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Initiative, the Populism’ Voguish Darling

(From the Washington Post, July 28, 1977]

                                 Initiative, the Populism’ Voguish Darling
(By George F. Will)

Professor Martin Diamond, foremost contemporary scholar of the Founding Fathers’ thought, believed the principle of representation to be the rivet securing the republican system. Unfortunately, a campaign has begun to derogate that principle.

Sen. James Abourezk (D-S.D.) proposes a constitutional amendment to establish an initiative process whereby citizens could propose and enact laws. Proposal would be by petitions containing signatures equal in number to three per cent of the voters in the last presidential election.

The nature of mass appeals, and the fact that the full text must accompany each petition, means most proposals would be simpler than most laws passed after full legislative deliberations. Proposals would tend to be spare declara­tive injunctions—for or against (for example) nuclear power, abortion or other divisive matters that cannot be handled prudently with simple stipula­tions.

Elected leaders would use the initiative as another excuse to flinch from leadership. In California, the most important of 23 states that have the initia­tive, most questions are placed on the ballot by the legislature. Abourezks amendment would not permit Congress to do that, but it would enable Con­gress to duck divisive issues by Insisting that they are “properly” problems for “the people” to resolve.

Some laws enacted by initiative would require appropriations from Congress; others would involve revenue losses. (We can assume the initiative might be used to lower, not raise, taxes.) So the initiative would violate the principle that the body that decides to spend money should be responsible for raising it.

It is said the Initiative would be therapeutic for persons too “alienated” to vote in regular elections. Even assuming that “alienation” extends beyond persons who use that word, it is unlikely that those who do not vote for Presidents will be stirred by initiative appeals. And advocates of the initiative cannot cite particular public desires that have been neglected by representa­tives and should be satisfied by Initiatives.

The Initiative proposal Is an Idea congruent with the vague populist Impulse of the day. Thus Abourezk justifies the Initiative on the ground that “our democracy is based on the notion that the people can govern themselves.” But that Is not strictly correct, even when G.K~ Chesterton says It.

Democracy, Chesterton said, Is not like writing poetry or playing the church organ, because “these things we do not wish a man to do at all unless he does them well. [Democracy Is, on the contrary, a thing analogous to writing one’s own love letters or blowing one’s own nose. These things we want a man to do for himself, even if he does them badly.”

But that is too simple and sentimental. So was Hiram Johnson, California’s populist governor, when In 1911 he endorsed the Initiative because he believed in the ability of “the people” to govern. But “the people” are not supposed to govern: they are not supposed to decide issues. They are supposed to decide who will decide.

As Martin Diamond put It, there is no source of power but the people, but the exercise of power Is the function of representatives.

Abourezk says six of the last 10 constitutional amendments “have In some way extended voting rights,” so the initiative would be just “a further step In this evolutionary process.” But the initiative would be decisively different; it would not expand the electorate, it would alter the function of the elector­ate. Only the 17th Amendment—popular election of senators—did that. And the initiative would do so at the expense of the principle of representation.

Advocates of the Initiative say representative government is “government by elites”: the representatives and the “interests” who lobby them. But any national initiative would be dominated by an intense, unelected minority using direct mail, television commercials and other techniques of mass persuasion.

As Professor Diamond understood, clear, settled opinion about policy rarely spouts spontaneously from the public. It is best given shape by representative Institutions, which, unlike “the people,” are deliberative bodies.

Martin Diamond died last week in his 58th year, minutes after testifying to the Senate against another proposed distortion of the Founders’ system; abolition of the electoral vote system. His death is a. sorrow to his many stu­dents and other friends, and a wound to the Republic that was the subject and beneficiary of his scholarship.