Democratic Delusions / Edition 1

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It is becoming common in many states: the opportunity to reclaim government from politicians by simply signing a petition to put an initiative on the ballot and then voting for it. Isn't this what America ought to be about? Proposition 13 in California's 1978 election paved the way; the past decade saw more than 450 such actions; now in many states direct legislation dominates the political agenda and defines political—and public-opinion.

While this may appear to be democracy in action, Richard Ellis warns us that the initiative process may be putting democracy at risk. In Democratic Delusions he offers a critical analysis of the statewide initiative process in the United States, challenging readers to look beyond populist rhetoric and face political reality.

Through engaging prose and illuminating (and often amusing) anecdotes, Ellis shows readers the "dark side" of direct democracy—specifically the undemocratic consequences that result from relying too heavily on the initiative process. He provides historic context to the development of initiatives-from their Populist and Progress roots to their accelerated use in recent decades-and shows the differences between initiative processes in the states that use them. Most important, while acknowledging the positive contribution of initiatives, Ellis shows that there are reasons to use them carefully and sparingly: ill-considered initiatives can subvert normal legislative checks and balances, undermine the deliberative process, and even threaten the rights of minority groups through state-sanctioned measures.

Today's initiative process, Ellis warns, is dominated not by ordinary citizens but by politicians, perennial activists, wealthy interests, and well-oiled machines. Deliberately misleading language on the ballot confuses voters and influences election results. And because many initiatives are challenged in the courts, these ostensibly democratic procedures have now put legislation in the hands of the judiciary. Throughout his book he cites examples drawn from states in which initiatives are used intensively—Oregon, California, Colorado, Washington, and Arizona-as well as others in which their use has increased in recent years.

Undoing mistakes enacted by initiative can be more difficult than correcting errors of legislatures. As voters prepare to consider the host of initiatives that will be offered in the 2002 elections, this book can help put those efforts in a clearer light. Democratic Delusions urges moderation, attempting to teach citizens to be at least as skeptical of the initiative process as they are of the legislative process—and to appreciate the enduring value of the representative institutions they seek to circumvent.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Is the ballot initiative the truest form of democracy, as its supporters claim? No, according to political scientist Ellis (Founding the American Presidency) in this devastating analysis of how the initiative game is played. Only rarely and accidentally, he contends, is the public interest served by the initiative process. In the 1990s, for instance, initiative activists in Oregon, Washington and Colorado gained tremendous visibility and power without any accountability to "the people" they claimed to represent. On one hand, such initiatives are still political, with money and well-organized special interests enjoying powerful advantages; on the other hand, "the people" themselves usually have conflicting interests that legislatures try to balance, but initiatives can ignore. The ballot initiative's first, Populist era American backers saw it as a panacea for confronting entrenched corporate power. Progressive era backers 100 years ago saw it more modestly, as a "gun behind the door," seldom used but always handy to force legislative action. Both groups were misguided, however, says Ellis. Most Progressive reforms passed without the initiative, while at other times, initiatives clogged the ballot (in Oregon in 1912 there were 28 initiatives). Indeed, Ellis shows, the initiative can be counterproductive: the vote for women was significantly delayed by it, he argues politicians were far more supportive of woman suffrage than were voters. Historically revealing, and distressingly up-to-date (he includes examples from the 2000 elections), Ellis masterfully uses vivid cases to illustrate broad underlying problems. This is a book to crystallize simmering discontent. (Feb.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780700611560
  • Publisher: University Press of Kansas
  • Publication date: 2/1/2002
  • Series: Studies in Government and Public Policy
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 274
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.62 (d)

Table of Contents



1. A Tale of Two Initiatives

2. The Initiative Revolution

3. The Business of Signatures

4. In the Name of the People

5. Majority Rules

6. The Initiative Goes to Court

7. The Myth of a Golden Age




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