Have 'We the people' run amok?

David Broder warns that ballot initiatives are thwarting democracy


The American political body is forever talking out of both sides of its collective mouth. When pollsters come calling, we say we long for someone who will lead us, who will stand firm in the face of our shifting public opinion. This is why John McCain made so much noise in the early part of the primary season. But beneath all the talk is a nation of populists that seeks out leaders who will follow, who will do what we say. This is why Bill Clinton, our poll-reader in chief, has served for two terms and despite scandal maintains such a high job-approval rating.

In the past 20 years, this let-us-run-the-show attitude has been gaining momentum in the form of ballot initiatives, and this, David Broder says in his new book, "Democracy Derailed," is a very bad thing for all of us.

Every year as Americans happily trudge to the polls to vote on things like tax cuts or the environment in the name of taking back their power, they are actually signing away more and more control to special-interest lobbies. Worse yet, because the voters don't really know or understand what they are voting on, they are creating flawed legislation that most intelligent politicians would vote against.

Sunny enough a picture?

Broder, almost uniformly revered as Washington's dean of political reporting, does a fine job of laying out the facts in this treatise. He carefully explains how the initiative process, born of the Populist Era, was created as a means of wresting control of the government from Big Money. And he chronicles the growth of the phenomenon that came following California's tax rollback initiative, Proposition 13.

But he has harsh criticism for the populist rhetoric that surrounds the process. Initiatives may have once been about giving the voters a voice, but it has long since become just another political industry. Those earnest people on the street who ask for your signature "just to get the issue on the ballot" are probably professionals who are paid for each name collected. The language you see on the ballot was almost certainly the result of a concerted lobbying effort that is designed to confuse you.

Then there's the money: A staggering $257 million was spent on the 66 proposals that were on statewide ballots in 1998.

And while all this is common sense when you really think about it - why would ballot-initiative campaigns be any less phony or awash in cash than other campaigns - by spelling out the size of the problem, Broder has done a real service here.

There are, however, a few problems with this book.

First, it suffers slightly from veteran reporter's syndrome. There are passages that seem a bit too wistful for the days of yore. The United States is a republic, Broder says, and designed as such so that well-studied legislators can make decisions that are in the nation's best interests. The initiative process threatens to steal power away from politicians and give the American people "Laws Without Government."

"The spectacle of three millionaires rewriting the laws of five states ... is a far cry from what William U'Ren had in mind when he imported the initiative process from Switzerland ... a century ago," he writes.

This may be true, but it's also doubtful that our Founding Fathers foresaw how the filibuster would become a way of life in the Senate or how misleading sound bites would become a way of life in Washington.

And while it is easy to see Broder's point about the dangers of the initiative movement - it has undoubtedly produced some of this nation's most wretched legislation - it's not wholly evil. Ballot initiatives on things like stadiums are not necessarily a bad idea. And regardless, initiativeshave not exactly cornered the market on bad policy.

Second, the book is too long. Case in point is Chapter 3, "Initiative War In Close-Up," a 70-page case study on the debate surrounding Proposition 226 in California. The chapter is full of solid reporting, but even the most serious political junkie has to wonder why he's reading about which group gathered signatures for whom.

Broder has great gifts as a political journalist. He is perceptive, honest, and an excellent reporter. He is not, however, always the most compelling writer - and even the best wordsmith might find it hard to spice up 260 pages on ballot initiatives.

*Dante Chinni writes political commentary for the Monitor from Washington.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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