Giving Voters a Voice: The Origins of the Initiative and Referendum in America

Giving Voters a Voice: The Origins of the Initiative and Referendum in America

Giving Voters a Voice: The Origins of the Initiative and Referendum in America

Giving Voters a Voice: The Origins of the Initiative and Referendum in America

Synopsis

Giving Voters a Voice studies the origins of direct legislation, one of the most important political reforms enacted during the Progressive Era. Steven L. Piott begins with the source of the idea in the United States and proceeds to the earliest efforts aimed at generating a national movement to expand the parameters of popular democracy in the 1890s. He then broadens his examination to include the unique ways in which twenty-two states came to enact legislation allowing for the statewide initiative and referendum between 1898 and 1918. The book's appendix offers the only comprehensive listing of all the ballot propositions and vote totals for the period. Most historians of the Progressive Era have concluded that narrow self-interest prevented labor, farmers, and the middle class from working together to achieve important reforms. Giving Voters a Voice demonstrates that middle-class reformers, trade unionists, and farm organizers formed loose political coalitions and directed grass-roots campaigns to gain passage of initiative and referendum statutes because direct legislation offered the best means to correct political, economic, and social abuses. But there was more than just a shared sense of common interest that brought these seemingly oppositional groups together. What really made them willing to speak, lobby, and work together was quite simply the frustration felt by voters who sensed that they had become economically dependent and politically powerless. Each state in which proponents conducted an active campaign to win adoption of direct legislation is studied in detail. The book analyzes the crucial roles played by individuals who led the movement to empower voters by enabling them to enact or veto legislation directly, and reveals the arguments, the stumbling blocks, and political compromises that are often slighted in generalized overviews. Each state possessed its own political dynamic. Giving Voters a Voice offers the reader a richness of detail and a completeness of coverage not found elsewhere.

Excerpt

In the late nineteenth century Americans struggled with the harsh economic transformations of an emerging industrial society. Workers, farmers, consumers, and taxpayers increasingly felt ignored as participants in the political system. In their minds, policy makers identified issues and set priorities within a political environment ever more susceptible to the influence of economic power. The special or privileged interests, and the professional politicians they controlled, had precluded any discussion of vital social, economic, and political issues. Workers looked in vain for a serious discussion of protective labor legislation, antistrikebreaking ordinances, or limits on court injunctions. Farmers felt powerless to challenge federal monetary policies or to obtain assistance against falling farm prices and unregulated transportation charges. Consumers expressed dismay over the power that corporations exerted over utility rates and felt stymied in their demands for municipal ownership of those utilities. Frustrated taxpayers complained of tax inequities and onerous tax burdens. Exacerbating these problems was a political system in which important issues and fundamental social problems were easily subverted or ignored by the political party, the party caucus, or the corporate lobby. Concluding that their elected representatives no longer represented their interests, many Americans became discontented and increasingly dissatisfied with governmental policies, party agendas, and a system of governance that rewarded organized power at the expense of the needs of the people. Popular democracy appeared to be a sham. At stake were fundamental questions of economic and political democracy.

Many well-known nineteenth-century commentators, such as Edward Bellamy in his popular novel Looking Backward (1888), underscored this general theme. During a conversation between Bellamy's characters Dr. Leete and Julian West, Leete reminds his nineteenth-century guest that “the organization of [your] society ... was such that officials were under a con-

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