Few Can Speak for Many in U.S. Politics
Ballot initiatives represent the will of the people – not special interests – according to a new book by a USC professor. 'Unprecedented growth’ in the popularity of the process has been integral to democracy’s progress for more than a century.
“For the Many or the Few: The Initiative, Public Policy and American Democracy” (University of Chicago Press) analyzes the initiative, a process in which citizens propose new laws by gathering the signatures of peers.
To write the book, Matsusaka examined more than a century of data from 50 states and 4,700 cities – including tax and spending data, and opinion data – to gauge the majority’s preference.
In comparing the policies created by the initiative to the expressed preference of the voters, he found that in each instance, the initiative reflected the majority’s preference.
“The idea that the initiative process empowers special interests doesn’t fit with the facts,” Matsusaka said. “You can still dislike the initiative process after seeing my results, but not because you think it allows special interests to subvert the majority.”
“For the Many or the Few” also tackles the preconception that the initiative process is a recent expression of democracy, when in fact it was first incorporated into a state constitution – South Dakota’s – in 1898.
“People have the idea that this is something new,” said Matsusaka, also president of the Initiative & Referendum Institute, a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank based at USC. “It’s been around a long time, and it’s clear the sky hasn’t fallen because of it.”
That said, Matsusaka cites “unprecedented growth” in the popularity of initiatives in the last 10 to 15 years. “People are much more educated and have access to much more information,” he said. “Therefore, people see less and less need to turn over authority on broad policy decisions. The government is left to implement them.”
Other key findings in “For the Many or the Few”:
Matsusaka’s book is careful to avoid any opinion on the effects of initiatives. “What’s a ‘good’ policy is a really subjective question,” Matsusaka said, adding, “Our constitution is designed to stifle majority rule if minority rights are threatened.”
In his findings, 70 to 80 percent of voters are glad to have the initiative process. “On balance, people think it’s better to have initiatives than not,” Matsusaka said. “It’s not perfect, but government never is.”
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