A Conservative Scholar Opines On Direct Democracy & America’s Founding Principles


In my earlier post on Mayor Tait’s two proposed amendments that would further incorporate direct democracy and ballot-box budgeting into the City Charter, I made references to Professor Ronald Pestritto.  Professor Pestritto is the Dean of the Graduate School of Statesmanship at Hillsdale College, and he holds the Charles and Lucia Shipley Chair in the American Constitution. he is a scholar of the progressive movement and its long march to decouple American government from the principles of the Founding. I first encountered him as a member of the Claremont Institute’s 2012 class of Lincoln Fellows; Professor Pestritto was out lecturer on American progressives.

The following passage from this Pestritto essay is illuminating in terms of the approaching council deliberation on the proposed charter amendments that would further subject Anaheim city government to the vicissitudes of progressive governance:

There can be no question that the Progressives’ agenda for state and local government was aimed squarely at undoing the republican principles of America’s Founders. The best evidence for this is the Progressives themselves, who were entirely open and honest about it. Progressive changes in state and local government undermined the Founders’ republican principles in two fundamental ways.

First, the Founders wanted to secure both democratic rule and protection for individual natural rights and thus established popular self-government through institutions that would “refine and enlarge the public views.” Majority rule through the institutions of government would yield the “cool and deliberate sense of the community” and filter out the factious or tyrannical tendencies of passionate, immediate majority opinion. For the Progressives, such thinking exalted the position of the minority at the expense of vigorous government action in pursuit of social justice. The Progressives were simply not concerned about potential tyranny by the government in the way that Madison and America’s other Founders had been. Progressive direct-democracy measures, at both the state and local levels, thus sought to circumvent the refining and enlarging process of America’s political institutions.

Second, while the Founders certainly believed in vigorous national administration (the lack of it had been a principal objection to the Articles of Confederation), administration for them had to be closely tied to electoral accountability in order to maintain the very idea of self-government. For the Progressives, this connection of administration to public opinion made government “unprofessional” and impeded the kind of expertise necessary to manage the vast agenda they had in mind for government. Administration would be good, from the Progressive viewpoint, only to the extent that it was liberated from electoral accountability, because that accountability is what leads to the opportunity for corruption. If officials did not have to worry about their electoral self-interest, then (Progressives falsely reasoned) they would be freer to do the objectively right thing. Progressive efforts to move governing authority—especially in cities—away from elected officials and into the hands of “nonpartisan” commissions and managers reflect this view.

In addition to these principled reasons for conservatives to think carefully about the Progressive agenda at the state and local levels, there is the more concrete objection that Progressive measures have turned state government into a chaotic mess. No one who has spent any time in the state of California—the state where the Progressive reforms described in this paper have arguably had the greatest impact—can rationally argue that it is well governed.

There are many reasons for this, but high on the list is the dizzying number of often contradictory pieces of direct legislation that have been made a part of the state’s constitution since the days of Hiram Johnson. Voters are regularly asked to decide on lengthy ballot initiatives that are not well understood but have a profound effect on state government; since these initiatives are usually put into the state constitution, the legislature is unable to improve them even when—as is often the case—the people themselves sour on them. As a result, the state constitution has become so long and convoluted that no one other than lawyers can possibly make sense of it. (The contrast to the federal Constitution in this respect is instructive.)

It is easier, politically speaking, to argue to requiring a popular vote on this or that type of government action; critics who rightly point out that the voters simply lack the time and expertise (and often the interest) to directly manage city or county or state government can have their opinion twisted as saying voters aren’t smart.

But if backers of these amendments really think direct democracy is the right and proper way to run city government, they should have the courage of their convictions and subject any significant expenditure or commitment of public funds to a popular vote.

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