The Initiative is on the March — Everywhere But Here

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

Direct democracy, and specifically the initiative process, is advancing around the world.

Except in the U.S. and in California.

Ireland’s constitutional convention has voted overwhelming to introduce a new initiative process that would include both petitions to the government (what some Californians persist in calling, misleadingly, the “indirect initiative” even though it is a direct appeal to lawmakers) and petitions that would trigger popular votes.

The Netherlands is close to adding a new referendum process on the national level. And in Germany, the only European Union country without a tool of  direct democracy at the national level, a movement is growing to introduce a national referendum process. Eighty-four percent of Germans in a recent poll said they supported it. (Full disclosure: I’m a board member of Democracy International, a Germany-based global coalition of direct democracy activists that is among those making the push for a German referendum).

There’s also lots of news about direct democratic advances at the local level around the world.

Meanwhile, in the U.S., the process is being stalled and limited. Why? The peculiarly confrontational and inflexible form of direct democracy – practiced in California (and in slightly more flexible forms in the American West) – is discrediting the entire project.

That’s an opportunity, if California could seize it. But so far, the establishment is advancing “initiative reform” proposals that don’t deal with the fundamental problems with the initiative process here – inflexibility, and a lack of integration between the initiative process and the representative part of the legislative branch. The trouble in California is the peculiar mindset that any process that involves the leaders that voters elect somehow shuts voters out.

Defenders of the California initiative process will oppose reforms, with their own peculiar logic: anything that integrates the process is a threat to it. In fact, the opposite is true. If an initiative process is well designed and integrated with other democratic institutions, it will grow and prosper. For evidence, just look around the world.

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