Magazine article The American Prospect

Where the Right Lost

Magazine article The American Prospect

Where the Right Lost

Article excerpt

After the muddled 2000 election and the evenly divided Congress it produced, it didn't take any special wisdom for the pundits to conclude that nobody got a mandate and that voters were too split to send any clear signal. But on some major issues, the electorate spoke with absolute clarity. One such issue was public education. Voters overwhelmingly rejected voucher initiatives in Michigan and California, approved a measure to make it easier to pass local school bonds in California, and supported initiatives to increase funding and teacher salaries and reduce class sizes in Colorado, Oregon, and Washington.

Equally important was the nearly unequivocal vote of no confidence in the nation's repressive drug laws. Of the seven major drug-law-reform initiatives on state ballots, five passed. Easily the biggest was California's Proposition 36, which requires that virtually all persons convicted of nonviolent drug possession be sent to treatment rather than jail or prison; voters endorsed the proposal by a surprisingly large margin--61 percent to 39 percent. [See Peter Schrag, "Declaring War on the Drug War," TAP, September 25-October 9, 2000.] Proposition 36 appears to have won by a larger spread than any other seriously contested issue or candidate in the nation. In addition, voters in Colorado and Nevada approved initiatives legalizing the medical use of marijuana, while citizens in Utah and Oregon elected to liberalize asset forfeiture laws.

Another big winner, for better or worse, is likely to be the initiative process itself. Ever since Vietnam and Watergate, voters have been ever more distrustful of politicians and conventional politics. Increasingly, in the two dozen states that have it, they are inclined to use the initiative to make major policy decisions. On tax policy, legislative term limits, and criminal sentencing; on affirmative action and immigration; on wildlife protection, tougher gun control, and increases in the minimum wage--the center of gravity in policy making is shifting to plebiscitary democracy.

Because many of this year's victories included liberal causes, such as new gun control measures in Colorado and Oregon, and because the losers included a number of conservative proposals--among them, initiatives calling for large tax cuts in Alaska, Colorado, and Oregon (though one passed in Massachusetts)--the outcome challenges the widespread belief, held since the start of the 1978 tax revolt in California, that direct democracy is almost entirely an instrument of the right.

Let's look at the issues one at a time. Surely the election's biggest losers were the billionaire sponsors of school voucher initiatives. Tim Draper, the Silicon Valley venture capitalist who almost single-handedly funded California's Proposition 38, was buried by an avalanche of no votes (71 percent to 29 percent), despite the $30 million he spent on the campaign. In addition to Draper's loss, there were the two-to-one defeat of the Michigan voucher initiative funded by Amway founders Betsy and Dick DeVos and the rejection of a broad charter school measure in Washington State sponsored by yet another billionaire, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. The election may not have driven a stake through the heart of the voucher movement, but it made clear that any future attempt to secure voters' approval to use tax funds for private-school tuition would have to be much more limited and finely tuned.

The only vouchers now in place--all approved by elected officials, none enacted by initiative--are targeted to low-income students (as in Cleveland and Milwaukee) or to students in failing schools (as in Florida). After his drubbing on November 7, Draper said he planned to try again--this time with something that all voucher supporters can agree on. But he's likely to find it's easier said than done. Like the market-happy Draper, who declared he wanted to create "an opportunity society, not a needs-based society" the religious schools that now enroll most private-school students don't like restrictions on voucher programs. …

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