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A setback for good government

Ohio misses a chance to protect its constitution from the “tyranny of the moment”

Pro-abortion activists celebrate the defeat of Issue 1 during a watch party on Aug. 8 in Columbus, Ohio. Associated Press/Photo by Jay LaPrete

A setback for good government
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Democracy used to have a bad reputation. Classical philosophers despised it, the American Founders feared it. But their wisdom has been rejected by the people of Ohio, who have voted down a ballot initiative that would have made it more difficult to amend the state constitution. The proposed change would have raised the threshold from a bare majority (50 percent plus one) vote by the public to a 60 percent margin. But with the effort’s defeat, it will remain easy to get constitutional amendments on the ballot, and they will still need only a bare majority to become the state’s supreme law.

The immediate result of the results from Tuesday is that Ohio voters can more easily pass an amendment on the ballot this fall that allows abortion until birth, eliminates parental consent laws, and permits the chemical and surgical mutilation of gender-confused children. Of course, the amendment’s supporters know that Ohio voters do not want their state to compete with Illinois to be the late-term abortion and child sex-change surgery capital of the Midwest, and so they are not advertising this radicalism.

They are hoping voters will not realize how extreme this amendment is. And such deceptive plebiscitary efforts have gotten easier than ever—all that is required is a wealthy donor to write a check to fund signature harvesting, and then write another check for TV ads and get out the vote efforts. And following the Dobbs decision overturning Roe v. Wade, the pro-abortion left is going to run this playbook over and over again, pouring out-of-state, special-interest cash into ballot initiatives and amendments.

Conservatives need to adjust. If these are the rules, these are the rules, and we should be as cunning as possible in using them to our advantage. We should remember the many victories voters gave to marriage as the union of a man and a woman via state ballot initiatives back in the 2000s. Now we need not only to get better at defending against pro-abortion initiatives, we also need to find the wedge issues that unite us and split the other side, and put them up for a vote—for example, it might be worth seeing how voters react when offered clear bans on “sex-change” surgeries on children.

Nonetheless, even if we learn to play this game, and even if we win in Ohio in November—which remains possible, if pro-lifers can get word out on how radical the pro-abortion amendment is—remaking laws and constitutions via bare majority plebiscites is still a poor method of government.

A constitutional government presumes a correspondence between the deliberative, self-governing person and the deliberative process of a self-governing people.

Our Founders believed that constitutions should not be so easily altered, and they feared the tyranny not just of the majority, but of the moment. They believed that self-government required a virtuous people, and that the system of representative, constitutional government they established encouraged essential reflection and compromise.

In contrast, democracy by plebiscite, especially when it comes to constitution-amending, precludes this. There is no negotiation or alteration possible, just a yes or no on ballot language that many voters find confusing. This mode of government resembles Rousseau’s notion of the General Will, which presumes the essential goodness and wisdom of man. The best government, in this view, results from putting everything before the people, and being ruled by their spontaneous wisdom.

This is far from the Founder’s view of human nature, which was deeply informed by the Christian tradition. They believed that goodness and wisdom do not come easily and naturally to us, but require great effort to attain—to which Christians would add the necessity of divine grace. A prerequisite for political self-government is a people capable of personal self-government. A constitutional government presumes a correspondence between the deliberative, self-governing person and the deliberative process of a self-governing people.

As the political philosopher Claes Ryn has observed, “Constitutional democracy is not the least demanding form of government. … It is, on the contrary, perhaps the most demanding form of government imaginable, having extensive moral, intellectual and cultural prerequisites.”

The self-discipline needed for a good constitutional regime does not naturally spring up from the depths of the human heart, but must be cultivated. This form of government is not impulsive, based on the fleeting majority of the moment. American constitutionalism is incompatible with routinely altering the law, let alone a state’s constitution, by a simple majority vote. Plebiscitary democracy is not only destabilizing and subject to manipulation, it excludes the deliberative representation that protects minorities, and encourages a long view that seeks the common good.

A democracy that does not restrain itself is just a mob, easily misled and prone to trample both liberty and order.

Nathanael Blake

Nathanael Blake is a postdoctoral fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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