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Direct Democracy or Mob Rule?

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Additional funding is provided by the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the John M. Olin Foundation, the Bernard and Irene Schwartz Foundation, and the Smith Richardson Foundation.

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BEN WATTENBERG Hello, Iím Ben Wattenberg. Americaís founding fathers conceived of this nation as a republic, that is, governed by representatives and not directly by citizens, which they sometimes referred to-quaintly--as 'the mob.' In recent decades there has been an increase in direct democracy. Californians are now taking steps to recall a governor. Nevada may soon follow suit. Between 1975 and 2000 voter initiatives on state ballots more than tripled from 279 to 929. Does this kind of direct democracy-initiative, referendum and recall-undermine leadership or keep representatives responsive to the will of the people?

To find out, Think Tank is joined by Patrick Basham, founding director of the Social Affairs Center at Canadaís Fraser Institute, and now senior fellow with the Cato Instituteís Center for Representative Government. And John Haskell, senior fellow with the Government Affairs Institute at Georgetown University and author of 'Direct Democracy or Representative Government? Dispelling the Populist Myth.'

The topic before the House: Direct Democracy or Mob Rule? This week on Think Tank.

BEN WATTENBERG: John Haskell, Patrick Basham, welcome to Think Tank. Letís start off between the two of you, if you could tell me whatís going on in California because itís become the middle ring of a three-ring circus out there. Everybodyís talking about it. Why donít you start, Patrick.

PATRICK BASHAM: Well Californiaís in the midst of a rare event, a recall election. That means that enough citizens in California signed a petition saying that they would like to see Governor Grey Davis recalled.

BEN WATTENBERG: Recalled meaning fired.

PATRICK BASHAM: Meaning basically fired from his job as governor. He was reelected fairly recently. Thereís going to be an election: the one question on the ballot: do you wish to recall Governor Davis or not? If fifty percent plus one of Californians who vote say 'yes', heís fired immediately; if they donít, he continues. And thereís a second part, of course, to the election. That is, people also-those who elect to go to vote--get to choose his successor, assuming he is recalled, and the person who gets the most votes, even if itís a very low number but itís ahead of everyone else, that person becomes governor immediately.

BEN WATTENBERG: And John, the polls are now showing that Davis will lose. Is that right?

JOHN HASKELL: I think that the last poll had it fifty-five percent of Californians who were likely to vote - though thatís a hard thing to gauge here.

BEN WATTENBERG: Iíve seen some polls that say that eighty percent of the people polled say theyíre going to go vote and I will just stipulate here thatís baloney. I mean, you know, people donít vote in primary. People donít... you donít vote eighty percent in the general election for president. You vote about fifty percent. So thatís not going to happen, is it? I mean that seems outlandish.

PATRICK BASHAM: Itís very unlikely, but...

BEN WATTENBERG:Itís really name recognition of Schwarzenegger, isnít it?

PATRICK BASHAM: To some extent, but we have to bear in mind that Gray Davis is an incredibly unpopular politician at this moment in time. Heís the most unpopular governor the state of Californiaís ever had and therefore thereís a lot - a lot of frustration, a lot of anger with him. And while eighty percent is probably unrealistic, itís not out of the question that the turnout could be much higher than it normally would be in a California statewide election. He won reelection less because he was liked than people were concerned about his opponent and heís - you know, he presided over the energy crisis and to what extent he was responsible for what happened in California, has happened since is open to debate but heís blamed for the crisis. The state went from surplus when he came in - it now has a big deficit. Just generally people view him at this juncture as a failure, as incompetent.

BEN WATTENBERG: And the Lieutenant Governor is...

JOHN HASKELL: Cruz Bustamante. I think the one part of this that weíve overlooked so far is that, you know, of course Davis did as Patrick said, win the election last year and it was against a fairly weak opponent and then less than a year later heís being recalled. I think that the actions of one congressman, Daryl Issa has made this happen, which is not to disagree with what Patrick said about the unpopularity of Davis, but Issa started a petition drive, funded the petition drive...

BEN WATTENBERG: With over a million dollars of his own money.

JOHN HASKELL: Yes, and, of course, he planned to be on the ballot. He thought that if he was spearheading a movement to replace Davis then he would become kind of the popular choice. But, of course...

BEN WATTENBERG: And then the eight-hundred-pound gorilla came in, Arnold Schwarzenegger.


BEN WATTENBERG: And thatís what really drove the interest in this race. Is he the number-one box-office star in America?

JOHN HASKELL: One of the top ones anyway.

BEN WATTENBERG: Pretty damn close.

PATRICK BASHAM: Schwarzeneggerís entrance throws all the calculations off because youíve got this incredibly popular-personally--individual coming in whoís running as a Republican in a very democratic state, which might overwhelm the partisanship of the state. But there are all these other Republicans running. Now there are less than there were; theyíre dropping off, but there are still more Republicans on the ballot than Democrats. Thereís only one Democrat and that is a problem for any of the Republicans who remain.

BEN WATTENBERG: Now this is all part of something that we call direct democracy, which is within the political science trade really a term of art . Itís recall initiative referendum...whatever else. Whatís that all about?

JOHN HASKELL: Thatís a movement started in what we call the Progressive Era around the turn of the last century.

BEN WATTENBERG: The irony being itís now mostly liberals, ex-progressive progressives, who are so much against it.

JOHN HASKELL: Thatís true.


JOHN HASKELL: And in that era the movement was started by people who were definitely on the left who were... I think, primarily the motivation was that the political parties were too strong and there was a bossism and that the way to break that was to let people vote on issues directly by getting things on the ballot, having an initiative.

BEN WATTENBERG: That was Governor Hiram Johnson in California and Senator Robert La Follette in Wisconsin. Those are the two big heroes ...

JOHN HASKELL: Those are two of the big ones, and the idea was that you let people with an initiative get an issue on the ballot through petition drives or with a referendum--oversimplifying a little bit--but with a referendum frequently the legislator would put something on the ballot or their state constitution might say that certain types of legislation have to go to the people for a vote and there are...

BE WATTENBERG: Typically tax increases and things of that sort...

JOHN HASKELL: So, it tends to be more progressive states - Wisconsin, the northern Middle West. Eighteen states have the recall provision for elected officials, but in many states you can, by petitioning, get an issue on the ballot. And in many states, legislatures must put - give to the voters certain types of things that they pass. Voters must also pass on them.

BEN WATTENBERG: The two most famous ones in recent years in California were Proposition 13, which concerned property taxes and Proposition 187 which concerned benefits to illegal immigrants. Is that right?

PATRICK BASHAM: Thatís right. Yes. Twenty-five years anniversary this year of the Prop 13 which is seen not only to have influenced policy in California for a quarter of our century, but stimulated, nourished the anti-tax or low tax movement right across the country and some people feel with some evidence brought to bear that actually helped put Ronald Reagan in the White House two years later and then...

BEN WATTENBERG: Because it was so popular.

PATRICK BASHAM: Yeah. And what it did, the success.... To that point, as John was saying, the first half of the century direct democracy, on balance, clearly favored, in policy terms, those who wanted a larger government, a more interventionist government - more regulation and it could be higher taxes, you know, to provide for more services, that kind of thing. Beginning with Proposition 13, you see conservatives, some libertarians, but those who wanted the growth of government to slow down, were encouraged for the first time that this could actually happen by involving the people.

BEN WATTENBERG: John, you wrote a book about it. Whatís your general view of this whole situation?

JOHN HASKELL: You know, thereís a lot of ways to look at it and there are certainly arguments that are reasonable on both sides. I think that, on balance, the main reason itís not a good idea is represented well by whatís happening in California. A good part of the distaste with the governance of Gray Davis is due to the budget situation and, you know, Californians have through direct democracy in a piecemeal basis voted on a lot of things over the years that have mandated a lot of money to be spent or cordoned off money for certain types of programs at the same time as they limit the legislatureís ability to tax. So I think, you know, part of the alienation and ...

BEN WATTENBERG: Senator Rockwell Longís old poem 'donít tax me, donít tax thee, tax the man behind the tree'.

JOHN HASKELL: Thatís right. And itís important to have a big picture view of things when youíre talking about taxes and spending and direct democracy doesnít provide for that.

PATRICK BASHAM: There are defects with direct democracy, no question about that. There are also defects with a system of representative government. The way that our system of representative government has developed - not as it was originally intended, but as itís developed, politicians are slaves to public opinion. But not overall public opinion, sort of the majority. Theyíre slaves to the public opinion represented by specific interests, usually small minorities who are well organize, well financed and therefore have influence well beyond their numbers and - and what direct democracy does is from time-to-time it gives the largely unlistened to majority an opportunity to speak to the politicians who on a day-to-day basis arenít listening to the great unwashed. Theyíre listening to those who can afford nice offices on K Street.

JOHN HASKELL: Yes, but I think you can argue the interest groups might have more influence in direct democracy sometimes than they have with legislators. See, legislators--I know in your opener you said that people are concerned that legislators arenít responsive enough, thus we need direct democracy. Most people who study the congress, a lot of journalists who are close to it, in congress and in professional state legislatures like California, if anything these people in legislatures are too close, too responsive to the people. I mean what one of the complaints...I mean I think one of the great criticisms you can have of a representative system is that these people donít exhibit enough leadership. Theyíre certainly not beholden to the special interest to the extent that some people allege.

BEN WATTENBERG: Now, is this really a California phenomenon or is it an American phenomenon?

JOHN HASKELL: Itís American to a degree and thereís a few other states that do it a lot. Colorado has a lot of them and Oregon; Washington state. I mean Californiaís the best testing ground because itís one a the easier places to get stuff on the ballot. Theyíve got a lot more contentious issues going around because itís California and itís an ever-changing population. I think you know, in California, although thereís a lot of reasons for this, itís not as though their use of referenda and initiatives in the last couple of decades has made people any happier with their government. People arenít any happier by the fact that they were able to limit taxes, any happier by the fact that they got three strikes and youíre out and other things.

BEN WATTENBERG: Was that as a result of a referendum? The three strikes and youíre out sentencing provision?


PATRICK BASHAM: Itís also possible I think though that even if we were to agree that Californians are unhappy that they would be that much unhappier if they didnít have these mechanisms and instruments of direct democracy. I mean thereís nowhere, thereís no state that has an instrument or instruments of direct democracy that wants to get rid of it. It remains an incredibly popular thing and itís also very popular in the half of the country that doesnít have it. Itís something that has always appealed to most people for a variety of reasons; itís something that has never appealed to most politicians and itís something interestingly that does not appeal to many special interest groups. I mean, Iím always curious about the conviction that special interest groups dominate this domain. I mean states like New Jersey and other states in the Midwest that donít have direct democracy. The campaigns to ensure that that doesnít change are led by well-financed, wealthy special interest groups who prefer a tight, closed system of representative government that they dominate or at the very least influence in a way that they fear they cannot.

BEN WATTENBERG: And you like the idea of them being made nervous by the possibility of recall.

PATRICK BASHAM: I like the idea of anyone who has the power to limit my freedom and liberty being very nervous about the prospect of exercising that power.

BEN WATTENBERG: Itís interesting, Iíve just been reading over the history of the whole World War II era and the imprisonment, I guess, of the American-Japanese population. That was not done by referendum. That was done by the congress of the United States. There was a governor, Earl Warren. There was a president, Franklin Roosevelt. This was done through the political process. Now could this have been done by the referendum? It could not. It probably would have been ruled out by the Supreme Court if it had been done that way.

PATRICK BASHAM: I mean, one of the great dangers of direct democracy is that minorities will be discriminated against or persecuted. And from time to time that is how the vote goes. But when that happens, as you suggest, the courts usually overturn it, and so what you find is that in terms of the direct democracy legislation that actually lives in our everyday lives, itís fairly moderate and certainly stands up to scrutiny vis-a-vie what the legislature produces.

BEN WATTENBERG: What has caused this rather stark increase of the numbers of initiatives and referenda in the last dozen years or so? It has been rather stark.

PATRICK BASHAM: Itís two things - I mean, first itís the general concern about how the political system works and how unresponsive and unrepresentative it appears to be. So thatís the fuel, but whatís turned the key is the growth and technology that makes the initiative campaigns more easy to execute, more effective, more successful. And the money in the political system that is able to, you know, pay for all of this campaigning that takes place.

JOHN HASKELL: Thereís an industry thatís grown up around initiative campaigns. The key for people who have the position that I do is that youíve got unaccountable elites presenting issues to voters in the initiative process. These things really arenít grassroots. You know, itís an artificial turf thing. The initiative movement in the í90s, you know, picked up steam. It was a great increase starting in the í70s, more initiatives, more referenda and it instigated by what has ended up being an industry of people who can gather the petitions, put things on the ballot. What weíre talking about is unaccountable elites to be in a position to put things in front of voters. Itís better if you have accountable elites making decisions rather than unaccountable elites framing issues. And the way issues are framed in direct democracy is often very simple. You know something like affirmative action. You either have 'hey, weíre going to have it at the state level or not' you know. As opposed to 'Well, maybe police forces need to have some preference whereas college admissions...'

BEN WATTENBERG: Yes, and the way you have it now is one woman, Sandra Day OíConnor, decides for all of us.

JOHN HASKELL: Well thereís that and thatís certainly not democratic.

BEN WATTENBERG: No. no. It wouldnít seem that way.

PATRICK BASHAM: Two points on what Johnís saying: I mean, one is that most legislative votes no matter how complex or complicated the legislation on the issue, come down to yes/no votes. Thatís how things are done rightly or wrongly.

BEN WATTENBERG: On referenda.

PATRICK BASHAM: Well, yes but it does that in the legislature. No matter how brilliant someone is, how knowledgeable they are about an issue, how deeply they care about the general...

BEN WATTENBERG: Well, except you get these six-hundred-page bills that has got a lot of things that you would never get on a ballot.

PATRICK BASHAM: I agree. Thatís right. But the point is, it still comes down to a yes/no vote and in todayís system of representative democracy very few - if any--of those who vote have read the six-hundred pages. Okay. Theyíre not that much more informed necessarily than many who choose to vote in a referendum...

BEN WATTENBERG: Theyíve had the staff read it and the staff has had interns read it...

PATRICK BASHAM: And then those unaccountable elites tell them what they should do, so there are unaccountable elites having great influence in both types of democracy. The other point is that the average voter, who I think is far more savvy than the average political scientist gives him or her credit for, is able to see through quite frequently many of the more self interested and ridiculous proposals. Thatís why most petition drives fail; thatís why most initiative questions that actually reach the ballot fail at that stage; itís why California is having a recall election for the first time in thirty-two tries.

BEN WATTENBERG: We had on a recent program Fareed Zakaria, who is an author and is the editor of Newsweek International, and he asks the question is there such a thing as too much democracy? And I guess that would be leaning toward your proposition that this initiative and recall and referendum is just too damn much of this. That we ought to have - that the idea of something like a federal reserve bank which is really semiautonomous is a good idea, and is not banged upon by the congress or the president or the voters all the time.

JOHN HASKELL: Well, and I actually feel that representative democracy is more democratic than direct democracy in the sense that youíve got better protections for minority rights; youíve got representatives who are representing varied interests, as opposed to the opinions that are expressed in direct democracy on a single issue. And you also have the accountability. Accountability is a very important part of democracy and, I mean, itís the central representative democracy and I think in some sense, you know, that I would argue that it makes representative democracy more democratic than direct democracy.

PATRICK BASHAM: His very serious and important concern is that you donít want to put the cart before the horse. If you place all your emphasis on democracy you can easily lose sight of the importance of freedom and liberty, and thatís clearly the case. And he wants our emphasis to be on freedom.


PATRICK BASHAM: Thatís right. What I think he overlooks, or is perhaps not aware of, is that certainly for the last quarter of a century the people through the guise of direct democracy have done a better job on balance, of protecting freedom and liberty than has the average legislature. I think itís important to remember that a lot of the perspective on this issue stems from the kind of outcomes one seeks and is concerned about being on the receiving end of. You know, when direct democracy, as John was saying, when it first got going early in the twentieth century it was sort of a leftist strategy and many business interests and conservatist Republicans were very concerned about it.
Today the unions who used to be for it are against it. A lot of liberals are against it. You know, we need to separate what policy outcomes I want from whether this is good or bad for the system, regardless of whether it helps liberal X or conservative Y.

JOHN HASKELL: I think thatís the important thing - is the process and the system. Whatís in the public interest is more a process question that it is...

BEN WATTENBERG: Yes, I know, but invariably the liberal thinks that whatís in the public interest is liberal legislation and the conservatives that itís conservative legislation...

JOHN HASKELL: Right. But people can focus on process. George Will has written on this question. Heís against the initiative referendum stuff and itís because - and he likes the outcomes on affirmative action and on taxes in the main, so some people do look beyond that.

BEN WATTENBERG: Few. Few. Because itís very hard to divorce your own feelings from the process. Do you all think this is a fad or a real symptom of ongoing unhappiness of the polity?

PATRICK BASHAM: I think the growth is partly about the latter. A crude public response to an unrepresentative, unresponsive political system. But ironically those who are not in favor of direct democracy, I think they can continue to sleep well at night because this is not going to spread across the country. Itís limited to half the country as it is. Most of the activity takes place in California and a few other states. So, we have to bear in mind that although these direct democracy instruments have been around for a long time, theyíre not used successfully that often and theyíre not about to sweep the country. Theyíre not able to sweep the country in the way that other political movements have done in the past.

JOHN HASKELL: You know, of course I donít agree with the notion that itís an unresponsive political system. I think a lot of the anger is because people in legislative positions are too responsive. What Patrick said I think is exactly right. Itís not probably going to spread that far. On the other hand, I think there probably will be incrementally more of it and I think, you know, what happened in this country, and particularly beginning in the í60s and í70s, is that you brought far more people into the political system. I mean, you know, itís not necessarily a matter of unhappiness. I think itís a healthier political system when you have African-Americans voting, you know, everywhere in the country; when women have equal rights; when all sorts of groups are being involved more and that just leads to more clashes. I mean, youíve got a congress, for example, that has Maxine Waters and Tom Delay in it. Theyíre not strange. Theyíre representing constituencies in the country. I mean, thatís what the countryís like now. You have a great diversity of people and thereís going to be some people in the political system who are upset and are going to try to get things on the ballot if they have that right and thatís not going to change.

BEN WATTENBERG: Okay, on that note, John Haskell and Patrick Basham, thank you very much for joining us. And thank you. Please remember to send us your comments via email. It enables us to try to make Think Tank a better program. For Think Tank, Iím Ben Wattenberg.


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Funding for this program is provided by:

At Pfizer weíre spending over five billion dollars looking for the cures of the future. We have twelve thousand scientists and health experts who firmly believe the only thing incurable is our passion. Pfizer. Life is our lifeís work.

Additional funding is provided by the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the John M. Olin Foundation, the Bernard and Irene Schwartz Foundation, and the Smith Richardson Foundation.

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