Serving as the commencement speaker at the University of Idaho last month, Governor Brad Little urged 1,400 new graduates to “show up and participate in our democratic republic.”
It is likely that the governor’s choice of the words “democratic republic” made some of his fellow Republicans cringe. Many GOP politicians insist that we are a “republic,” period, and that the word democracy has no place in Idaho. State Representative John Green went as far as to call democracy a “stain” on Idaho politics that must be removed. This was, of course, the heart of the argument in favor of the infamous Senate Bill 1159, a bill that would have virtually repealed our right to organize ballot initiatives. Senator C. Scott Grow, the original sponsor of the bill, repeatedly argued that Idaho’s current ballot-initiative process violates a foundational principle of our political system: that we are a republic, not a democracy.
There is a grain of truth in this position. It is true that neither our state nor our nation has ever been a pure democracy, at least not in the classical sense of the word. We have never been a democracy on the model of the ancient city-state of Athens, for example, where the most significant public decisions — including decisions about war and peace — were often decided by public assemblies in which thousands of ordinary citizens participated. In the United States, including in Idaho, we have always delegated most of our public decision-making to legislators, judges, and other specially-selected officials. Even when we enact laws by citizens’ initiative, those laws can be overturned by legislators who may deem them unwise or by judges who may deem them unconstitutional.
No, we are not a pure, direct democracy in the classical Athenian sense of the word. But here’s what the opponents of democracy get wrong: Democratic participation has always been an indispensable part of our republican form of government. So many of our nation’s greatest achievements were not accomplished by elected representatives nor by appointed judges, but by ordinary citizens. Freedom of the press, the abolition of child labor, civil rights, women’s rights, workers’ rights — these were not won by elected leaders acting alone. They were democratic achievements, won in large part by ordinary citizens who organized and worked outside the halls of legislatures and courtrooms.
Idaho has an especially rich tradition of democratic participation, and the ballot initiative process is central to that tradition. In 1912, ordinary Idahoans established the constitutional right of initiative as a check on the business interests, banks, and powerful railroad companies that dominated the Idaho legislature. In the years that followed, ordinary Idahoans came together to establish the Department of Fish and Game; to bring transparency to campaign finance by enacting sunshine laws; to protect the integrity of our public school system by repealing the notorious “Luna Laws”; and to expand Medicaid to 62,000 Idahoans who’d been denied access to affordable health insurance.
Governor Little was right in his commencement speech. Idaho is not simply a republic; it is a democratic republic. We depend on our judges and our elected representatives for many things, but we don’t depend on them for everything. The future of our state will hinge on whether ordinary citizens continue to show up and participate — not just on Election Day but also at organizing meetings, door-knocking events, and town-hall discussions. We should be proud of our democratic tradition, and we should be expanding, not limiting, opportunities for democratic participation. #IdahoSpeaks