Do-it-yourself government

Posted: Apr 11, 2004 12:00 AM

Americans are a do-it-yourself people. We figure out how things work. We fix things. Well, not me ? but my wife and most people.

But there's one thing we can't seem to fix. Our politics.

There's something very wrong. We all know it ? Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, Greens, Populists, Independents. Today, there is no principle, no honor, no morality in politics ? just our team versus their team and win at all costs, by hook and with crook. Americans may like to win, but winning isn't enough. Perhaps that sappy old saying, "It's not whether you win or lose, it's how you play the game" has a universal truth to it.

It all boils down to process ? and the politicians who are protected by it. Politics has always been a racket, no doubt. But today's racket is more controlled and less competitive than in the past. The disdain our pretend representatives show for any sort of democratic control by the voters is tellingly brazen; unchecked by principle and honor, they adamantly remain unchecked by us, too.

The problems we face will not be solved by arrogant politicians. Won't even be attempted, for the most part. We citizens must solve it in our do-it-yourself tradition. Which means we need more than just a voice; we must take charge.

Who's In Charge, Here?

Politicians do not listen. With all the advantages of incumbency, they don't have to listen. Worse yet, they do not believe they should listen to what you and I think. Sure, they say they are fighting for us little guys, but they treat us not as sovereigns, certainly not as their bosses, not even as their equals. To them we are simple-minded serfs in need of their legal guardianship.

Last week, I told the story of Jack Adsit, a regular guy who fought to win a term limits initiative in Wyoming only to be treated viciously by his so-called servants in public office.

Other examples abound:

The list goes on and on and on. (To keep up-to-date on legislative betrayal and citizen heroism, subscribe to my free Common Sense e-letter, where republican principles are upheld daily.)

But what on earth do we do? When politicians promise to do one thing and then do another ? when they regularly Nethercutt us ? how can we clean out the cesspools of corruption?

Some will argue that the solution is to defeat the Democrats! Or defeat the Republicans! But we've tried both options, and both were found wanting.

Republican control hasn't vanquished wasteful spending and self-serve government for politicians and their special-interest buddies. They've actually increased pork. Democrats had a lock on government for decades and the result was incredible waste and abundant arrogance. Neither major political party will save us.

We have to save ourselves. We have to be in control. Not theoretically, through a system where we are given a choice between two candidates beholden to themselves, who will lie and cheat to win office and stay there. No, I mean really in charge: able to overrule our rulers.

What to Do

What we need is a process to veto our politicians' vetoes, to legislate when they refuse, to take the legislatures' actions to the voters as a whole when a second opinion is required. When push comes to shove ? which is more and more often ? citizens must represent themselves.

That process is initiative and referendum. Americans support the idea overwhelmingly.

Yet, a bare majority of cities have some process for citizen initiative and referendum, and too often the process has been made so difficult as to be unusable.

Only 17 states have workable constitutional initiative processes that citizens can and do use to clean up government. In Jack Adsit's Wyoming, and in Alaska, Idaho, Maine, Utah and Washington state, voters have initiative and referendum, but only for statutes, not for constitutional amendments. Thus, legislators can block many reforms and keep power away from citizens.

Worse yet, voters in most states have no initiative process at all. And given legislators' dislike for citizen control, and the fact that gaining the process requires legislative action, putting citizens in charge is a tall order.

But so was whipping the Redcoats, ending slavery, winning women's suffrage, and gaining voting rights for minorities. It starts with the simple principle of citizen control and a common-sense commitment to put this principle above party, promises and politics.

How to Take Charge

You can make this happen by voting and working for initiative and referendum at all levels of government. If you live in an initiative state, use the process to do good. It gives those battling for what's right at least a fighting chance, because initiatives don't change their mind after they win. They're written in black and white.

If your state doesn't allow a constitutional amendment process through citizen initiative or doesn't have any initiative and referendum process at all, you have to work through elected officials. That means that more than just your vote will be needed. You have to put your legislator on your Rolodex or your PDA, and call and write. Often.

Of course, one key element in lobbying to restore citizen control is your vote. And not just your vote, the threat of your vote. Let every candidate know that you don't vote for anyone ? from dog catcher to governor ? unless that candidate is 100 percent committed to establishing and honoring citizen initiative and referendum. No candidate unwilling to let you and your fellow citizens hold him accountable can claim to really represent you.

If you want something done right, sometimes you have to do it yourself. We need initiative and referendum at every level of government. I trust the people a great deal more than I trust the politicians. How about you?