Topical Controversy A National Initiative Part 3

About the controversy surrounding a national initiative giving the public a vote on matters of government legislation.




Issue: Can the people fight City Hall? Should they?

Pro: A national initiative amendment would give new hope to an alienated and apathetic electorate. At present most of our political leaders emerge from one tiny segment of society--the community of lawyers, whose profession is a natural one for politics. Political hopefuls must enter the system through the party machine. The initiative process at local levels can change that by arousing citizens to action and developing leaders outside our present system. In working to qualify an initiative and get it passed, grass-roots activists develop skills valuable to our political system and may end up in government, where they can offer a much-needed fresh point of view. Ordinary citizens become better informed, more aware, more involved in civic affairs, more likely to vote. With the ability to propose and write their own laws, they have no excuse for alienated passivity. They can fight City Hall, and if they don't win on an issue, at least they have brought it into the public spotlight and there can be a next time. Politics is taken out of the smoke-filled room and brought into the open air.

Con: The nonvoters in our society, who comprise about 50% of us, are so turned off and feel so powerless that it will take more than an initiative to involve them. A badly educated slum dweller, already beaten down by society, sunk in apathy, won't get out of his chair to vote on an issue, much less work for it. His faith in the system is too shattered for him to do that.

Peter Bachrach, Professor of Political Science, Temple University: "I cannot see why a person who is scuffling for a job and who has not voted in the past 10 years is now going to say, `Ah, the nuclear power issue is a very important one. I have to rush to the polls and vote.'"

Pro: Through the initiative process, John Q. Public can get Congress cracking on stalled legislation and "hot potato" issues. Legislators have direct feedback on what people want, so they can be more responsive to the people's will. And if Congress fails to act, the people themselves can propose and enact a strong law, uncompromised by special-interest groups.

Consumer Activist Ralph Nader: "It's important that the ultimate check in a representative democracy is not revolution. The ultimate check is direct democracy."

Con: The initiative is a two-edged sword. Legislators threatened by an initiative can pass the buck to the electorate, knowing the issue will be settled at the ballot box and they can remain free of the taint of possible bias on a "hot" issue. They can always say they were overridden by the will of the people, and therefore become less accountable for what they do. Subtle compromise, through which legislators settle questions, is a strength of our system. An initiative decision is by definition yes or no, creating winners and losers. There's no chance for a just compromise with something for everyone. Ralph Nader's suggestion could also back-fire. Consider what would happen if the electorate passed an initiative forcing women to be housewives and only housewives, and half the housewives in the U.S. rose up in righteous rebellion.

Ernest Barker in Reflections on Government: "If a majority engages in discussion with a minority, and if that discussion is conducted in a spirit of giving and taking, the result will be that the ideas of the majority are widened to include some of the ideas of the minority which have established their truth in the give and take of debate. . . . Some fusion will have taken place; some accommodation will have been attained."

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