In a Republic, organized by republicans, “the people wield agency and power in political affairs.” In the early 21st century, the American people can pass public policy at the state level via a ballot initiative or referendum, which indeed may be fundamentally at odds with national public policy—and the national government, if embracing republicanism, should respect the will of the people if the new law is based on non-domination.
The implication is clear: to be a republican does not necessarily mean representing the people; rather, it means representing res publica—and the people will change public policy in line with republican core values if and when the representative(s) fail to do so.
For example, public opinion on marijuana legalization drastically moved towards legalization between 1990 and 2008. Graph 1.2 below shows the public opinion trend.
The data for the former graph (GSS) is designed to be representative of the American society, though there were far fewer respondents in the later years. In the GSS survey (cumulative dataset), year 1990, only 17 percent of people agreed with the statement, “Do you think the use of marijuana should be made legal or not?” 80 percent said no to legalization. By 2010, the survey showed for the first time that less than 50 percent said “no” to legalization, and 44 percent of people favored legalization. However, even now in 2014, federal law stipulates that marijuana is illegal (i.e., national government over state government / the people—the supremacy clause supposedly wins every time).
Could the people change the laws so that marijuana was legal for recreational use? I argue that Americans use res publica in order to take a stand on marijuana legalization via a broad interpretation of instruction.
In the 2012 election cycle, the people in the states of Washington and Colorado did legalize marijuana for recreational use. The language of republicanism is on the people’s terms. If the people in any given state (or maybe even local government) vote to prevent the national government from imposing domination upon the people, then under res publica the people shall not be overturned. The citizens in essence resolved to legalize marijuana and the people changed the law to make it legal over and above representative government (i.e., republicanism over liberalism).
What could the national government do?
In August 2013, less than 1 year after the people’s decision, “Attorney General Eric Holder informed the governors of Washington and Colorado that the Department of Justice would allow the states to create a regime that would regulate and implement the ballot initiatives that legalized the use of marijuana for adults.”[i] The people instructed the national government—bypassing the state legislature and the national representatives altogether.
Seriously, this republican mechanism of instruction shows more power and agency than ROI instruction during the Founders’ time (e.g., over 2,000 ROIs in the Senate during the ante-bellum era) because the change in public policy was not based on the State legislatures; rather, the people as self-initiators changed the entire public policy of laws to be governed by.
In res publica, and perhaps not a liberal democracy, the people’s word becomes the final arbiter of any republican political-economy (i.e. res publica).
In more recent elections yesterday, all showed over 50 percent in favor of legalization. To this degree, America is a vibrant democracy! YET there is clearly a peculiar problem from the story, “Washington, D.C.’s initiative legalizes marijuana possession but doesn’t establish a taxation system because voters aren’t allowed to directly implement taxes themselves” (see link above). This is anti-republicanism in the Capitol! How?
Need more republicanism? What about the path of Gay Marriage? Just how vibrant is our Republic in the early 21st century?
[i] Huffington Post 2013, italics mine.