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Initiative Campaigns and the Power of Money
By David S. Broder
Harcourt, 2000, 260 pages

Democracy Derailed is a fascinating and disturbing look at the rise of initiatives in American politics, a system of direct legislation that is increasingly popular with voters and is now used in 25 states and hundreds of municipalities across the nation.

David Broder, the veteran Washington Post reporter, describes the initiative as a new form of government, one that takes much of its energy from the American public's disdain of politics and distrust of politicians.

Originally conceived by Populists and Progressives as a cure for special-interest influence in the political process, it has evolved into "something that seems unthinkable," writes Broder, "not a government of laws but laws without government."

As he sees it, the spreading use of the initiative process as an alternative to representative government threatens to challenge, or even subvert, American democracy in coming years. It is a form of government that radically departs from the Constitution's system of checks and balances by handing over decisions directly to citizens themselves.

He admits that the painstaking and time-consuming process of debating issues, weighing alternatives, and passing and signing bills into laws has acquired a dubious reputation today. But as a cure for the ills of representative democracy, he says, government by initiative may be worse than the disease.

The initiative process circumvents elected representatives. It says, in effect, "let the citizens decide for themselves." While this may be a noble sentiment, it invariably reduces complex policy issues to all-or-nothing, up-or-down choices between two extremes.

What is perhaps most pernicious about the initiative process is that it opens the door to demagogues, interest groups and wealthy individuals with their own private agendas. Instead of giving the ordinary citizen a voice in government, it tends to favor interest groups and political elites that already have considerable power and influence.

As Broder points out, "these players have learned that the initiative is a far more efficient way of achieving their ends than the cumbersome process of supporting candidates for public office and then lobbying them to pass or sign the measures they seek."

This is reflected in the air of big business that pervades most initiative campaigns today. A growing number of lawyers, pollsters, media advisers, direct-mail specialists, campaign consultants, and others have turned grassroots campaigns into a lucrative political industry that is anything but citizen-driven.

To his dismay, Broder believes that a political movement for a national initiative is likely to emerge in coming years. Current trends in technology and public opinion make it almost inevitable. Many Americans are so frustrated by politics-as-usual that they clearly prefer "the seductive simplicity of the up-or-down initiative vote."

The question we must ask ourselves is whether we want to keep the United States a republic. "For myself," Broder says, "the choice is easy.... Whatever its flaws, this Republic has consistently provided a government of laws. To discard it for a system that promises laws without government would be a tragic mistake."

Broder is right, I believe, though his case may be somewhat overstated. The initiative process is not all bad. In fact, it may be one of the most effective ways of introducing new ideas into the legislative process, particularly in a country such as ours that relies on a winner-takes-all system of representation. (Governments based on proportional representation are obliged to consider a broader range of political viewpoints in making policy and are therefore more open to innovation.)

The initiative process is also a powerful way of making the voices of citizens truly count. Unlike ubiquitous opinion polls or advisory referendums, initiatives are legally binding. Broder does acknowledge some, if not all, of the benefits of the initiative process, and he is generally fair-minded in presenting both sides of the case, but he nevertheless insists that the process is seriously jeopardizing our democratic future.

As one might expect, Broder is a first-rate reporter. The stories he tells, the people he interviews, and the cases he uncovers make up a vivid and gripping narrative. But his argument would be more persuasive if he opted for more political analysis and less old-fashioned journalism.

As it stands, this book never really gets to the heart of the thorny implications of participatory democracy. If anything, Broder seems uncomfortable discussing political ideas, preferring, in almost every instance, to quote some well-known thinker or articulate public official — sometimes at absurd lengths.

It's a pity because he misses what I take to be the most exciting aspect of American democracy: its open-ended, flexible and ever-changing character. Democracy, if it lives at all, lives as a set of common aspirations, not as a fixed system of institutional arrangements. It is best defined, in the words of political philosopher Harry Boyte, as "the unfinished work of the people."

To approach the subject of initiatives from a narrow reportorial vantage point, as if it can be understood solely on the basis of a few case studies in California and elsewhere, is to overlook its significance in the shaping of a more reponsive and civic-minded system of government that can serve us all much better in the future.

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This review appeared in the September/October 2000 issue of HopeDance magazine