Illustration By Shawn Turner

In 1995, conservative populist Kevin Phillips, a former aide to Richard Nixon, predicted that the cravenness of politicians together with political party entrenchment in Washington would widen the gap between the governed and their governors and result in the increased use of direct-democracy techniques—initiative, recall, referendums.

It’s a lofty thought, really, that individuals can take greater control of their government. By using direct democracy to try to micro-manage government, the worst aspects of democracy—hard-working people voting on things they don’t have the time to know or care about—are undermined. These days, elected officials are not allowed to act on their conscience but must act according to public vagaries. The California recall can undercut the principles this country is founded on—and if the recall is successful there, there’ll likely be more recalls across the country. In California itself, local recalls are now being mounted against a district attorney and a city council.

Phillips came to his conclusion about the republic’s falling star reluctantly.

“Back in 1968, I had hopes for a more or less normal realignment in the U.S. party system, and I had some minor recurring hope for the multiparty election process in 1992,” he said. “Now my doubts that the U.S. party system can overcome the bipartisan entrenchment of Washington have grown too great.”

Phillips wasn’t the only one sensing a change in the tide. While Washington went its oblivious way of campaign “contributions” and pandering, public disenchantment and alienation grew year by year, and voter turnout declined election by election.

“The old Progressive answer of extending direct authority and intervention to the citizens may be the only answer to present-day shortcomings in representative democracy,” the late, great political scientist Everett Carll Ladd wrote that same year.

Remembering recall

The initiative petition was used infrequently in the past, but the 1978 passage of California’s tax-cutting Proposition 13 ignited initiative fever across the nation. It would be used for everything from medical marijuana in the District of Columbia to the sale of fur on Beverly Hills’ Rodeo Drive.

Now the recall is poised for a similar dramatic advance. It’s a cliché that trends start in California and move into other states. If the chestnut is true, then a successful recall of Gov. Gray Davis will be the first of many recalls across the country.

In the early 1900s, techniques of direct democracy disappointed those who expected them to create a political paradise, and that caused their popularity to abate. But there is no public memory of those disillusionments, and so the elixir of direct democracy has returned to the fore.

Direct-democracy methods were first proposed in the United States by Populists in the 1890s and then taken up by Progressives in the early 20th century. Then as now, the political parties were obstacles to change because they were in the grip of corporate power. The enactment and adoption of direct-democracy mechanisms during the Progressive Era was accompanied by a utopian belief in their reform potential.

The Progressives were affluent, elitist and racist. Their affluence put them out of touch with how working people lived in their daily routine. They believed that if people at the grass roots were given the tools to run the government, they would put aside other concerns (such as earning livings and building families) and become educated about the mechanics and administration of government. That working people have little time to become educated in administrative management or zero-based budgeting seems not to have occurred to the comfortable Progressives.

By 1918, initiative and recall had come to about a third of the states (Nevada approved initiative and referendum in 1904 and added recall in 1912). There were some early successes in their use to curb the power of corporations, protect workers and implement political reforms. But initiatives never fulfilled the promises that had been made for them, and reform was not to be accomplished with simple public votes, like a wave of a magic wand. The nation’s problems were too deep-seated. As a result, initiative and recall were used with restraint, until the turning point of 1978’s Proposition 13.

In Nevada, during the 74 years from creation of the initiative and referendum in 1904 until 1978, petition drives succeeded in putting measures on the statewide ballot only 14 times. And when it did happen, it tended to deal with practicalities rather than sweeping changes, as in the case of 1930s Nevada ballot measures involving old-age pensions and fish and game issues.

But in the quarter-century since 1978, initiative petitions have appeared on the Nevada ballot 15 times, often proposing fundamental changes in the political system, such as term limits.

John Kennedy warned of endless shifts in popular opinion, which would make it more difficult for politicians to do the jobs they were elected to do.

Republic on the rocks

The disenchantment that drives direct democracy is fueled by many factors—spineless political leaders, exploitive or indifferent journalism and inadequate education among citizens.

U.S. schools have done a poor job of teaching the difference between a republic and a democracy, and opinion surveys reflect that ignorance. The founding fathers believed in representative government and avoided the term democracy. They envisioned a government in which governors do what they think is best for the public, not what the public opinion of the moment wants them to do.

In his inaugural speech, Washington spoke of the urgency of “the preservation … of the republican model of government.”

Thomas Jefferson said, “Modern times … discovered the only device by which rights can be secured, to wit: government by the people, acting not in person but by representatives chosen by themselves.” Chief Justice John Marshall agreed, saying the difference between a republic and democracy “is like that between order and chaos.”

In 1955, John Kennedy similarly lamented “a narrow view of the role of United States senator—a view that assumes the people of Massachusetts sent me to Washington to serve merely as a seismograph to record shifts in popular opinion.”

But by then, appreciation for representative government was already in decline. In civics and government classes, the terms republic and democracy were—and are—used more or less interchangeably, much as 1950s red-baiters used communism and socialism interchangeably.

Today, opinion surveys by the Kaiser Family Foundation suggest the public has little appreciation for representative government, in the sense of officials using their judgment rather than reflecting fluctuations in popular opinion.

Only when Kaiser’s survey questions were phrased to elicit a particular response (such as a reminder that “at times in the past, the majority of Americans have held positions later judged to be wrong, such as their support of racial segregation”) did respondents support republican government.

Journalism’s role in the decline of the republic

Meanwhile, journalism—mainly broadcast journalism—has nearly forsaken its responsibility to cover government. Only city councils get anything like respectable news coverage. The Washoe County Commission attracts television only when there is conflict—angry hearings on a cat litter plant in Hungry Valley, for instance. Coverage of state government and state issues has been virtually abandoned by television newsrooms.

Only when there are human-interest stories (Nevada Gov. Kenny Guinn announcing the Patriot Fund charity) or when there is news that is impossible to ignore (Guinn announcing the test results on anthrax found in Reno a month after Sept. 11) does television news pay attention to state government. Far more common in what passes for government coverage is long lines at the Department of Motor Vehicles after a new computer system is brought on line—a computer system that was ignored when it was being planned, funded, purchased and installed.

Print and wire service reporters do a good job of covering government. Unfortunately, most people get their news from television. Since television reporters rarely appeared at the Nevada Legislature this year, people may not have known there was a legislature going on—until the dramatic closing days, when the television stations suddenly showed up to cover the tax impasse. Thus the coverage was distorted—after 18 weeks of productive lawmaking, the public was given a short glimpse of stalemate.

Moreover, government coverage is tinged with impatience for the details of governing and derision toward elected officials. Planning, policy making, regulation, protection—these are dismissed in the newsroom as BOPSAT stories (bunch of people sitting around talking), not visual, not good television. And by reporting on government conflicts and fiascos to the near exclusion of all else, television creates a nonexistent “reality” for its viewers. Governance is portrayed as a commodity not meriting tax dollars. Context is annihilated.

Republic guard

But by far the greatest source of alienation from government that is driving direct democracy is the cowardly behavior of elected officials. Politicians on their bellies are difficult to respect, difficult to regard as competent, difficult to see as indispensable.

Founding fathers like George Washington would have been appalled by the uses of direct democracy to override representative government.

Since the recall election was certified in California, Davis has gone to great lengths to pay off various interest groups to try to turn them out for him at the polls—exactly the kind of behavior that drives people to methods like recall in the first place. For instance, Davis previously opposed and vetoed driver licenses for illegal aliens. Now, faced with the need to turn out Latino voters, he has turned on a dime and embraced the proposal.

And, of course, categorical promises such as pledges not to raise taxes under any circumstances generate further cynicism. It is hard today to imagine a scene like the second Nixon/Kennedy debate, when both 1960 presidential candidates promised to raise taxes if the national security or the safety of the economy required it.

In the California Legislature, lawmakers have been known to sit frozen in their seats, failing to vote yes or no (or even abstain), immobilized by terror of offending anyone on either side of pending legislation—as when 18 legislators sat mute during a vote on a financial-privacy measure for fear of angering either privacy advocates or banks.

The unwillingness of political leaders to talk back to the public is disheartening and provides no motivation for loyalty to “the system.” Emboldened by the cowardice of politicians who no longer talk back, fringe figures have become more important and credible in politics.

David Broder, columnist and author of a book on the perils of direct democracy, writes, “All of these forces—from scandals to partisanship to slanted or uninformed journalism—have helped to denigrate the reputation of representative government in this country.”

Laws without government

The appeal of initiative, referendum and recall to the public has obscured the fact that the public rarely gets to use it, and it has been taken over by money and power.

The techniques of direct democracy have become just another tainted part of a tainted political system, out of the reach of the public.

The Progressives saw direct democracy as a way to rein in predatory corporate power, politicians and special interests. Today, direct democracy is successfully used almost exclusively by predatory corporate power, politicians and special interests. A statewide ballot measure costs hundreds of thousands of dollars in Nevada, millions in larger states, and so initiative, referendum, and recall are no longer democratic tools but toys used by the Big Boys.

Plenty of activists file petitions for circulation, but it is rare that they qualify for the ballot when they are not backed by big money. A teachers association and a casino lobby group have gotten measures on the Nevada ballot by paying a bounty per signature, but students or parents or gambling tax advocates would find signature gathering hard going. Direct democracy has been the subject of a hostile takeover by those it was supposed to reform.

In Nevada in 1958, anti-labor politicians used the initiative to put a measure on the ballot that made it more difficult to put initiatives on the ballot, all in an effort to limit the power of labor unions to use the initiative. In California, environmentalists filed a package of five initiatives that critics said would simply shut down the state’s timber industry.

Broder’s book, Democracy Derailed: Initiative Campaigns and the Power of Money, barely touches on the role of public disgust in making direct democracy popular. But he is eloquent on its dangers.

“At the start of a new century … a new form of government is spreading in the United States. It is alien to the spirit of the Constitution and its careful system of checks and balances. … [T]his method of lawmaking has become the favored tool of millionaires and interest groups that use their wealth to achieve their own policy goals. … Exploiting the public’s disdain for politics and distrust of politicians, it is now the most uncontrolled and unexamined area of power politics. It has given the United States something that seems unthinkable—not a government of laws but laws without government.”

The initiative and recall were designed for the use of ordinary citizens, but politicians (who already have access to the formal representative lawmaking system) have hijacked these petition processes for their own purposes. University of Denver political scientist Daniel Smith has used the minority control tax initiative of Nevada’s Jim Gibbons as an example of “using the measure as a self promotion tool to advance his stature in the gubernatorial race that year.”

And the failings of direct legislation have been demonstrated repeatedly. Boston College political scientist Kay Lehman Schlozman recently noted one famous consequence of pure democracy: “Pilate saith unto them, ‘What shall I do then with Jesus…?’ They all say unto him, ‘Let him be crucified.’ “

Since initiatives became all the rage after California’s Proposition 13, petitions have wreaked havoc on the operations of government. Some states, particularly California, have been whipsawed between initiatives requiring certain types of spending and initiatives limiting taxes. Many initiatives are poorly drafted; others conflict with existing law or with other initiatives.

Theodore Roosevelt formed the Progressive Party in 1912 in part because he could not gain the Republican nomination for president.

Gibbons, for instance, failed to cross-reference the provisions of his minority control tax petition (which allows as few as eight of the 63 members of the Legislature to halt any tax increase) with the rest of the constitution and so did not anticipate the consequence of a budget being approved by a majority but the taxes to pay for it needing a supermajority.

Of course, critics who speak up against the methods of direct democracy are inevitably faced with rhetoric suggesting they are elitist or contemptuous of the public: “They want to take power away from the people and give it to the politicians.”

But the fact is that it’s the politicians who have used direct-democracy techniques to manipulate the system and accomplish victories through minority control that could not be achieved at the polling place by—you know—actually getting the most votes.

Thus, it is possible, even likely that in a California recall election a governor can be turned out of office in favor of a candidate who wins millions of fewer votes (Davis must win a majority of the vote, but his replacement can slip through with only a plurality).

Initiative petitions are making states increasingly ungovernable. The spread of recalls would extend that trend.

Open season on politicians

If Davis is recalled, it will be open season on public officials, who will spend their time looking over their shoulders in fear of recalls. All we need is for politicians to be more craven.

The spread of recall would create instability in a constitutional political system that has been remarkably stable for over two centuries. Some California figures are already planning a recall against whoever (if anyone) replaces Davis. The online magazine Slate has posted a guide for the residents of the 18 states—including Nevada—that have recall provisions on how to recall their governors. A recall petition has been filed against Nevada Gov. Kenny Guinn.

Anti-tax activist Ted Costa, who started the recall against California’s governor, says he decided on the effort in November, the same month Davis was re-elected and two months before he took office for a second term. Davis was sworn in on Jan. 7, and the notice of recall was filed on Feb. 5. Recalls offer the possibility of a permanent, perpetual political campaign that never ends.

“The Progressives’ bequest has perverted the founders’ desire for trusteeship government, which is based on the essential need of a busy, distracted electorate to place faith in representatives it elects …,” University of Virginia’s Larry Sabato writes. “Tragically, California has adopted another, far less successful form of democracy, a kind of ‘mob-ocracy’ with the tyranny of transient majorities in never-ending elections and initiatives. The recall (successful or not) will inevitably lead to other recalls. …”

Direct legislation has already undermined the stability of state governments. The deadlock that occurred in Nevada’s Legislature this year happened in six states. In Oregon, once the model for wise use of initiatives and now another instance of their abuse, five special sessions of the Legislature failed to break a fiscal deadlock, and the state’s schools closed.

Moreover, the techniques of direct democracy, once unleashed, do not necessarily have to stop with initiatives, referenda and recalls. There are other arrows in the Progressive quiver. Proposals offered by the Progressives but never adopted can be revived, such as recall of judicial decisions, which Progressive Party founder Theodore Roosevelt described as necessary because “it is both absurd and degrading to make a fetish of a judge or of anyone else.”

You don’t like the Nevada Supreme Court’s July decision in the Nevada legislative tax deadlock? Recall it.

We may treat government with contempt if we wish, but we need to be aware of the consequence—at this rate, pretty soon we’ll be running it ourselves.

There is no way to seriously challenge the proposition that many politicians deserve the loathing citizens have for them. People stopped respecting their government when the government stopped respecting the people, and politicians who pander to voters deserve what they get. But the interests of politicians are not the issue. It is the strength and viability of the U.S. political system that is at risk in episodes like the California recall.

In 1968, Robert Kennedy was speaking at Creighton University in Nebraska, criticizing the class inequities in college draft deferments. One of the students asked, “But isn’t the Army one way of getting young people out of the ghettos…?”

Kennedy responded, “Here at a Catholic university, how can you say that we can deal with the problems of the poor by sending them to Vietnam? There is a great moral force in the United States about the wrongs of the federal government and all the mistakes Lyndon Johnson has made and how Congress has failed to pass legislation dealing with civil rights. And yet when it comes down to you yourselves and your own individual lives, then you say students should be draft deferred. … Look around you. How many black faces do you see here, how many American Indians, how many Mexican Americans?”

When was the last time we heard a politician challenge the public in this fashion instead of kowtowing to the public’s basest instincts or lowest expectations?

Initiative, referendum, recall and other methods of direct democracy are often described as “reforms.” There is no easy cure-all or magic potion for the failings of government, and the simplism of direct democracy can’t magically solve the problems we face today any more than it did a century ago. Only our own reform of ourselves, our commitment and hard work as citizens and educators and journalists and especially politicians can do that.

If politicians continue to treat office-seeking as more important than governance, direct democracy will continue to grow and spread. If they recognize the nature of the crisis and develop backbones, if they start to talk back to the public instead of pandering to it, we can start reclaiming the republic, and the threat of direct democracy will again abate.

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Dennis Myers

Dennis Myers was the news editor of the Reno News & Review. He was a journalist for more than four decades. In 1987-88 he was chief deputy secretary of state of Nevada. He was coauthor of Uniquely...