For Team Anna: Five lessons from California about direct democracy

by Sandip Roy

The next stop for the Anna Hazare express: Electoral reforms. Reject and Recall has a nice “throw the bums out” ring to it, that’s just in keeping with the post-Ramlila we-the-people mood prevailing in the country these days.

Just listen to this:

The opponents of direct legislation and the recall, however they may phrase their opposition, in reality believe the people cannot be trusted. On the other hand, those of us who espouse these measures do so because of our deep-rooted belief in popular government, and not only in the right of the people to govern, but in their ability to govern; and this leads us logically to the belief that if the people have the right, the ability, and the intelligence to elect, they have as well the right, ability, and intelligence to reject or to recall.

Sounds like Team Anna?  Except this is Hiram Johnson, California’s governor, addressing his citizens in 1911. Johnson gave California its great experiment with direct democracy. California has embraced it with gusto.

It’s recalled Gov. Gray Davis and installed Arnold Schwarzenegger.

It’s mandated that 2/3 of the legislature must approve tax hikes which basically means no tax hikes.

It’s put pretty much every contentious issue – affirmative action, same-sex marriage, marijuana – directly to the voters. And along the way a lot of bizarre ones as well – a ban on circumcision, rules for chiropractors, greyhound dog racing.

Now one hundred years after Hiram Johnson, California is broke, perpetually lurching from election to mid-term election to special election and issuing IOUs to its employees and vendors.

Direct democracy sounds like a great idea. It eliminates the middleman and lets the little guy tell the politicians what to do. “People like us will finally get a say in where our country is headed,” we think. It’s quick. It’s easy. It’s clean.

The only problem is democracy is not a packet of instant noodles. You can’t just add a cup of boiling anger and have it ready to serve in three minutes. The package looks great. But let’s look at the fine print before the slippery slope of direct democracy turns us into another California.

Ballot box budgeting. This sounds like a super idea. Instead of letting those politicians siphon off our money, how about we tell them exactly where we want it spent? Direct democracy does just that by setting aside money for issues that voters care about. But as more and more of the budget is locked away, there’s less and less money to go round for the rest of the government’s business –salaries, roads, police, firefighters. By some estimates 65-85% of California’s budget has been tied up through ballot measures, 40% towards education alone. "The irony is that the more the hands of the Legislature and governor are tied up, the more frustrated people are," says Tim Hodson, director of the Center for California Studies at Cal State Sacramento.

The voter tends to look at the big headlines on TV, not the big picture. Reuters

Goodbye special interests. Not exactly. It takes a lot of money to keep the people’s democracy going. To get a referendum on the ballot, to collect signatures doesn’t just happen over Twitter and Facebook. It needs money. And guess who has the money? The same fat cats who once co-opted the politicians. So in 2006 LA real estate mogul Steve Bing pumped $50 million into his pet proposition to raise taxes on oil producers. The Mormon Church funneled millions of dollars into a campaign to ban same-sex marriages in California. In 2004 supporters spent $16.9 million just to qualify a proposition on non-tribal gambling expansion for the ballot. So much for the little guy setting the agenda by embarking on a fast.

Transparency and stability. Direct democracy is supposed to settle issues with the definitive bang of “the people have spoken.” Politicians can’t pretend they know what the voter wants and just push their own agenda. But it doesn’t quite work out that way. Every election settles an issue in California. Until the next election. If a referendum on affirmative action fails at the ballot one year, its backers immediately start plotting for the next go-around. Same sex marriage, gay rights, abortion rights  have all been going through a see-saw battle in the polls for years now. It creates, writes Troy Senik “a state of permanent revolution in California politics.” Not to mention a state of permanent elections.

Voter knows best. As the old song goes: Yeh public hai, sab jaanti hai. (This is the public, it knows everything).  Even, it seems, the fine print of the Indo-US nuclear deal. Prashant Bhushan recently stumped for referendums saying “It is wrong to say people do not understand these issues. There could have been a referendum for an issue like the Indo-US nuclear deal.”  Sorry, Mr. Bhushan, the individual just doesn’t know enough. Not even about your  Jan Lokpal bill. The voter tends to look at the big headlines on TV, not the big picture. Voters are fickle, they often contradict themselves. Poll after poll in California shows they oppose cutbacks in most of the big categories of spending like healthcare and education. But they don’t want a tax hike either. As Nathan Gardeis, an advisor to the Think Long Committee for California told the Economist, California has become a “diet-Coke civilisation of consumer democracy, of services without taxes, like sweetness without calories, of rights without duties”.

Recall is all about people power. They might give the people muscle. But they emasculate the legislature. That might not sound so bad but it means they will just pass the buck on tough decisions. Why take a tough stand if that could trigger a recall? Recalls sound like a good kick-in-the-butt kind of democracy in action. But just two cautionary words - Arnold Schwarzenegger.  He was the action hero of “people power” knocking out Gray Davis who had just been re-elected. It wasn’t exactly the grassroots revolution it’s made out to be. A Republican congressman actually poured $1.7 million of his car alarm fortune into it.  That election cost California $66 million. And as the success story of people power, it didn’t quite have a Hollywood ending.

In his last year in office, Schwarzenegger managed to garner the lowest job rating of any sitting governor in more than 50 years. His disapproval rating ended up around 75%, worse than the governor he ousted.

His fall from grace is in its way a textbook story about the promise and peril of direct democracy. Team Anna would do well to study it.

Be careful what you wish for. Sometimes you might just get it.


Updated Date: Sep 09, 2011 15:31 PM