Monday, August 09, 2004

Intiatives For America: The Case For Reviving the Direct Legislation Leagues

"America is not supposed to be like this... We can do better."

At the turn of the twentieth century, this thought rallied the Progressive movement to beat back the overwhelming corporate power that had corrupted the political system. That same corruption faces us today, perhaps even more entrenched, and certainly better organized. Then as now, our political system was paralyzed by corporate money. Then as now, our media were dominated by corporate interests. Corporate owners have become more subtle in their censorship of our media, and in substituting propaganda for real news to serve their own ends. Politicians have become more circumspect about being bought. But the underlying rules are same: money buys power, and power attracts money.

There is a difference today, however. The wise men and women of the last Progressive movement left us a legacy they had to fight madly to create. They vigorously and intelligently used this legacy to establish party primaries and conventions, to elect Senators by direct vote of the people, to mandate an 8-hour workday, to establish juvenile courts, to limit the expenditures of candidates for public office, to enact some of the first recycling laws, to implement the non-partisan ‘Missouri Plan’ for judicial selection, and to cause many other government reforms that could not have been enacted via the legislature and which form the basis of modern government. That legacy is, of course, the Initiative and Referendum (I&R) process provided for in the Constitution or laws of 40 states, in one form or another. The Progressive legacy of I&R gives us a tremendous advantage over those who would stop needed reforms: most people agree with us.

The Progressive Challenge:
The I&R process is not perfect. It can be used to pass laws which appeal to people’s fear, ignorance, and prejudice, and it has been used by corporate interests to pursue their self-interest over the public interest. But in leaving fallow this tool left us by our progenitors for the very purpose which awaits us - to secure the rights of our citizens and reform the process of government - we surrender great power to exclusive use by narrow and moneyed interests. We must take this tool firmly and skillfully in hand and dominate its use to such an extent that Initiatives for America (IFA) becomes synonymous with Initiatives, and any measure without IFA approval is handicapped from the outset. With the help of the organizations we have built over the past several years (DFA, MoveOn, ACT and many others), we can fashion anew important aspects of American government, starting in the states.

A New Institution:
The original Progressives mastered the use of I&R through Direct Legislation Leagues, coordinated and assisted by a National Direct Legislation League. We must resurrect both these institutions, and link them together via the power of the internet to create a national grassroots network, IFA, to empower citizens to take back their state governments. The Leagues should narrowly focus on just one or two I&R issues at a time in order to concentrate resources on reforms that enable democracy to work itself free of special interest money and the stultifying grasp of the two-party system.

Currently, I&R proposals are a scatter-shot of narrow, often obscure and poorly-concieved measures, including some harmful and misleading ones. Vigorous efforts to include IFA evaluations in voter information brochures and to publicize clear analysis of measures in every state, as well as Dean's own imprimatur, will be very important for voter education and for building awareness and reputation for this new political brand.

IFA cannot husband every Initiative, of course. Very often independent citizen’s groups will spring up to organize on behalf of an Initiative, or in opposition to one. IFA’s task in such cases would be to provide data, money, logistical support, a volunteer base, and professional consultation with the groups that share our Progressive goals. Working with the DFA network and other progressive groups, the IFA can focus more volunteer energy, contributions, and attention on the I&R process, and on meritorious proposals, than these tools of citizens’ empowerment have received in nearly 100 years. Reactionary grassroots groups and cooperate interests have discovered the power of the I&R process and are using it vigorously; we would be foolish not to organize in order to oppose them, and to implement our agenda instead.

Interstate Issue Focus:
A National IFA organization should focus on coordinating the same or very similar issues across all states simultaneously in order to enable our I&R campaigns to be of national scope and importance. A clear focus will attract the grassroots energy, volunteers, and money needed in each state to aid in educating voters. A national network will allow Progressives everywhere to put resources into targeted states to defeat onerous measures, to defend critical ones, and to contribute generally to building the momentum that victories bring to the victors.

Goal One:
Perhaps the most critical issue in American politics today is political fundraising and contributions. The deadlock on the subject nationally is not likely to be resolved even by the election of a new President, nor a Democratic Senate, possibly not even with a Democratic House. As we approach this problem we need to think long-term and systemically. Arizona already has a good, if incomplete, system for the financing of state races. Predictably, it is under attack via the I&R process this very term.

A state-based organization has formed to defend Arizona’s system, and grassroots organizations have formed in every state to press for Clean Elections, but they haven’t the visibility, budget, or manpower for this national fight which should be the highest priority of Progressives. They need our help. We must organize and pour money and resources into defending and extending Clean Elections every state.

Luckily, the opponents of Clean Elections may have waited too long to attack the system in Arizona. Polling indicates broad support for the system in Arizona, and Prop 106, should it get back on the ballot, will likely fail. But our opponents won't make this mistake in other states. They will attack sooner, more forcefully, and even more deceptively. Only an organization as strong as IFA can confront them.

By running hard on this critical issue in all states at once, the media impact of Clean Elections will be greatly magnified and the ground prepared for future reforms. Polling suggests wide support for campaign finance reform across the country, and for public financing in particular. This is fight that Progressives can win now in the states, and then use those victories as a powerful argument for meaningful national reforms.

Long-Term Goals:
After this first goal is reached, the organization will be fully in place, and candidates who win via public financing will be entering statehouses across the country. This will improve the odds of success in legislative affairs and begin to incubate future Congressmen, Governors, Senators and other officials who support Clean Elections. Changing decision-makers’ minds by changing their institutional context will prove a boon to long-term reforms of the political system. DFA can then tackle issues such as "Right to Work", health care, corporate power and personhood, electoral system and districting reform, and other issues foundational to reigning in corporate influence on our politics and narrowing the growing economic disparities that threaten the stability and equity of our society.

A National Strategy:
The I&R process is the Citizen's Parliament. If we haven’t the discipline and determination to control the process and define the rules of the game, someone else will - such neglect has too often been harmful to Progressive interests and values. The worst excesses and abuse of the I&R process have occurred because citizens weren’t sufficiently organized to mount an effective resistance. Like many tools, I&R can be dangerous in unskilled, or ill-intentioned hands. All the more reason to cherish this legacy and maintain our mastery of its use. We can't achieve our goals by wishing I&R away, only by wielding I&R skillfully as a weapon against Regressive forces.

Frequently, the lack of solid strategic sense and coordination between initiative sponsors and a state or national entity with a wider strategic view of the political landscape can lead to unintended side-effects. For instance, the Arizona Protect Arizona Now (PAN) initiative is very unpopular among Hispanic and Native American voters. Yet Arizona’s Congressional District 1 may well be determined by Native American voters, and Southern Arizona, a key battleground that will likely determine the outcome of the Presidential race in Arizona, is heavily populated by Hispanic voters. These demographics will be drawn out in even greater numbers to vote against PAN, and as these demographics are predominantly Democratic, they could swing these elections to Democrats. This is certainly not the effect the Initiative’s sponsors had in mind. To avoid such phyrric victories, or even to plan for them in some cases, the national strategic vision of professional political management is a key component of a National League.

Network Effects:
The I&R process requires an intense manpower investment just to get started. The signature requirements to qualify for the ballot shoot down most initiatives. After that hurdle is cleared, there is still the challenge of conveying an often complex message clearly to the electorate of an entire state. These campaigns can cost hundreds of thousands, even millions of dollars. Relying solely on an often apathetic or ignorant electorate of a single state for that sort of funding explains why so few grassroots I&R measures pass, if they even get on the ballot. Only the media power and the large database of a national network can tap into both the local manpower and the national funding needed for serious media campaigns on complex issues.

I have tried to summarize here the urgent case for progressive groups to come together to back a restored National Direct Legislation League (IFA) with a permanent and/or contract staff for legal research, training, PR, and consulting. Our new National League should be directed by an elected Board drawn from state League chapters that can be formed regardless of whether a state has I&R. All Americans should have the opportunity to participate meaningfully in the process of direct democracy; the greatest weapon in keeping power in hands of citizens, where it belongs.

This story is just beginning. There is only one person who can make a restoration of the Leagues a reality, and that is you. If this is a project that excites you, advocate for it, research it, write about it, and keep in touch with others who share your interest. The day will come when a critical mass of activists exist to recreate the Leagues, and every person you recruit to that purpose brings that day closer. If we can meet the challenges of bypassing a dysfunctional political system in order to reform it, we can ensure that the real America matches that ideal nation that we teach our children to love.

If you are interested in helping to revive the Direct Legislation Leagues, please join the Initiatives For America Yahoo Group to keep up to date and share ideas and information.


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