Why I?m a democrat and Why I Wish the Democrats Were democrats, Too

Posted: Jan 11, 2004 12:00 AM

You should sit down to read this. I have a confession to make. I?m a democrat. Don?t scream. Capitalization is rather important here. I?m a small "d" democrat.

You didn?t think I was a card-carrying member of the Democratic Party, did you?

While I?m a small "r" republican because I believe government must be limited to those powers listed rather succinctly right there in that forgotten old Constitution of ours, I?m a small "d" democrat because I believe that government must be managed in as democratic a method as possible. These two concepts work together, whether the two parties bearing their names do or not.

Citizen control of government is not merely desirable, it is absolutely essential. And I trust the people--at least, a whole lot more than I trust the politicians.

Oh, sure, these days it just isn?t as hip to be for the people, the little guy, the average Joe. (Though, the Average Joe must be making a comeback of sorts--he now has his own TV show.) The media and political elite disdain democracy. They attack initiative and referendum in the states and cities that have it. They attempt at every turn to derail the popular term limits train. And they criticize recalls of elected officials, even when those officials have lost all credibility, as was the case with now-former California Governor Gray Davis.

Either citizens control government or government will be controlled by a king, an aristocracy, a cabal, an elite. Worse yet, either citizens control government or government will control the citizens. A benevolent king requires Disney animation, and there are no sweet fairy tales about benevolent elites. Our country?s self-proclaimed political elite--like every other--is regularly in dire need of overthrow.

Democracy is necessary because it is peaceful overthrow, a process for citizens to choose their representatives, to recall and replace those representatives and, more importantly, to check the actions of their representatives and even to reform the system when necessary.

That?s why I?m a democrat. But why aren?t the Democrats democrats, too? Why do most elected Democrats oppose citizen initiative, referendum and recall, even while voters of all persuasions favor these reforms?

Everywhere Democrats seem afraid of the notion for which they are named. Do they fear the voters don?t agree with them enough? Then, these Democrats believe in the process only when they win--in the oh-so-great democratic tradition of the world?s dictators.

Republican elected officials aren?t always perfect on these issues, either. Far from it. But, they are usually better than the Democrats. For instance, while George W. Bush didn?t do enough to enact initiative and referendum as governor of Texas, he at least endorsed the issue, saying, "Initiative and referendum make government more responsive to its citizens, neutralize the power of the special interests and stimulate public involvement in state issues."

Meanwhile, all the Democratic presidential candidates and even former President Bill Clinton rushed to California last year to oppose a popular recall and, unable to defend their Democratic governor, actually attacked the democratic right of the people to recall their elected servants.

In Minnesota, legislation to make the state the 25th in the nation with a statewide initiative and referendum (I&R) process has twice passed the Republican-controlled House of Representatives. But each time, Democrats in the state Senate blocked both open debate and a fair up-or-down vote on the issue.

Let Minnesota Vote, a grassroots citizens lobby, has attracted endorsements from every political party in the state--Republican, Green, Independence, Libertarian, Reform--except for the Democrats (called the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party in Minnesota).

In the meantime, the Democrats have seen their 12-seat majority in the state Senate shrink to 3 seats, while the Republican majority in the House has grown. And the initiative and referendum legislation is coming right back at them as the 2004 legislative session convenes.

The New York Times complains that, "[New York] legislators don't represent the public. They represent their leaders." Three men--the Governor, the Senate Majority Leader and the Speaker of the Assembly--make virtually every decision in a state of 19 million people. Is that supposed to be democracy?

In 2002, Republican Governor George Pataki supported and the Republican-controlled state Senate passed a constitutional amendment to establish a statewide initiative and referendum process. The reform measure was never even scheduled for a vote in the Assembly, where Democrats have a 56-seat edge.

Without the citizen initiative process, when will the necessary reforms ever be brought up for debate or a vote in New York?

Some Democratic lawmakers argue that they cannot permit initiative and referendum because big money will control. This argument flies in the face of the evidence. The influence of money in candidate campaigns dwarfs its influence in initiative and referendum. In races for Congress, the candidate spending the most money wins 96 percent of the time. The few who win while spending less money are mostly incumbents, whose numerous advantages--from franked mail to those great big slabs of pork spending--are worth more than enough to offset any campaign funding gap.

Conversely, studies show that initiatives still have less than an even chance at winning, even when the proponents greatly outspend the opponents. Money always matters, sure, but initiative and referendum has allowed the little guy to beat big money again and again.

Professor Elizabeth Gerber, director of the Gerald R. Ford School for Public Policy at the University of Michigan, concluded her extensive research into the effect of money in initiative campaigns, writing that, "[E]conomic interest groups are severely limited in their ability to pass new laws by initiative. By contrast, research found that citizen groups with broad-based support could much more effectively use direct legislation to pass new laws."

Other Democratic politicians say privately that the voters simply aren?t up to the decision-making demands of the initiative process. The mantra appears to be: "Vote for me, stupid, and then scram." Perhaps these officials see themselves as a "vanguard of the proletariat" that they deem too dull to handle the heavy-lifting of full citizenship. For some reason they find it difficult to use this argument publicly.

Elected Democrats often bill themselves as reformers. Reform proposals pour forth from their lips, flowing over and caressing their self-righteousness, but all their fancy ideas are dead on arrival in the legislature. The only chance for passage is to go directly to the voters through I&R, which they oppose.

In Minnesota, Senate Majority Leader John Hottinger charges that "big-money special-interests" presently "dominate the political process." But he opposes the citizen initiative, refusing to support any other avenue for reform save a legislature that is admittedly "dominated" by special interests.

Following the logic, yet?

The story of a referendum in Lakewood, Ohio dramatizes the importance of initiative and referendum at all levels of government, the arrogance of elected officials and the Democrats? ugly divorce from the concept of democracy.

Lakewood is a city run by Democrats. In Lakewood, as in many places all across the country, the local government is attempting to take land from some homeowners and businesses, forcibly through eminent domain, in order to bestow the land on developers and other individuals and businesses that local officials believe will provide higher tax receipts. It is legalized stealing from the poor to give to the rich. But elected Democrats not only condone it, they attack the citizen initiative and referendum power through which Lakewood voters were able to block the city?s land-grab plan.

During a public hearing on the citizen-led referendum, Democratic Councilwoman Nancy Roth snidely asked, "Do you want government by referendum?"

Yes, Councilwoman Roth. Yes, we do.

After all, shouldn?t we all be democrats?