"Democracy Derailed: Initiative Campaigns and the Power of Money," by David S. Broder. Harcourt. 244 pages. $23.
In the 19th century, when robber barons and bosses controlled many state legislatures, reformers introduced a new political tool called the initiative. It was democracy unadulterated: reform measures put directly onto ballots by petition, empowering citizens to decide important issues for themselves.
The concept flourished; 24 states and hundreds of cities now have some form of initiative. The progressive dream of the people taking charge is, it seems, alive and well.
But a funny thing happened on the way to Utopia. In 1978, Proposition 13, a measure to cap property taxes, got onto the ballot in California. Not only did Prop. 13 sail through, it opened the initiative floodgate. Oregon alone had 97 initiatives in 1997-98.
During the same cycle, a whopping $257 million was spent on supporting or opposing hundreds of initiatives nationwide. There is no end in sight.
Now comes David S. Broder to argue in "Democracy Derailed: Initiative Campaigns and the Power of Money" that the nation's political stability is under assault.
The initiative movement, Broder argues in this concise, cogent political analysis, "is a far cry from the dream of direct democracy cherished by the early 19th century reformers."
It has spawned a cottage industry of professional petition-collectors, lawyers and public-relations experts. Costs have zoomed. Anyone who walks into a consultant's office with an idea for an intiative must produce at least $1 million up front or be ushered out. In fact, the expense of mounting or defeating an initiative has climbed so high that the field is largely left to big corporations, special interests or -- most disturbing -- hugely wealthy individuals.
Complex issues like assisted suicide and affirmative action are reduced to stark yes-or-no decisions. Citizens are misled by slick ad campaigns that rarely explain an initiative's consequences (reducing business regulations or lowering someone's taxes may be the hidden agenda).
Not all initiatives are the sinster tools of monied interests, of course. Many promote worthy causes. Broder's concern is that their popularity and vulnerability to manipulation will undermine, even replace, the nation's time-tested system of representative government.
If big issues can be decided by vox populi -- a process the computer age makes all the easier -- then who needs clunky old Congress or state legislatures?
Broder concludes convincingly that the checks and balances of James Madison's Constitution are a surer, safer bet than "the seductive simplicity" of initiatives.
A flaw lies at the heart of this, however, one Broder acknowledges: The initiative movement is spurred on by widespread disgust with politicians who seem too gun-shy or beholden to lobbyists to tackle hot-button issues. But while many lawmakers see the dangers of a runaway initiative movement, they don't apply the brakes for fear of offending voters -- confirming their cowardly reputation!
Still, this alarm-bell of a book deserves -- and is likely to command -- wide attention. Broder is, after all, a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the Washington Post and a certified "Big Foot" among journalists -- an opinion maker's opinion maker. That should help move the initiative boom "into the arena of public discussion and political debate" where it belongs.
Robert Laird, Op-Ed Page editor for the New York Daily News, spent 11 years in New York government and politics, including eight as deputy press secretary to Mayor John V. Lindsay and two as press secretary to Gov. Hugh Carey, and has reported on and written about New York City since 1963.
Pub Date: 04/02/00