, entitled to exploit their low-paid, no-benefit workforce (and a study says 8 in 10 of gig workers are people of color). If you wonder why our fabulously rich nation keeps sinking deeper into self-destructive inequality, look no further than Prop 22. It’s such a piece of plutocratic nastiness that, to get their way, the handful of profiteers behind it are running the most expensive and one of the most underhanded PR campaigns in the history of ballot initiatives.
For more information, go to the Gig Workers Rising website.
Jim Hightower is a columnist, political activist and author who served as commissioner of Texas Department of Agriculture.