Magazine article Insight on the News

Direct-Democracy Path May Lead Voters Astray

Magazine article Insight on the News

Direct-Democracy Path May Lead Voters Astray

Article excerpt

Political wailing and cultural gnashing of teeth are the melody of the moment, a discordant chorus that suggests we may be due for a new national anthem -- another "somebody done somebody wrong" country-and-western tune, perhaps.

Well, friends and neighbors have been squabbling since about 20 minutes after the Mayflower hove to, but Americans have slogged on pretty well most of the time. A primary reason -- aside from luck -- is that our founding institutions have been resilient, with representative governance as their base.

Now, however, crankiness seems to be deepening into loss of faith in fundamental arrangements. One example of this dour mood is the term-limits movement, proposed for state and federal offices. That campaign is still cracking along.

But another campaign looms on the horizon, one that could drastically rattle the American cage. It is feuled by an alarming depth of evident disenchantment.

Stand by for the "direct democracy" movement.

At its most unadorned, the tactic would require that all tax increases be approved by voters in referendums. Initiatives and referendums have been around since the Progressive Era. This new surge, however, seeks to give voters total control of tax policy, rather than, for instance, to restrict a particular tax.

But direct democracy is as vacuous a tautology as that 1960s fave, "participatory democracy." The difference is that the latter was the joy of the liberal left, while direct democracy is finding its believers among the populist right.

In November, four states -- Missouri, Montana, Nevada and Oregon -- will decide whether all future tax increases must receive final approval at the polls, and Florida and North Dakota may follow suit. Petition drives are going on in California, Michigan and Ohio for the fall election, and at least three other states -- Arkansas, Idaho and Nebraska -- are at one stage or another in the procedural exercise. Colorado led the way, passing its version in 1992.

Should the question make it on the ballot in the electoral heavyweight states of California, Michigan and Ohio this fall, it will concentrate the mind of a political careerist as surely as a date with the hangman concentrates a felon's.

Despite the cheers from the right, however, this new gimmick is dangerous and deluding. Unaccustomed as this columnist is to hanging out with unions, greenies and social-welfare utopians, this time their general opposition to tax-increase refer endums is sound -- though not for the right reasons. …

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