Direct democracy as necessary evil? Perspectives from interest group leaders.

Author:Alexander, Robert

Recently, some of the most controversial issues in American politics have not been decided in legislatures, but by the citizenry through the means of direct democracy. Polarizing issues such as marriage equality, abortion rights, raising the minimum wage, marijuana legalization, public healthcare, gun control, and stem cell research have garnered a great deal of national attention, while appearing on isolated state ballots across the country. The appearance of ballot-box lawmaking has witnessed a steady increase beginning in the 1970s. In fact, the previous decade saw the most initiatives in American history. (1)

This activity has brought a great deal of attention to the direct democracy process. (2) In particular, concern has surfaced that policy made through these means is especially susceptible to manipulations by powerful interest groups and skilled political consultants. Central to many studies of direct democracy is the effect these actors have upon public policy. Whether or not policy made through this system best serves the citizenry is more than an academic question. Evaluating the merits of direct democracy is a difficult task. One way scholars have sought to do so is by asking those "in the know" what they think about the process.

This study investigates what interest group leaders think of the direct democracy process. Specifically, the perceptions of group leaders in three states--California, Michigan, and South Carolina are examined. In their study of the increasing movement towards direct democracy, Russell Dalton, Wilhelm Burklin and Andrew Drummond question whether, "direct democracy may become a tool for established political interests to court public support for their causes, unmediated by political parties or elites." (3) This question is addressed by examining whether group leaders perceive the process as benefiting the citizenry at-large or whether they believe it is too often manipulated by powerful, well-funded interests. Toward this end, a group's experience with direct democracy, the type of group, and the group's organizational characteristics are examined to assess how these factors affect a group's evaluation of the institution.

Perceived Effects on Democracy

Trying to gauge influence in American politics has always been a troubling proposition. Nonetheless, one way scholars have sought to understand influence is by consulting with elites. Political professionals are in a unique position to evaluate the game of influence in electoral politics. A particularly well-developed stream of research exists in respect to influence in the direct democracy arena.

Several studies examine how political consultants and political marketing firms view their impact upon the political system. Specific attention focuses on their involvement with the direct democracy process. Given the approbation that many feel toward the so-called "initiative industry," it is informative to see how these individuals believe they affect the political system. Despite popular accounts of mercenary-like behavior, most do not believe they pervert the public's will. Todd Donovan, Shaun Bowler, and David McCuan find that many consultants take on causes to which they are closely aligned. (4) Rather than being open to the highest bidder, consultants simply gravitate toward ballot measures they would like to see passed. Their findings suggest that consultants take into account many factors beyond a lucrative paycheck when they agree to take on a ballot campaign.

In their survey of campaign professionals, 73 percent of David Magleby and Kelly Patterson's respondents agreed that initiatives have a "somewhat" or "very positive" effect upon democracy. (5) However, they found that 57 percent of their respondents believed that "initiatives expand the power of special interests." (6) Moreover, they contend that "the initiative process is... less democratic than is sometimes believed because of the control that special interest groups have in the process." (7) They suggest that interest groups are best able to participate in direct democracy due to their organization and money.

In spite of this research, citizens consistently support the direct democracy process. Stephen Griffin describes what he terms "California constitutionalism" and its role relative to representative democracy. (8) California constitutionalism refers to the abundance of direct democracy campaigns in the state that run parallel to the three branches of government. Griffin argues that the ubiquity of ballot campaigns occurs due to a lack of trust in representative institutions. "Put simply, citizens are more likely to favor direct democracy when they distrust politicians and how the government works (or appears to work)." (9) He contends that while many may evaluate the flaws of direct democracy, such arguments must be balanced against the flaws perceived of our representative institutions. Put another way, if citizens had greater trust in the branches of government, there would be little need for the initiative, referendum, or recall. Trust in the three branches of government is a widely documented lament among political scientists. For instance, only about one in four American citizens "trust government to do what is right most of the time." (10) Supporting Griffin's thesis, Mark Baldassare notes that "voters often prefer to turn to citizen initiatives to make public policies because of their impatience with the speed of the legislative process and their distrust of the decisions that politicians make." (11)

While data on the subject is scarce, polling from several states is instructive. For instance, a poll of California voters conducted after the November 2010 elections found that 66 percent of voters were either "very satisfied" or "somewhat satisfied" with the initiative process. (12) In fact, 60 percent of voters were either "somewhat happy" or "very happy" to have voted on the nine initiatives appearing on the ballot that year. (13) Conversely, the same study found that 66 percent of voters had little-to-no confidence in policymaking produced by the state's elected officials. (14) In that same election cycle, voters in the state of Washington were even more enthusiastic regarding the virtues of direct democracy. Nearly three out of four voters in the state agreed that "ballot measures were a good thing," with only one in ten indicating that "ballot measures were a bad thing." (15)

These polls suggest that citizens express far greater confidence in law made through direct democracy than laws made through representative democracy. Citizens further believe that special interests are more inclined to get what they want through the legislative process, than through the direct democracy process. A 2011 survey conducted by Mark Baldassare, Dean Bonner, Sonja Petek, and Jui Shrestha found that 62 percent of voters in the state of California thought decisions made through the initiative process were better than those made by the governor or legislature. (16) Less than a quarter of those surveyed believed that decisions made by the citizenry were worse than those made by policymakers. Taken together, these polls suggest that the citizenry has much greater confidence in direct democracy over representative democracy.

Moreover, Todd Donovan and Jeffrey Karp find that such support for direct democracy is generally widespread among the citizenry. (17) This support has not only been witnessed in the United States, but throughout many countries in Europe as well. While Donovan and Karp note that the trend in greater usage of direct democracy may have occurred due to an increase in the distrust in representative governments, they also note that the rise of such practices could also have occurred through greater enthusiasm and desire among citizens to be more directly involved in political affairs. (18) They set out to understand the motivation among those who are supportive of direct democracy as a means toward public policymaking. Although their research examines support for direct democracy across six nations, their findings are relevant to the research presented here. Among their most interesting findings is that younger voters are more enthusiastic about direct democracy as are those whose party is not in the majority. (19) Their findings were mixed when it comes to the dissatisfaction with representative democracy argument. While they found support for that view in several countries, they found the opposite to be true in at least one country. Thus, it would appear further research is warranted to better understand which citizens are more or less likely to support direct democracy as an institution.

It is clear that scholars have learned a great deal about perceptions of direct democracy. This is particularly the case among those in the electorate and the public relations firms charged with running direct democracy campaigns. However, one important player that is absent from our understanding of perceptions of influence in these campaigns is that of...

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