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Direct from Rousseau to Arnold

November 06, 2005|M. Dane Waters | M. DANE WATERS chairs the Initiative and Referendum Institute at USC.

THERE IS A common belief, especially among Californians, that direct democracy is a California phenomenon, invented in the Progressive Era to battle the power of the railroads. But millions of people around the world have used the initiative and referendum process over several centuries, dating to the Mayflower Compact of 1620.

In the late 1700s, Jean-Jacques Rousseau lent intellectual credence to the idea when he wrote "The Social Contract," in which he described popular sovereignty as a counterweight to the absolute power of kings and emperors. These words inspired the French revolutionaries of 1793 to introduce a new constitution that included -- for the first time in history -- the right of citizens to introduce new laws through the initiative process and the requirement that any constitutional changes be approved by the voters in a national referendum.

From revolutionary France, where the old, undemocratic order was soon re-established by Napoleon Bonaparte, the idea of initiatives and referendums moved to nearby Switzerland. The first nationwide referendum there took place in 1802, and a popular referendum process -- similar to California's -- was added to the constitution in 1874.

The Swiss and French experiences were soon being discussed around the world. Progressives and populists in the U.S. began advocating for similar actions, and in 1898 it was not California but South Dakota that became the first state to add the initiative process to its constitution. Between 1898 and 1912, at least 22 state constitutions -- including California's in 1911 -- were modified to include the initiative process.

More than 30 constitutions adopted after the fall of the Berlin Wall included elements of direct democracy, prompting the World Bank to call its proliferation "one of the most important political developments" in the world.

But far too often the process has been designed in such a way that citizens cannot easily utilize it. In fact, 60 countries that have constitutions allowing for national initiatives and referendums have never held such an election.

Despite this, between 1990 and 2003, national referendums took place in 91 countries. The most important recent example was the ratification of the new Iraqi Constitution.

There is a tendency to think only of California when we discuss initiatives. In fact, California isn't even the most prolific user of the process; Oregon is, having voted on 335 initiatives since 1904, compared to California's 290.The reality is that California is just one of the many players in the ever-expanding use of direct democracy around the world.

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