Sunday, October 30, 2005

Initiatives: What were the Progressives Thinking?

In 1911 California Governor Hiram Johnson, one of the leaders of the Progressive movement, sought to draw "the people" more directly into public affairs and was able to convince the California legislature and the people to pass into law the initiative, the referendum, and the recall. What were the Progressives thinking? The upcoming special elections in California where the citizens are asked to vote in incredibly complex issues is nothing short of surreal. (Not to even talk about the money the special election will cost.) What it does illustrate is the hubris of Governor Schwarzenegger and how he’ll have to depend on showmanship to win the votes needed to pass the initiatives he is advancing. What a way to govern the most important State in the Union.

Originally the initiative was seen as a method to control the railroad "barons" in the early part of the century. In fact, the "barons" opposed the initiative but historically the initiative was not successful in controlling the power of the "barons." Today, special interest groups, very often, corporate, use the initiative to advance their economic and political agenda. These corporate interests often pursue policies that are anti social justice in nature. Proposition 13, here in California is an excellent example of an initiative that has not advanced social justice. By and large, the biggest winners with the passing of Proposition 13 have been corporate interests.

There is an inherent conflict between representative democracy and "direct democracy" (the American form) in any state that allows initiatives. After all the Founding Fathers of this nation and of this founders of this State structured a constitution where the citizens choose their representatives to the legislature and they, in turn, would enact the laws. In the States where Progressives were a powerful political movement a certain tension began as the initiative was adopted. Who governs became a serious concern? In fact, the Greek philosopher Aristotle, feared direct democracy--and for good reason, he believed it would ultimately degenerate into "mob" rule due to the prejudices of the citizens and the possibility of them being swept away by emotion. This is especially true when a community is confronted by severe economic hardships.

Then there is the problem of the complexity of the initiatives. I recently read the 2005 Official Voter Information Guide: Special Statewide Election, and even though I am a political scientist by training, I found it incredibly difficult to slog through the booklet. One has to be a specialist in public finance and an expert in the recent political history of California to know what is going on. I can just see the millions and millions of citizens eyes glaze over as they attempt to read this very complex book with very particular and esoteric language.

So what does the citizenry do? No, they don’t read the Voter Guide or try to analyze the issues, they, as political scientists would say, look for "cues." People will make their choice by trusting the people they trust and maybe, more importantly, who they distrust; enter the firefighters, the nurses, rescue workers, and the teachers in this volatile race, and they are used in vast mailers, television commercials, slate mailing and radio spots. This bodes well for the Democratic Party, as the Guvernator's popularity ratings are an all time low. One can easily see in this Special Election how "emotion" (popularity ratings) plays such an important role in "direct democracy," and in the long run I see this as very problematic. In this election the emotions of the citizenry are on the side of the Democrats but due to the vagaries of politics that will change some day--depending on the cause, economic situation, other uncontrolled conditions and the players--and Democrats will be unhappy. I guess I’m a republican (small r, people) at heart with Democratic Party core values.


Blogger Angxin said...

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3:03 AM  

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