Educated by Initiative: The Effects of Direct Democracy on Citizens and Political Organizations in the American States


"This body of research not only passes academic muster but is the best guidepost in existence for activists who are trying to use the ballot initiative process for larger policy and political objectives."
--Kristina Wilfore, Executive Director, Ballot Initiative Strategy Center and Foundation

Educated by Initiative moves beyond previous evaluations of public policy to emphasize the educational importance of the initiative process itself. Since a majority of ballots ultimately fail or get overturned by the ...

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United States of America 2004 Trade paperback Fine. No dust jacket. Very good condition, with tight binding, square corners, clean text, and minimal shelf wear. Glued binding. ... Paper back. 225 p. Contains: Illustrations. Includes bibliographical references (pages 201-217) and index. Audience: General/trade. Read more Show Less

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"This body of research not only passes academic muster but is the best guidepost in existence for activists who are trying to use the ballot initiative process for larger policy and political objectives."
--Kristina Wilfore, Executive Director, Ballot Initiative Strategy Center and Foundation

Educated by Initiative moves beyond previous evaluations of public policy to emphasize the educational importance of the initiative process itself. Since a majority of ballots ultimately fail or get overturned by the courts, Smith and Tolbert suggest that the educational consequences of initiative voting may be more important than the outcomes of the ballots themselves. The result is a fascinating and thoroughly-researched book about how direct democracy teaches citizens about politics, voting, civic engagement and the influence of special interests and political parties. Designed to be accessible to anyone interested in the future of American democracy, the book includes boxes (titled "What Matters") that succinctly summarize the authors' data into easily readable analyses.

Daniel A. Smith is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Florida.

Caroline J. Tolbert is Associate Professor of Political Science at Kent State University.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"Smith and Tolbert make a remarkable contribution to the literature on direct democracy, focusing on the educative rather than the instrumental effects of the initiative and referendum. As such, this book highlights the importance of direct democracy, and provides new information as well as an alternative theoretical structure to examine its role in American political life."
--John Allswang, California State University, Los Angeles

"Smith and Tolbert take the claims made by early American advocates of direct democracy and hold them up to the light of rigorous empirical analysis. In so doing, they weave a rich history of the Progressive Era into sophisticated statistical tests that examine how citizens and political organizations respond to opportunities to participate in policy decisions."
--Todd Donovan, Western Washington University

"The citizen initiative feels good to voters, but in Educated by Initiative, Daniel Smith and Caroline Tolbert demonstrate that it's good for our democracy, too."
--Paul Jacobs, President of Citizens in Charge

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780472098705
  • Publisher: University of Michigan Press
  • Publication date: 8/20/2004
  • Pages: 252
  • Product dimensions: 5.96 (w) x 9.32 (h) x 0.97 (d)

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Educated by Initiative
The Effects of Direct Democracy on Citizens and Political Organizations in the American States

By Daniel A. Smith Caroline J. Tolbert
The University of Michigan Press
Copyright © 2004

University of Michigan
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-472-06870-8

Chapter One The Progressive Era Vision

Instrumental and Educative Justifications of Direct Democracy

"I tell you," Woodrow Wilson stressed to a reporter in May 1911, "the people of this state and this country are determined at last to take over the control of their own politics." Well before his successful run for the presidency the following year, the New Jersey governor had begun broadening his appeal to a national audience, selectively employing a more populist rhetoric. An avowed progressive liberal, Wilson was a relatively late convert to the direct democracy crusade, which included the devices of initiative, referendum, and recall. A little more than a decade earlier, in 1898, the formally trained political scientist and president of Princeton University had harshly criticized direct legislation as it was practiced in Switzerland. "Where it has been employed," Wilson penned, "it has not promised either progress or enlightenment, leading rather to doubtful experiments and to reactionary displays of prejudice than to really useful legislation." Notwithstanding the "native impulses" that he had acquired as an "academic Mugwump," Wilson had convinced himself by the time of his bid for the presidency of the virtues of a "populistic conception of democracy." Pragmatism as well as presidential aspirations clearly informed his change of heart. As governor, he faced the ever-increasing reality that representative government, despite its theoretical brilliance, was becoming an abject failure in practice. For Wilson, the initiative offered a practical remedy that could free citizens from living in "a fool's paradise." Rationalizing his newfound support for the initiative, the Democratic governor inveighed, "We are simply trying to square the facts of our government with the theory with which we have been deceiving ourselves."

During his presidential campaign, Wilson waxed poetic about direct democracy serving as a curative to representative government, envisioning how populist mechanisms could "cut down the jungle in which corruption lurks." He mused publicly about how the initiative-the mechanism whereby people collect a specified number of valid signatures to place either a statute or a constitutional amendment on the ballot for the electorate to adopt or reject-might help to "drag things into the light, break down private understandings and force them to be public understandings." Drawing on the nascent experiences of the handful of states that had adopted plebiscitary mechanisms during the previous decade, Wilson argued in 1911 that citizens could use the initiative in particular to apply tacit pressure on capricious state legislatures, forcing them to abide by the will of the people. By way of analogy, Wilson understood the practice of citizen lawmaking as the "gun behind the door-for use only in case of emergency, but a mighty good persuader, nevertheless."

Wilson's pragmatic defense of the initiative underscores its instrumental uses. If a state legislature was unable or unwilling to pass popular legislation, citizens could directly propose and adopt laws to correct any legislative "sins of omission." Even indirectly, the mere threat of an initiative could pressure recalcitrant legislators to act. For recent converts such as Wilson, direct legislation was not a radical solution. Unlike the zealous supporters who envisioned citizen lawmaking replacing representative government, Wilson foresaw the device being used sparingly. "Once this direct access of the people to the execution of their own purposes is accomplished," he maintained, "the initiative and referendum will not be the ordinary means of legislation." Rather, the initiative would serve as a stopgap mechanism, a benign tool that would "restore" rather than "destroy" representative government. For the erstwhile professor, the expedience of direct legislation could bring "our representatives back to the consciousness that what they are bound in duty and in mere policy to do is represent the sovereign people whom they profess to serve." As a prod, then, the initiative had the potential to directly or indirectly bring forth substantive policy changes in the American states.

Though the instrumental defense of the initiative advanced by Wilson and other early-twentieth-century reformers continues to be expressed today, it was not the sole Progressive Era argument in favor of the mechanism. Proponents also touted the educative benefits that could be derived from the plebiscitary process itself. The initiative reinforced one of the Progressives' central pedagogical goals: the restoration of popular government through the reformation of the citizen. Many reformers viewed the process of citizen lawmaking as one of many ways to encourage citizens to become more actively engaged in the political process. By participating directly in policymaking decisions, Progressives thought the initiative could inculcate the citizenry with a sense of civic duty and participatory responsibility.

Instrumental and Educative Justifications for the Initiative

Though not always sharply delineated, the instrumental and educative justifications of the initiative abound in the writings of Progressive Era direct democracy scholars, journalists, and practitioners. Progressives argued that the initiative served two interrelated purposes. In the words of Governor Wilson, the initiative could be an effective legislative tool, leading to successful outcomes without even "being called on to work at all." Irrespective of whether state legislatures passed Progressive reforms, advocates of the initiative viewed the process as an alternative means of adopting a wide array of substantive public policies. The initiative could directly or indirectly keep the legislature in check. Furthermore, in an age before instant polling of popular attitudes was possible, proponents of the initiative contended that citizen lawmaking could gauge the electorate's preferences. The popular vote on initiatives or even the qualification of measures for the ballot would approximate public opinion.

Progressive Era advocates and academics tendered a second-albeit more subtle-general principle for the adoption and implementation of the initiative, however. Procedurally, the initiative could have a positive educative value. Rather than emphasizing the substantive outcomes in keeping with public opinion that the plebiscitary device might produce, some reformers focused on how citizens would be empowered by the process of proposing and adopting their self-made laws and constitutional amendments. By directly involving citizens in debates regarding public policies, citizens and the commonwealth more generally might benefit from the pedagogical aspects of the process itself, which, Progressive reformers contended, could increase Election Day turnout, enhance individuals' civic engagement and political knowledge, and heighten citizens' political efficacy. The educative effects of the initiative would also help to mitigate the power of special interests and party bosses, relegating them to the political sidelines. While the instrumental defense of the initiative continues today to receive the preponderance of journalistic and scholarly attention, the educative defense of the device was equally important in the Progressive Era debate over direct legislation.

An Instrument for Substantive Change

The primary instrumental argument advanced during the Progressive Era was that citizen lawmaking could control unrepresentative or unresponsive legislatures. Lord James Bryce, an eminent British scholar and England's ambassador to the United States at the time, contended that direct democracy could help regulate the legislature. Summing up his argument in a revised edition of his tome, The American Commonwealth, Bryce stated,

Reference [of ballot measures] to the people may act as a conservative force; that is to say, there may be occasions when a measure which a legislature would pass, either at the bidding of a heated party majority or to gain the support of a group of persons holding the balance of voting power, or under the covert influence of those who seek some private advantage, will be rejected by the whole body of the citizens because their minds are cooler or their view of the general interest less biased by special predilections or interests.

Progressive politicians, most prominently Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, maintained that the initiative in particular could serve as an institutional check on unresponsive state legislatures. If legislators failed to recognize or respond to the public's wishes, citizens could resort to direct action by passing initiatives that either amended the state constitution or enacted a statute. By placing measures on the ballot for the electorate to consider, citizens could circumvent the legislature altogether. Deterring the usurpation of power by state legislatures, the device could supplement the representation of the electorate yet would not disturb the traditional operations of representative government. Serving as the "gun behind the door," in Wilson's words, the initiative would compel legislators to act. Indeed, most reformers contended that they did not want to supplant the legislative process with democracy by initiative. Most legislation would continue to be made via the legislative process.

Strong supporters of direct legislation, like William S. U'Ren of Oregon, argued that the initiative would reform the sickly system of representative government by forcing legislators to be more vigilant in protecting the public weal. U'Ren, the mastermind behind the "Oregon system," admitted that "it is not desirable that the Initiative shall be relied on as the principal and ordinary method of making laws. It will not be. But at present it seems to be the best means available for overthrowing government by plutocracy in the American states and cities and substituting Peoples' Power government." Fellow Oregonian Jonathan Bourne Jr., a Republican U.S. senator and one of the leading national spokesmen for the spread of initiatives, argued that they would facilitate the adoption of popular Progressive reforms. Bourne, who was formally appointed to the Senate by the Oregon state legislature after he won a plurality of votes in the 1906 primary election, emphasized that Progressives could use the initiative to bypass state legislatures to enact specific planks of the reform agenda, including the direct primary, the corrupt-practices act, and the recall of public officials. As political scientist Delos Wilcox, an outspoken enthusiast for the initiative, joked half-seriously, "One of the most likely uses of the Initiative, would be to reconstruct the legislative machinery in such a way ... that the legislative mill may produce something for human consumption more digestible than shredded straw." Wilcox, whose numerous books chronicled the corruption and patronage that ailed American city government, sought salvation in the mechanisms of direct legislation, because he, like other Progressives, saw as woefully inadequate the individual's role in American politics at the turn of the twentieth century.

The other instrumental rationale advanced during the Progressive Era for the adoption of citizen lawmaking was that the initiative could link latent public opinion to substantive policies. Advocating the adoption of the mechanism in the American states, Roosevelt, perhaps the most nationally recognized proponent of the process, argued that the initiative could provide "better and more immediate effect to the popular will." Other advocates of citizen lawmaking claimed that it could ensure that the "pure" voice of the people would be heard. Charles Zueblin, an activist scholar with an eye on "municipal progress" (as he titled one of his many books), argued that the initiative was a means by which citizens could "inform their representatives of the current state of public opinion." At the turn of the century-with direct primaries, universal suffrage for women, the Australian ballot, and the direct election of U.S. senators still on the political horizon and hierarchical party machines under the dominion of vested special interests-average citizens had little opportunity to publicly voice their concerns. "A considerable part of the population," Harvard professor William Munro once remarked, "is made up of men and women who are neither capitalists, union workers, nor politicians. Being unheard from they are likely to be overlooked and forgotten. Direct legislation gives this silent section of the electorate a chance."

This instrumental defense of the initiative-that the mechanism allows citizens to directly (or indirectly, by its mere threat) bring about substantive public policies that approximate public opinion-remains one of the chief rationalizations for the process. Several scholars recently have tried to test empirically the claim first floated during the Progressive Era that states with citizen lawmaking will have legislatures that are more responsive to public opinion than states without the process. Unfortunately, the scholarly findings on this question are mixed. In separate studies, political scientist Elisabeth Gerber and economist John Matsusaka find that the presence of the initiative influences policy outcomes. But other political scientists, most notably Edward Lascher, Michael Hagen, and Steven Rochlin, along with John Camobreco, find that states with the initiative do not have public policies that conform to public opinion and that states with the initiative are no more likely to adopt policies closer to public opinion than are states without the process. Furthermore, state legislatures in initiative states appear increasingly likely to overturn the will of the people through the passage of counter-majoritarian legislation. Still, defenders of the process continue to trot out the popular belief that initiatives can be used to gauge the public's opinions.

Both instrumental justifications for the initiative received sharp criticism during the Progressive Era. Well before celebrated columnist Walter Lippmann debunked public opinion in the 1920s, referring to it as the "phantom public" and questioning whether a pure democracy could be developed in a complex, modern society, several Progressive scholars dismissed the idea that citizen lawmaking could be used to gauge public opinion. "Direct legislation," political scientist George Haynes wrote in 1911, "is not the spontaneous registering of the individual voter's matured judgment as to the best method of dealing with a given problem." In his far-reaching study of direct legislation in Oregon, Haynes observed that in some elections, "the voters simply say 'yes' or 'no' (or say nothing) to specific proposals originated, framed and phrased-and every step in the procedure is of consequence-for them by some one else. By whom? For what? These may at times prove disquieting questions." Haynes pointed specifically to three 1910 ballot measures dealing with taxation, saying that each "was drawn in such language as to make its intent clear and unmistakable." Activist and author Mary Parker Follett similarly commented that it was a "mistake" to think that citizen lawmaking "is merely to record, that it is based on counting, on the preponderance of votes."

Other critics challenged the instrumental assumption that controlling state legislatures through initiatives would lead to more representative and responsive public policy. Paradoxically, having a "gun behind the door" might create an environment in which the legislature becomes incapable of taking action, choosing instead to defer (or refer) particularly controversial measures to the people. Though he lauded how citizen lawmaking could potentially check governmental corruption, Walter Weyl, a Progressive educator, argued that the initiative might debase "the range and decision of our elected legislators." Weyl, whose synthetic treatment of emerging political and economic issues of the day was widely praised, feared that citizen lawmaking would transform state legislators "from representatives, possessed of personal, individual opinions (although elected because their opinions are in supposed accord with those of their constituents) into mere delegates; into mere mechanical forecasters and repeaters of popular deliverances; into parrot-like, political phonographs." Weyl warned that the results from direct legislation "may not always be good. A high-spirited statesman, placed in a position where he may be checked, halted, thwarted-often, most unreasonably-where an appeal lies from his every action, where even his tenure depends upon his 'giving satisfaction,' is tempted to withdraw from the impotent eminence of office; or, if he remain, he may suffer in initiative, courage, and self-esteem." Other Progressives who were dubious about citizen lawmaking echoed Weyl's Burkean critique of citizen lawmaking. Historian Charles Beard, for example, noted, "The real danger [of direct democracy] is not that representative institutions will perish, but that law-making will not receive that critical deliberation and technical attention which it is supposed to receive in legislative assemblies."


Excerpted from Educated by Initiative by Daniel A. Smith Caroline J. Tolbert
Copyright © 2004 by University of Michigan . Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

1 The progressive era vision : instrumental and educative justifications of direct democracy 1
2 The education of citizens : voting 31
3 The education of citizens : civic engagement 53
4 The education of citizens : confidence in government 72
5 The education of special interests 87
6 The education of political parties 112
7 The educative possibilities and limitations of citizen lawmaking 136
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