Democratic Delusions by Richard J. Ellis
The Initiative Process in America

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Synopsis

It is becoming common in many states: citizens seizing the opportunity to reclaim government from politicians by signing a petition to put an initiative on the ballot and then voting on it. During the past decade alone, Americans voted on nearly 500 statewide initiatives. Particularly in the West, direct legislation increasingly defines and dominates the political agenda.

Although this may appear to be democracy in action, Richard Ellis warns us that the initiative process may be putting democracy at risk. In Democratic Delusions he offers a critical analysis of the statewide initiative process in the United States, challenging readers to look beyond populist rhetoric and face political reality.

Through engaging prose and illuminating anecdotes, Ellis shows readers the "dark side" of direct democracy -- specifically the undemocratic consequences that result from relying too heavily on the initiative process. He provides historical context to the development of initiatives -- from their Populist and Progressive roots to their accelerated use in recent decades -- and a comparative context in which to understand the variations among states in their initiative processes.

While acknowledging the positive contribution of initiatives, Ellis shows that there are reasons to use them carefully and sparingly: ill-considered initiatives can subvert legislative checks and balances, undermine the deliberative process, and threaten the rights of minority groups. Today's initiative process, Ellis cautions, is dominated not by ordinary citizens but by politicians, perennial activists, wealthy interests, and well-oiled initiative machines. The importance of ballot titles in shaping the electoraloutcome means that initiative elections often tell us more about the values of those who sponsor and frame initiatives than it does about the citizens who vote on them. The crown-ing irony, Ellis finds, is that because initiatives are so often challenged in court, both before and after they qualify for the ballot, direct democracy has helped to increase the power of the least democratic branch of government, the judiciary.

As voters prepare to consider the host of initiatives that will be offered in the 2002 elections, this book can help put direct legislation in a clearer light. Democratic Delusions urges moderation, attempting to teach citizens to be at least as skeptical of the initiative process as they are of the legislative process -- and to appreciate the enduring value of the representative institutions they seek to circumvent.

 

About Richard J. Ellis

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Published February 1, 2002 by University Press of Kansas. 264 pages
Genres: Political & Social Sciences. Non-fiction

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Most Progressive reforms passed without the initiative, while at other times, initiatives clogged the ballot (in Oregon in 1912 there were 28 initiatives).

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