on April 10, 2000
An odd phenomenon of American democracy is that trust of government and voter turnout has dropped as the franchise has expanded. As the legally empowered citizenry becomes more diverse, its differences become more difficult to deny. This poses a problem for representative democracy - good representatives who take the concerns of many into consideration produce laws through compromises that rarely constitute wholesale victories for any particular faction. The result is the disenchantment of many, especially some of the more newly enfranchised populations (voter turnout is particularly low, for instance, amongst young people and African Americans). The traditionally powerful - the wealthy - have, since 1979 discovered a new way to exert their dominance, in the guise of an old populist device: initiative and referendum.
David Broder's new book touches on the philosophical origins of I&R, but its real value is its exposure of the money behind the industry. "Democracy Derailed" debunks the notion that ballot initiatives empower regular citizens by explaining the million-dollar minimum price tag to put a measure on the ballot in California. Broder details the layers of lawyers, media consultants, paid signature gatherers, and political professionals involved in simplifying and distorting the yes-or-no measures that have been mutating state laws in California and other states.
The reality of I &R is chilling, yet its illusion of citizen empowerment is alluring. So, "Democracy Derailed" is not only fascinating and compelling, but it is also a terribly important book. The mechanics of democracy rarely generate the attention of issues they are designed to address. It takes a writer of Broder's stature to draw attention to a subject such as this. Will it be enough to stem the dangerous tide of I&R? Maybe not, but its an important step in the right direction. "Democracy Derailed" is an excellent compliment to 1998's "Paradise Lost : California's Experience, America's Future" by Peter Schrag and last year's "A Necessary Evil" by Gary Wills. Alan Rosenthal's "The Decline of Representative Democracy" takes a more academic approach to the state of state lawmaking and is also excellent.
on July 7, 2000
Being a Californian, and one who works for a State Senator, I was interested to see what an outsider would have to say about our Great State. After chuckling about what some in the national media have said about California politics, I was surprised to see that Broder did a decent job in summarizing the recent proposition campaign in 1998.
His book is a case study that follows the money, and the advertising campaign tactics meant to trick and deceive voters. Unfortunately, this tale is all too common in Californian's high priced television driven political process. Broder could have chosen any major proposition ballot initiative in this state and produced similar results.
However, because Broder's case study and thesis is such a common occurrence in California, anyone with just a meager understanding of politics would have found the conclusion of this book axiomatic. Of course, this speaks to the well researched and truthful nature of the book, but I picked it up looking for special insight into the political process from a veteran reporter. Unfortunately, Broder's book shines no more light on the problem of money and the lack of checks and balances in proposition campaigns than already exists.
I don't want to sound like a snob, and in all honesty, I would recommend this book as a primer in California's proposition campaigns, but it only provided a basic understanding and little more.
A clear problem exists, and Broder does a good service in pointing it out so eloquently.
on April 4, 2000
Broder's book opens a long awaited national dialogue. As journalist, he reports the story of state initiative politics tellingly. Five stars for this reporting. As national opinion analyst, however, I place a minus-one star on his solution to the problems in initiative lawmaking.
In reporting the advance of direct democracy, Broder suggests a bias against citizens as legislators. He entertains a stated attachment to Madison's skeptical view of people in this role. Absent is the counter balancing view of James Wilson whose role in the Constitutional Convention was second only to Madison's. According to Wilson, the people as ultimate lawmakers under our Constitution are denied direct statutory lawmaking procedures primarily because of lack of technology. Wilson's view finds no place in Broder's appreciation of the Framers' Constitution.
The initiative industry problematic--not unlike the admitted monied special interest industry on representative lawmakers--is ably described. But Broder here fails to see a solution to the former other than in restrictions on citizen access to initiatives. The battery of sensible systemic reforms offered in a 1992 report of the Institute for Governmental Studies (pp.210-212)is dispatched with the comment: "nothing came of these recommendations." He fails to explore the possibilities were these reforms legislatively implemented. What's wrong in the initiative process could easily be corrected if representative legislatures chose to do so. This too Broder ignores.
Having biased his report from the outset against initiative lawmaking, Broder engages in disinformation about Philadelphia II. According to Broder it "calls for essentially creating a new Constitution based on direct democracy." This garbles Mike Gravel's remarks at a May 1999 Initiative and Referendum Institute national conference. Philadelphia II is a public citizen organization founded by the former U.S. Senator sponsoring the Direct Democracy Initiative (DDI). The DDI is a proposed federal law to permit people to enact laws in every jurisdiction of the United States. The measure additionally establishes legislative procedures for deliberation (where none exist today) and a ministerial agency (every representative legislative body in the U.S. has one) whereby citizens, assembled with the aid of modern communications technology, will be able to act directly as "A Legislature of the People." Neither in word nor intent will the DDI alter our present system of representative democracy. We (I include myself as Secretary of Philadelphia II in the interest of full disclosure) only seek to add to that governing process the people via the direct democracy procedure of Initiative.
For Broder "the choice is easy. I would choose James Madison's design over Mike Gravel's without a moment's hesitation" (pp. 239-243). Hopefully, after a closer examination of the people's century-long legislative record via initiatives and with the addition today of necessary deliberative support procedures included in the DDI, Mr. Broder may come to see the wisdom in Framer James Wilson's view: "[a]ll power is originally in the people and should be exercised by them in person, if that could be done with convenience, or even with little difficulty." If this were to come about, David S. Broder will have trumped himself.
As a political consultant working in California, much of what Broder writes is familiar to me. That said, I am certain that, for many Americans, this text will be their introduction to this rather peculiar facet of democracy in the western USA.
Broder does a good job covering the topic in broad strokes, from its origins, to the days when it was used infrequently, to its use now, often by powerful and wealthy interest groups trying to push their agenda, often with very deceptive tactics. While he does a good jobs on these topics, as well as bemoaning these initiatives impact on representitive democracy, he misses several important subjects.
Most important, he does not deal with the implication of California's constitution (our basis law) being often radically altered by a vote of 50%+1 of the people who show up at the polls. Nor does he deal with how the legislature now often won't touch issues, figiuring that they will be covered in the initiative process. Most importantly of all, he does not lay enough of the blame on elected representitives whose failure to act in face of serious problems has led to many of Californias most famous initiatives (prop 13 and the problem of skyrocketing property taxes being the best example).
As I said, this is a good introduction, but a lot more could be written on this important topic.
on March 29, 2000
David Broder's new book is an outstanding example of what political journalism OUGHT to be. Unlike many political books, this is not just a tell-all rehash of conflicting personalities, but a thought-provoking assessment of an important issue that confronts the nation. Before reading this book, I naively assumed that ballot initiatives were inherently a good expression of the democratic process. Broder's book reveals how the process can be subverted by well-heeled special interests. I don't always agree with Broder, but he makes me think.
on August 24, 2005
The government as envisioned by the US Constitution consists of three parts: the executive, judicial and the legislative. Interestingly, the founding fathers never included any mention in the Constitution of how the state and local governments should be comprised. For most of America's history, state governments copied the national model to some degree. This has changed since the 1970's, with the introduction of referendums and initiatives in over 20 states and numerous counties, districts, and cities. These two changes have allowed voters to directly influence, change, and often counteract the actions of the three established branches of government. The Constitution defines clear checks and balances between the three branches, and ways by which individuals would be chosen to serve in these branches. But there is no such legal underpinning for the referendum and initiative. The resulting consequences are the subject of this well-thought out and well-referenced book.
The author gives a history of the referendum and initiative in America, how these two ideas entered the public consciousness, and how they have come into legal existence in various states and localities throughout the US. The author then proceeds to describe some of the major initiatives and referendums that have passed and failed, their supporters and opposers, and their effects, both intended and unintended, both on the political process in their jurisdiction, but on other jurisdictions. The author shows how money often becomes the prevailing factor in the formation and acceptance/rejection of a referendum or initiative. Specific cases are studied in detail, especially those in bellwhether states such as California.
The overall image portrayed is that both the initiative and referendum are often instruments of specific industries amd business lobbies, and rarely are ever reflective of issues of general concern to the electorate. Also, both instruments have been used succesfully to limit tax collection, but without the requisite cut in spending. This book also shows how use of both instruments has led to increased bureacracy, paperwork, and lawsuits as more pieces are added to the governing process, without a coherent framework of checks-and-balances.
Oveall, this is a very important book to read, not just for lawmakers, but citizens in general.
on April 8, 2004
David Frohnmayer, president of the University of Oregon, described the degenerating initiative process by saying, "It's no longer citizens fighting the oligopoly. Now it's the oligopoly paying people to act as citizens." An explanation of David S. Broder's feelings on the initiative process would mirror these words. In his "Democracy Derailed: Initiative Campaigns and the Power of Money," Broder makes his convictions known. Although he provides little balance on the issue, he writes a strong, solid message from the anti-initiative camp.
Broder has the skills, experience, and information to make a potent argument against initiative and referendum campaigns. He has a B.A. and a M.A. in political science from the University of Chicago. Starting in 1966, he has been a corespondent for the Washington Post, in which his columns continue to appear every Wednesday and Sunday. In 1973, he was honored with the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished commentary. Broder also appears frequently on television news programs. Views expressed by Broder are often left of center, as shown by recent headlines such as "Would FDR Run Those 9/11 Ads" and "Dean: A Milestone, Not A Millstone."
With his well-established background, it is no wonder that Broder builds firm grounds against the modern initiative and referendum processes. Broder opens "Democracy Derailed" with a well-researched history of the initiative. In tracing back to the Progressivist and Populist movements of the 19th century, Broder hands the reader the "how"s and "why"s of initiative's origins. He then proceeds to show the current condition of the initiative campaign, especially in California, Oregon, and other states that implement it.
The bulk of Broder's book discusses the negative aspects of the progressivist initiative in the current United States. These chiefly concern the influences of powerful entities (such as big businesses, wealthy individuals, and initiative promoters), the undermining of constitutional legislative power, and the lack of public knowledge of detailed issues. Broder essentially argues that, though politicians have a price, the American voters wear an equally low tag. While that may not be the worst aspect of the corrupted initiative, Broder gives it ample space on the pages of "Democracy Derailed." Perhaps the strongest and most frightening detriment of the initiative is its assault on the structure of a democratic republic. This issue is also given plenty of voice from Broder. He also complains about the corrupt system of putting initiatives on ballots. Many initiative-promoting companies pay campaigners per signature for petitions, a practice of questionable integrity. The book leaves nary a stone in the anti-initiative field unturned.
"Democracy Derailed"'s chief downside lies in the fact that Broder makes no effort to break the soil of the field of the initiative benefits. The book starts with the noble origins of the initiative process, then proceeds to indicate that the current process bears no resemblance to those origins. While the current process may be quite different, it still stems from those benevolent origins. Some believe that a few positive elements of those origins remain in the otherwise-corrupt system today. Broder gives little voice to such opinions. The initiative's ability to raise the possibility of issues such as term limits may, in fact, be of benefit to this republic. Though governmental officials should represent the citizenry, they necessarily constitute a small segment of the population with its own interests in mind. There are many intelligent, thinking Americans who see the downfalls of the process as well as the redeeming qualities. However, Broder characterizes some of these people as "a bearded . . . hippie" and others as far-rightists. He includes a few token quotes from initiative rights activists, but usually follows them with rebuttals from the anti-initiative camp. The initiative rights groups may sometimes contain extremists, but they are an important part of the debate over the merits of the initiative process.
As anti-initiative literature, "Democracy Derailed" is impeccable. Broder has his facts straight; he has dotted every "i" and crossed every "t." As a springboard for discussion, the book suffices. A book that gives solid voice to both sides of the issue might be an improvement for fruitful bipartisan debate. Whether Broder intentionally omitted a solid voice for the opposition or whether his habits as a liberal journalist have carried over to the pages of "Democracy Derailed," the only fault with the book is its lack of balance. Some books, however, unlike journalistic media, should be unilateral. David S. Broder's Democracy Derailed is one such book.
on April 10, 2000
Washington Post columnist David Broder has been called the dean of American political journalism. Indeed, he may be one of the last political journalists having a shred of unbiased credibility with the American people. Broder's book nails moneyed interest schemes to subvert the initiative process, but he fails to recognize the people's need for more democracy.
DEMOCRACY DERAILED misses the real purpose of the right of initiative, referendum and recall, which is aptly written in Article II, Section 1 of the California Constitution: "All political power is inherent in the people. Government is instituted for their protection, security and benefit, and they have the right to alter or reform it when the public good may require."
California's Proposition 13 "tax revolt" revived the initiative process and it spread across the country jolting local and state governments, which decried common sense tax limitation as destructive to public education and government services. Time proved Prop 13 opponents wrong. However, it did not resolve government's subversion of voter mandates or special interests using the courts to overturn initiatives, until it became nearly impossible for the people to reform government.
Unfortunately, sovereign power, which is supposed to rest with the people, has been derailed, not only by moneyed interests but by government itself. Clearly, the initiative process is so costly and increasingly restrictive, that ordinary citizens have little time or opportunity to experience their right to participate in self-government.
The condescending view of citizens is nothing new. It began with Plato saying the people were too ignorant and unsophisticated to govern themselves. Many of the founders subscribed to that view. Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine did not. Since then, the majority of people have been increasingly indoctrinated into believing it through constant reminders from political mercenaries, academics, the courts and media elites.
Undoubtedly, Broder's efforts are well-intentioned, but America has already been overly assaulted by selfish interests and battered by the failures of good intentions. And it's rather hypocritical for the elite to use the term "democracy" when they want the people's attention and support, then revert to the term "republic" when they don't.
Though elements of society have become too superficial, self-absorbed and vulnerable to extremes, the elite tend to paint the public with broad strokes of contempt, as evidenced by the growing parade of shallow political books. Alas, it is difficult at best for anyone looking down from such lofty views to understand what it's really like down here in the trenches of democracy.
on April 26, 2000
Broder presents the origins and history of Initiative and lays out many negative aspects pertaining to its modern practice, based on his own perceptions and conclusions. He apparently does not see any good aspects, now or in the future. A dim view indeed, as if it were not possible to improve the process at all.
The most galling point taken by this reviewer is that Broder does not acknowledge that the people are sovereign and have the right to legislate directly, even if they do not always have the means or process in place to do so.
This type of one-sided presentation could serve as a catalog of wrongs to be fixed and might be useful in that respect. However, the shortcomings of the Initiative process have already been addressed in the Direct Democracy Initiative proposal by former Senator Mike Gravel and the Philadelphia II organization. Broder mentions this effort but dismisses it based, apparently, on his foregone conclusion that Initiative is dangerous at all levels.
on May 11, 2000
David Broder takes a serious and thoughtful look at the initiative and referenda process in the US. After developing several case studies from a variety of states, Broder grapple the tough issue of achieving a balance between direct popular control and the Constitution's representative framework. He does a good job of letting both sides speak for themselves rather than imposing his own arguments on people from both sides of the issue who often make their points quite elegantly. While some reviewers are obviously distressed by Broder's rejection of some of their views, I think most readers will find this book an excellent starting place for discussions on initiative and referenda's contribution to democracy and its many meanings.