Direct Democracy: A Progressive Legacy

Elections matter, but, because of Progressive reforms, less than they should.

As we enter the second century of Progressivism, it’s easy to point to the problems it has caused at the national level. Obamacare is only the latest example, coming on the heels of the New Deal and the Great Society’s many struggling programs.

But before they looked to Washington, Progressives had already turned their eyes to state capitals and cities. By promising to empower voters to take on big business, they were able to implement some sweeping changes. But they often ended up as victims of their own contradictions, and the problems they caused still bedevil many places today.

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The Birth of Direct Democracy: What Progressivism Did to the States

Beginning in the early 1900s, Progressives worked to bypass state legislatures, which they claimed had become tools of big business. In many states, notably California and Oregon, forms of direct democracy through ballot initiatives and referenda began to replace republican government.

That’s dangerous, because it undercuts constitutional, representative government. In our system the people are sovereign, but they rule by electing representatives to pass and enforce laws. Direct democracy, on the other hand, was shunned because it could lead to mob rule.

But Progressives didn’t really trust their fellow citizens, so they also worked to implement the rule of “experts.” Local and even state governments would be effectively replaced by unelected commissions and professional, trained city managers.

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It didn’t take long for people to realize they’d lost control over government.

Ronald Pestritto and Taylor Kempema write:

Democracy was commonly thwarted in states due to their mazes of commissions with overlapping jurisdiction and lack of political accountability.… By the end of the 1920s, 17 states had adopted some kind of reorganization legislation aimed at curbing the proliferation of commissions that had been so popular just a decade or two earlier.

But the Progressive legacy is proving difficult to undo. California is a political basket case in large part because of Progressive contradictions. Voters used direct democracy in the 1970s to pass Prop 13, which limited property taxes. But they later added Prop 98, which guarantees that 40 percent of state revenue must be spent on education. Lawmakers have become bystanders as voters endlessly remake the state constitution.

Pestritto and Kempema warn this is especially a problem for conservatives. Direct democracy “clearly diverts attention from the thing that conservatives need to do in order to turn the country around: win elections,” they write. And winning elections is something conservatives have been doing in the states. “It seems reasonable to ask why conservatives need to try co-opting Progressive mechanisms of direct democracy when the Tea Party movement shows what can be done the old-fashioned way: by winning elections and then governing through institutions,” they conclude.

Source material can be found at this site.

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