California has a solution for America’s putrid populism and political paralysis: adopting direct democracy at the national level.

Allowing Americans to vote, by referendum, on the biggest issues wouldn’t be legally challenging or risky. All Congress would have to do is follow six practical steps suggested by a Californian named John Matsusaka.

As co-president of the Global Forum on Modern Direct Democracy, I’ve gotten to know Matsusaka, a USC professor, for his leadership of the  Initiative & Referendum Institute., which tracks how American states and cities use direct democracy. Now, in a book titled Let the People Rule, Matsusaka offers something that academics rarely provide: a practical plan. He e shows how the U.S. could improve its republic by introducing direct democracy, beginning with non-binding referenda on major issues, legislative proposals, and treaties. His approach could be adopted without the challenges of amending the U.S. Constitution.

Matsusaka also provides a coherent narrative for why national direct democracy is our natural next step. Our national government, in growing more complex and technical in response to modern duties, has also become more distant from Americans, who respond with anger that can be destructive to our civic life. In this context, voting through direct democracy could be a vital bridge between rulers and the ruled, allowing people to channel their anger, constructively.

Matsusaka carefully demolishes arguments against direct democracy, especially the idea that it runs contrary to American tradition. The referendum is as old as the country, and adding national direct democracy would fit our long history of democratization: expanding suffrage, directly elected senators, and, over the last century, adopting direct democracy at the local and state levels. 

In this context, our failure to introduce direct democracy for national issues is strange. The U.S., Matsusaka points out, is an enormous outlier in never having allowed a national referendum in our 250-year history. A majority of countries in every region of the world—and 90 percent of countries in Europe, Latin America, and Africa—have had at least one national referendum since 1980. Instituting such referenda here would hardly require a leap of faith.  More than two-thirds of Americans have told pollsters that they support the idea.

“I find it remarkable that the United States, the country that pioneered democracy and proved that a government created and controlled by ordinary people could succeed, has never allowed its citizens to vote on a single national issue,” Matsusaka writes.

Matsusaka’s six-step plan calls for a cautious introduction of direct democracy, starting with tools that can be approved by statute, and don’t require a constitutional amendment. First, Congress should give itself power to hold advisory, or non-binding, referenda, perhaps on popular but controversial bills, like the Dream Act for unauthorized immigrants. Second, Congress could grant American citizens the power, by gathering signatures on petitions in different states, to call non-binding referenda. (This likely would put animal rights, minimum wages, and marijuana on national ballots).  Third, Congress could require a national advisory referendum before making certain major decisions, like approving international treaties (like the Paris Agreement on climate change) or going to war.

If such advisory referenda proved popular, then Americans might change the constitution to adopt the more powerful direct democracy tools familiar to Californians, like binding ballot initiatives to change laws or amend the constitution.

The USC scholar is particularly aggressive in knocking down objections to popular votes on issues. National referenda wouldn’t be divisive; to the contrary, even very Catholic countries, like Italy and Ireland, have managed the issue of legalized abortion better than we have, because they authorized it by popular vote. 

Referenda would not promote extremism; the opposite is true, since studies show voters are less extreme in their views than our political elites. And moneyed interests wouldn’t dominate more than they currently do, especially if we adopted Matsusaka’s suggestion of establishing a public system to fund all sides of any national referendum campaign.

More broadly, Matsusaka’s book begs the question of how much longer we can continue our escalating political warfare—with each side trying to enhance the non-democratic power of the government branches it currently controls—and still call the United States a democratic republic. The best way to keep America a democracy is to practice democracy more.

“That we consider it radical to allow the people a say in important public matters affecting their lives,” Matsusaka says, “is an unfortunate testament to the undemocratic nature of the U.S. government and something that is overdue for remediation.”


Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.