From Richard Nixon slowly backing his way into resignation for a botched burglary to Bill O’Reilly denying charges of sexual harassment while losing sponsors and, eventually, his job at Fox News, the consequences of failing to confront the truth have proven to be debilitating. Whatever one’s agenda may have been before beginning a cover-up, its achievement will certainly be sidetracked by the time and effort required by the evasive action.

This same danger exists for the Chicken Littles now crying about the sky of representative democracy falling because the state legislative and budgetary process has failed to enact “the will of the people” as expressed in several citizen-initiated referendums passed in November. “Why bother to vote,” they cry, “if the Legislature and governor can simply ignore ‘the people’s’ wishes as expressed in an election?”

Because democracy is complicated, and we shouldn’t give up on it so easily. And, more importantly, as Abraham Lincoln said, democracy is “an ongoing experiment.” It is not simply an elaborate game with clearly defined rules that periodically announce the beginning of a competition and inexorably count the scores and declare winners and losers. It is, rather, an organic, evolving social enterprise.

Those who cite election results they find unsatisfactory as reasons to stop participating in the system are giving up on it. Also, complaining about election results is rather like trying to cover up a lie – it is essentially trying to fool oneself, trying to evade the truth rather than face it.

Last November, a plurality of Maine voters approved citizen initiatives to legalize recreational use of marijuana (49.5 percent) and to add a surcharge to the state income tax for some taxpayers and dedicate the resultant revenue to K-12 education (49.7 percent). A bare majority (50.3 percent) approved a system of ranked-choice voting, and a clear majority (54.5 percent) approved an initiative to raise the state minimum wage. None of these initiatives came close to winning a majority of the full number of Maine people eligible to vote in November.

Yes, you may say, but those people chose not to participate in the election process. True, but does that make their will irrelevant to the programs that state elections create and change? Hardly. Especially when these same nonvoters drive the roads, send their children to school, seek publicly provided health or social services or respond to public opinion surveys. Their will, however expressed, is part of the messy, organically evolving society our democratic institutions must struggle to understand if they are to survive.

Democratic institutions exist for all of the people all of the time, whether or not they participate. Indeed, our democracy’s single greatest achievement has been the continued growth over the centuries of the extension of democratic rights to people from whom they were once withheld.

In addition, these citizen initiatives came to the ballot in large part because their most highly motivated supporters became frustrated with the failure of their elected representatives to enact their proposals through the “traditional” method of proposing and submitting a bill, subjecting it to public hearings as well as majority votes by both houses of the Legislature and approval by the governor. Should these same supporters be indignant that over a third of the Legislature still disagrees with some or all of the initiatives they proposed? Hardly.

The citizen initiative and approval by elected representatives are alternative methods for expressing “the will of the people.” As such, the rise and fall of one or the other method as a preferred avenue for certain groups of “the people” may create incentives and disincentives for their political actions. However, to conclude that one particular election result destroys the reason for participating in the process in the future is to give up on democracy too easily.

Are legislators going to say, “Why bother to show up for committee meetings and votes when ‘the people’ are just going to overrule me anyway?” Perhaps a few – the increasing acrimony of all political activity is clearly making public service as an elected official less desirable. However, such a conclusion would be an equally distressing sign of civic-minded people giving up on democracy.

In short, supporters of citizen initiatives who thought they “won” in November and that they “lost” this month would be wrong to walk away saying, “I give up on this democracy stuff; it’s all rigged.”

That response is understandable. But, like the temptation to cover up a mistake, it would be dishonest. It would be lacking in the courage required to face the truth that, despite the election results, they had not convinced a sufficient number of participants in our ongoing “experiment” in governance to succeed. And that realization – success is not measured by winning any particular election – is the “stuff” on which our dreams of democracy are ultimately built.

Charles Lawton, Ph.D., is a consulting economist. He can be contacted at:

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