Ballot Initiatives: Wolves In Sheeps' Clothing?
By John Nagy, Staff Writer
Book Review: David S. Broder, Democracy Derailed: Initiative Campaigns and the Power of Money, Harcourt, 260 pp., $23
For those who assume that `direct democracy' is a panacea for political corruption, gridlock and lobbyists, veteran political journalist David S. Broder offers an opposing brief in Democracy Derailed . Welcome to the unregulated world of today's ballot initiative, a place where would-be reformers often need a minimum of one million dollars to back a winner.
Twenty-four states allow statewide ballot initiatives, but Broder has seen enough of the way the process works to consider it a genuine assault on our system of democracy.
Troubling observations about this increasingly utilized form of state lawmaking are sprinkled throughout Broder's probing, cautionary tale. Like the ruminations of campaign consultant Les Francis, a one-time candidate for the California Assembly whose career eventually led him to the White House as a deputy chief of staff under President Jimmy Carter.
"The initiative process is more easily manipulated" than elected officials are, Francis tells Broder. Later in the same interview, Francis -- the top strategist of the successful 1998 drive to protect riverboat gambling in Missouri -- offers an even gloomier confession: "I think all of us in (my consulting) firm would agree that initiatives are not the ideal way of making public policy."
Those kinds of reservations prompted Broder to write a book on ballot initiative campaigns while covering the 1998 election cycle for The Washington Post . After the California primaries, Broder spoke with several voters who claimed to back, but ultimately voted against, the stated premise behind Proposition 226. The initiative was touted by backers as a `paycheck protection' measure for union members. However, Broder found that many voters had confused Proposition 226 with other issues on the ballot, or mistakenly thought a `no' vote would achieve their desired result.
"We don't mind confusion," the originator of the successful "vote no on 226" ads, Dawn Laguens, admits in Democracy Derailed .
Is this true democracy? Broder initially answers this question with a reminder that the Founding Fathers sought to steer a middle course between monarchy and the masses by deeming the fledgling United States a republic, not a democracy.
But Broder sheds additional light on the issue with a painstaking examination of what's become of the Founders' vision of representative government, which was modified by reformers a century ago.
Instead of serving primarily as a vehicle for ordinary citizens, ballot initiatives have become a startlingly lucrative business for signature-collectors, attorneys, campaign consultants, and media spinners. Bankrolling all this are large corporations, labor unions and powerful special interest organizations, descendants of the political puppeteers reformers once sought to clip from the political system.
None of this may come as a shock to savvy observers in states with ballot initiatives. But Democracy Derailed is indispensable reading for those without such first-hand knowledge. And when Broder's unpretentious style and his candid interviews with campaigners and insiders at every level of the game are taken into account, one senses this is a book few other journalists could have written. We benefit from his noteworthy powers of observation, as well as his sense of journalistic fair-play.
Still, one wonders whether the problem isn't with the initiative process itself, but with the flash floods of cash that swamp our political institutions. Broder's book is a critical first step toward moving beyond recent campaign finance scrutiny to taking a broader look at how money and politics interact beyond candidate campaigns. And there is plenty more to investigate. While Broder takes an extensive look at California, we see little of how ballot initiatives are playing outside of states where, arguably, the connections between money and campaigns could be strongest.
Broder makes it clear in Democracy Derailed that he prefers the measured deliberations of elected representatives to the sometimes reactionary policies that occasionally emerge from ballot initiatives. In fact, he argues that the slow, deliberate pace of the legislative process is the last genuine advantage of representative government over direct democracy.
There is a lesson here for public officials -- a familiar one about the need to restore a certain level of dignity to political life, starting from within the legislature. Nor does Broder let journalists, particularly statehouse reporters, off the hook for fostering an atmosphere where ballot initiatives can flourish at the expense of representative government. He claims that journalists have a role to play in reducing the cynicism of the electorate.
Often regarded as a mere stepping-stone beat, "the coverage of legislatures is often compressed to the point of being unintelligible and is rarely informed by any historical perspective," Broder writes. He points out a need for the beat to be taken more seriously, and for reporters to cover the legislative process in a less jaded fashion.
Democracy Derailed is woven around a central, underlying caveat: If we don't stop taking our governing institutions for granted, we may undermine their ability to operate while allowing the narrow aims of craftier, well-heeled individuals to guide the process.
Broder's book is unlikely to top national bestsellers lists. And those expecting a breezy read may at times grow impatient with the breadth and depth of Broder's reporting. But this serious-minded wake-up call serves as a reminder that the best solutions aren't always the most convenient, and that the most valuable lessons are rarely the easiest to digest.