- Even if referendum as a tool of democracy has a checkered history, it is the only way by which a pro-choice majority can prevail.
Democrats seem to see a silver lining in the recent Supreme Court decision on abortion. They think this issue will galvanize the electorate in November and help them retain, if not improve, their majorities in the U.S. House and Senate. They are banking on the fact that opinion surveys have consistently shown widespread support for Roe v Wade, including among Republicans.
There is, however, a structural reason why the expectation might turn out to be a pipe dream. The American Constitution and the political system do not allow for popular will to prevail. Historically, the U.S. Senate, electoral college, gerrymandering, filibuster, restricted voting access, etc., have ensured that the minority interests of the political establishment trump mandate of electoral majorities.
That’s why electoral minorities have held sway over political power even after women, Blacks and other racial minorities — whose rights find no mention in the constitution — gained voting privileges, and when combined with the liberal Whites, constituted an electoral majority.
As forthright right-wingers admit, America is not a democracy, it is a republic. It has been deliberately designed to uphold the interests of the white establishment (beginning with the slaveholders) and ensure the domination of Whites, even in an eventuality where colored races outnumber the Whites.
In fact, one can take Black philosopher Charles W. Mills’ thesis that “racism played a central role in shaping the liberal political tradition” to its logical inference — that the perpetuity of white supremacy is a precondition of American and European democracies.
One might ask how can one conflate women’s abortion rights with white supremacy. Just ask Illinois Rep. Mary E. Miller, who over the weekend declared to much applause at a Trump MAGA rally that Roe v. Wade verdict is a “victory for White life.” That’s not a Freudian slip. It’s a rallying call.
The ‘lifers’ are quite likely to answer the call in the midterms and even in 2024 — to complete the white nationalists’ conquest of all three branches of the government, which began in earnest when Donald Trump came down the escalator and dropped the fig leaf.
Apart from structural and ideological impediments, there are also political reasons why elections won’t cut it for the pro-choice majorities. Elections are about politics and are rarely won by single-issue platforms. Between now and November, one can easily expect billions of right-wing dollars (not counting millions of dollars worth of Fox News’ free propaganda) to push inflation, crime and immigration onto the front burner — always sure bets to fire up the White suburbs.
Even if the Democrats somehow manage to keep the abortion embers alight, it will at best impact a few swing districts in blue and purple states. It will not alter the severely gerrymandered districts in the south and midwest, ensuring the Republican sweep in both the House and Senate.
That leaves a referendum as the only way to veto an electoral mandate. The provision for a referendum in states is a loophole — or in Marxist terms, a contradiction — in the structural ‘checks and balances’ placed to ensure a minority grip on political power. Even if referendum as a tool of democracy has a checkered history, it is the only way by which a numerical majority can be made to prevail.
In the recent past, referendums helped voters to take bold measures when legislative bodies balked, including issues like legalizing marijuana and increasing the minimum wage. Of course, Republicans have also used them to circumvent electoral mandate in blue states like California — by recalling elected officials.
Nevertheless, referendums are a better barometer of popular will. Unlike elections, they can be conducted on non-party lines which ensures wider participation and a freer expression of popular will. A referendum can be an effective way to depoliticize the abortion issue and confer greater legitimacy.
According to most opinion polls, there is widespread support — cutting across party and racial lines — for women’s right to choose. That support has been stifled by partisan elections. That’s why the Democrats have not codified the right to abortion into law when they had legislative majorities three times over the past three decades. A referendum or a ballot measure can redeem abortion from the clutches of politics. There are 26 states that have provisions for holding a referendum, out of which 17 are red or swing states. Winning the ballot measure in these states will have a nationwide impact and finally make way for enacting a federal law.
The question is, will the Democrats jettison politics and pick up the gauntlet?
Sunil Adam is the Editor and Publisher of American Kahani.