Direct Democracy by Thomas Cronin (Harvard University Press: $25; 270 pages)
Is there a greater travesty of democracy, a more cynical form of deceit, than the ballot initiative? Great and complex issues, including death and taxes and everything in between, are placed on the ballot for a simple yes-or-no vote.
What passes for public debate takes the form of expertly manipulative 30-second television spots and imbecilic bumper-sticker slogans created at enormous expense by gun-for-hire “consultants.” (“Yes on No” is the sly rebuttal.) As we have demonstrated so often in California, the tools of “direct” democracy--the initiative, the referendum and the recall--have become an outright fraud.
Thomas Cronin, a distinguished professor of political science at Colorado State College, expresses himself in much more temperate language in “Direct Democracy,” his study of the use--and abuse--of the ballot measure in our history and our times. But his research and analysis help to explain the dangers of government by ballot measure in an era of mass media in the service of monied special interests.
“Skeptics . . . worry about tyranny by the majority and fear voters are seldom well enough informed to cast votes on complicated, technical national laws. People also worry, and justifiably, about the way well-financed special-interest groups might use these procedures,” Cronin explains. “The evidence suggests that it is generally the organized interests that can afford to put them to use.”
Cronin reminds us that the Founders created a republic to be governed by elected representatives, not a pure democracy. (John Adams, he points out, “saw humanity as inherently corrupt and base,” and insisted that “aristocratic elements in society must play a vital role in countering the popular storms and passions of the ordinary people.”)
But “direct” democracy, which reaches back to the town meetings of the Colonial era, is an old and honorable tradition too. By the end of the 19th Century, when legislators and legislatures were routinely bought and sold by railroads and other monied interests, direct access to the ballot was championed by an odd assortment of radicals, progressives and “good government” reformers as a way of redeeming American democracy.
Still, Cronin allows us to see how the Populist dream of direct democracy has turned into a tool for various one-issue lobbies, industries and activists--much the same kind of special interests that the ballot measure was designed to control or at least counterbalance. Petitions to place a measure on the ballot are circulated by professional signature-gatherers and direct-mail houses. Voter information pamphlets--often full of “impenetrable prose"--and newspaper coverage are far less influential than the electronic mass media, which share the preference of the advertising consultants for once-over-lightly coverage and simplistic debate.
By helping us to understand how the ballot measure actually works in the real world of American government, Cronin’s “Direct Democracy” is a well-considered, well-informed and entirely healthy corrective to some of our most cherished dreams and myths. But Cronin refuses to be alarmed:
“Like any other democratic institution, the initiative, referendum and recall have their shortcomings,” he concludes. “Whatever the shortcomings of direct democracy, and there are several, they do not justify the elimination of the Populist devices from those state constitutions permitting them. . . . Direct democracy devices have become a permanent feature of American politics, especially in the West.”
Yet the hard question remains: How can the citizen, whose knowledge of a ballot measure is shaped by superficial and often misleading arguments in the form of slick television commercials, cast an informed vote on a complicated social, economic or political issue? “The people . . . are not going to buy a phony petition,” declared Howard Jarvis, co-author of California’s near-mythic Proposition 13. “They are a lot smarter than we think.” But Jarvis’ remark, quoted in Cronin’s book, is mostly beside the point. Even the “smartest” voter is hard-pressed to understand what is truly at stake in a ballot measure when the special interests spend their money in a conscious effort to confound and mislead him.