Between now and the November special election, we will hear a lot from politicos about what the election means for the future of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Democrats who control the Legislature and their powerful union backers. But beneath the drama there is a bigger story to watch about the future of democracy in this nation.
The eight probable initiatives on the ballot are the crest of a swelling wave of direct democracy. More than 160 initiatives went before the voters nationwide in the last decade, beating the record number of the previous decade, which broke the record of the decade before that. Since Proposition 13 in 1978, ballot-box lawmaking has become a great snowball that grows larger and larger as the years roll by.
Californians can be forgiven if they pay less and less attention to the Legislature, because less and less of the public's business is being worked out there. From setting policy on budget and tax priorities, stem cells, marijuana, abortion and marriage, the public is making more and more of the decisions at the ballot box.
And citizens like it that way. By poll margins ranging from 20% to 65%, citizens across the nation say they think initiatives and referendums are a good idea. A recent Public Policy Institute of California survey found that 72% of Californians believe that voters, rather than legislators, should make budget decisions.
Even though direct democracy does not come with all the checks and balances of the legislative process that are supposed to protect the rights of the minority from a "tyranny of the majority," the racial and ethnic groups that some think are most at risk support the initiative -- 60% to 70% of Asians, blacks and Latinos say it is a good idea.
None of this is to say that direct democracy is a panacea free from the frictions that gum up the machinery of regular democracy. Propositions are often long and complicated, and surveys show that most citizens don't read them in detail.
Instead, voters rely on what political scientists call "information cues" -- advice from sources they trust, including family and friends, the media and political leaders.
This might seem like cheating, but it's really no different than what legislators do. Last year, the Legislature sent the governor about 1,200 bills. You can be sure most lawmakers didn't read much of what they voted on, but instead relied on advice from sources they trust.
Direct democracy is exploding because of fundamental demographic and technological changes over the last 40 years. When the republic was formed, ordinary citizens had little formal education, and many had only a tenuous grasp on reading. With communications that moved at the speed of a man on a horse, even a literate person had to struggle to be informed. It made perfect sense to appoint an elite group of educated representatives to meet in the state capitals and conduct the public's business.
Even 40 years ago, just over one-third of the adult population had a high school diploma. Now 85% of us are high school graduates, and more than a quarter of us have college degrees. Technology also allows us to tap vastly larger amounts of information now. The upshot is that the typical educated and informed citizen of the 21st century no longer sees his or her representatives as having a monopoly on knowledge or wisdom.
Adjusting to the new realities of democracy requires a change in mind-set. Many Californians still believe that legislators ought to make all the important decisions for the people and that when an issue ends up on the ballot, it means the Legislature has failed to do its job. But there is really no reason for the Legislature to be the first stop for important policy issues. Voters are no less capable of setting broad budget priorities or deciding if marijuana can be used for medical purposes, if gambling should be legal, if parents should be informed when minors request abortions and a host of other issues. These policy choices define a community's values, and it seems proper for the people to speak on them.
Politicians are having the hardest time adjusting to the idea that their job is to follow the will of the people and not the other way around. Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles), for example, said "another election is not the solution; it's the problem."
But elections have always been the solution in democracy, and increasingly so. The gridlock in Sacramento is the result of sincere disagreement about spending priorities, taxes, apportionment and the role of the public sector. Why shouldn't the people be involved? Win or lose, Schwarzenegger is pushing California further down the road toward a new kind of democracy in which the Legislature is eclipsed by the people.