by Robert Herold

Three cheers for state Sen. Ken Jacobsen (D-Seattle), who has sponsored a bill that would abolish the statewide initiative, which in recent years has threatened to push Washington state into a permanent state of chaos.

The initiative process was dumped into the state constitution more than a century ago by reformers who believed that the representative process had been taken over by large interest groups. If the railroads, timber companies and mining companies controlled the legislative body, shouldn't "the people" have any recourse?

They may have been right in their assessment, but in giving "power to the people" they contradicted the intent of the Founding Fathers and set up the situation we find ourselves in today -- as Jacobsen sees it, with a system designed as a populist reform being used as the favorite tool of special interests.

"Initiatives have made the state ungovernable," Jacobsen says. "For the past 10 years, people have been passing dueling initiatives that cut state funds at the same time they increase spending. Everybody thinks they're great ideas when they pass them, but nobody wants to pay when the bill comes due."

Those most angered by Jacobsen's proposal would do well to read some American history. If the founders feared anything, it was direct democracy. James McHenry wrote that as the Constitutional Convention drew to its successful conclusion, a lady approached Benjamin Franklin on the street outside Constitution Hall, and asked, "Well, Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?" Franklin replied: "A republic, if you can keep it." (Note: Neither the questioner nor Franklin used the word "democracy.")

We might also recall Montesquieu's warning: "The principle of democracy is corrupted not only when the spirit of equality is extinct, but likewise when they fall into a spirit of extreme equality, and when each citizen would fain be upon a level with those whom he has chosen to command him. Then the people, incapable of bearing the very power they have delegated, want to manage everything themselves."

Wrapped as they have always been in the romance of the New England town meeting, almost all states permit direct democracy at the municipal, and, in some cases, county levels of government. But the truth is that the New England town meeting, in its ideal form, had a relatively short-lived run towards the last third of the 17th century, when citizens seized control from their selectmen. The practice of having all citizens make decisions about every aspect of public policy declined in direct proportion to the number of lawsuits rebutting some of those decisions, mostly over land-use issues. Those lawsuits started coming by the beginning of the 18th century.

Washington, like many western states, built the initiative into its constitution. Our state framers' reasoning seemingly went something like this: If the town meeting was a good idea, then local initiatives must be better and statewide democracy the best of all. But while the town meeting was problematic, even in small towns, at the state level, direct democracy has proven to be even worse.

We can be grateful that those men in Philadelphia weren't so gullible or romantic. Article IV, Section 4 of the Constitution reads: "The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union, a republican form of government." As Franklin might have pointed out, there is no mention of democracy, most especially direct democracy. Rather it is a republican form of government that we seek, a government of elected representatives who then govern on the people's behalf.

In his famous Federalist No. 10, James Madison argued that as required by the Constitution, representative government offers us the best chance to control what he termed "mischiefs of faction." He defined a faction as "a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community."

Madison probably couldn't imagine citizens who don't like to pay taxes rewriting the state tax code or the state's teachers uniting to get themselves pay raises, but if he were alive today he'd likely label such developments as "mischiefs of faction."

Senator Jacobsen stands foursquare with the Framers. It'll take a two-thirds vote of the legislature and a statewide vote to abolish the initiative process, but that's what must happen to make this representative form of government work. Without the moderating effects of deliberation, the mob takes over.

In recent years, Tim Eyman has shown us just how this works. Called by State Representative Jeff Gombosky (D-Spokane) our first "post-modernist politician," a man who stands for nothing except winning, Eyman has shown himself to be somebody who specializes in taking wild yet effective swings. Armed as he is with the power of paid signature gatherers, he has made deliberative government all but impossible. Tim Eyman is our Founding Fathers' worst nightmare.

Jacobsen urges that we show the Eymans of the world the door, so we can and get back to the kind of government our Founding Fathers intended.

Publication date: 02/20/03

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About The Author

Robert Herold

Robert Herold is a retired professor of public administration and political science at both Eastern Washington University and Gonzaga University. Robert Herold's collection of Inlander columns dating back to 1995, Robert's Rules, is available at Auntie's.