Book Review: Let the People Rule: How Direct Democracy Can Meet the Populist Challenge by John G. Matsuaka.

AuthorMami, Fouad

Matsuaka, G. John. 2020. Let the People Rule: How Direct Democracy Can Meet the Populist Challenge. Princeton University Press: Princeton and Oxford. pp. 312. Paperback: $21.95; Hardcover: $22.79

So, you want to fix American democracy? Then, let the people rule. The constituents can directly rule themselves! Matsuaka's message is too good to be true: cut the middlemen. The latter are vampires who have corrupted what would otherwise remain a benevolent and thriving democracy. Unfortunately, I find Matsuaka's proposal is not only imprecise but illusory. Nonetheless, and given the looming threats from the Occupy Movement to the Covid pandemic, the proposal serves in quelling genuine alternatives to the current political order.

The thrust of Matsuaka's book underlines that direct democracy should not be automatically dubbed as a call for populism. In carrying out a series of "myth-bustings" regarding referendums, the author is certain that the US establishment will change its mind and give direct-democracy the chance he sincerely believes it deserves for renovating American democracy.

The book is in four parts unevenly distributed between nineteen chapters in addition to a preface and an introduction. Each section contains from three to seven chapters. Part I: "Democracy Adrift" has four chapters, and it details how bureaucracy, or what Matsuaka calls "the rise of the administrative state" (comprising mostly of unelected technocrats and judges), has made the federal government a plaything in the hand of corporations and interest groups. Such a state of affairs leaves little space for ordinary citizens to participate meaningfully in national policies. Matsuaka wonders why states' constitutions tolerate and practice referendums while the federal constitution remains basically distrustful of direct rule.

Part II: "Referendums Past and Present" has seven chapters. Referendums, not elections, are the way out of the democratic drift ushered in by an overblown administrative state. The chapters in this part report on how direct democracy is working at the state level in several European democracies and elsewhere in the world. Later, Matsuaka traces the reasons for what he deems as lingering misunderstandings that made the Founding Fathers distrust referendums. He even proposes six practical types of referendums which the US needs to adopt.

Part III: "The benefits and Risks of Direct Democracy" consists of six chapters. The author here minutely traces...

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