Making Public Policy in America


DIRECT DEMOCRACY: THE POLITICS OF INITIATIVE, REFERENDUM, AND RECALL by Thomas E. Cronin, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard, University Press, 289 pp., $25

HOW much do you trust the American people?

The Founding Fathers, men like Alexander Hamilton, George Washington, and John Adams, feared direct, democratic rule. ``Men love power,'' Hamilton said. ``Give all power to the many, they will oppress the few.''

America's government evolved in those early years as a system of checks and balances, with authority divided among the president, the Congress, the Supreme Court, and the states. For 200 years, that constitutional system has kept tyranny at bay.

Yet many Americans have felt at times that something was missing from the equation: the people.

Although the American people vote directly on their governors, congressmen, and other legislators, they have no chance to express themselves directly on national public policy.

Should America go to war? Should federal taxes be raised - or lowered? Should the Strategic Defense Initiative be funded? Should English be the official language? Should we launch a major program to stop acid rain?

About 100 years ago, political populists began demanding that American voters have a means of speaking out on issues. The populists never made much progress with their ideas for direct democracy in Washington. But in about half the states, voters can now vote directly on public policy issues.

The most famous example clearly is California. Using the ballot box, Californians vote on property taxes, homosexual rights, and auto insurance rates. Sometimes, as in the tax revolt of the 1970s, they launch a national trend.

Thomas E. Cronin, in this well-crafted book written for the Twentieth Century Fund, traces the evolution of direct democracy in America from the beginnings of the republic. He notes that direct democracy at the state and local levels has taken three main forms in the past century:

Initiatives: Voters directly propose laws or constitutional amendments by filing petitions. When enough signatures are collected, an initiative is submitted to the entire electorate.

Referendums: New laws, bond issues, constitutional amendments, and other measures are first approved by the legislature, then submitted to the voters for ratification.

Recalls: Voters, through petitions, can force a special election to remove an officeholder, from governor to city councilman.

Dr. Cronin, who teaches at Colorado College, marches his reader through the development of direct democracy with professorial thoroughness. Yet this is a lesson-book that anyone interested in citizen action should enjoy.

The professor showers his text with interesting detail. (For example, in the 1780s two states tried to make their legislators more representative by holding elections every six months.) Even so, the book maintains a brisk pace.

Dr. Cronin takes a middle position on direct democracy. While he praises the results at the state and local level, he doubts whether it would be wise or useful at the national level.

Nationwide votes on specific programs would ``reduce some aspects of political leadership and policymaking in a large and diverse nation to a Gallup-poll approach to public policy,'' he argues.

Cronin also contends that the two-year election cycle for the House of Representatives gives voters frequent opportunities to dismiss lawmakers who refuse to heed the public will.

Ironically, while the United States leads the world in representative government, it lags behind many other countries in direct democracy. The Swiss, leaders in direct democracy, held more than 300 referendums and 135 initiatives over the past century.

Cronin's very readable book should be a definitive work on direct democracy - for college classrooms and for anyone interested in bringing the power of the people to bear on government.

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