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November 5, 2005
Gray Lady Doesn't Like Democracy

The New York Times editorial board should consider putting its own essays behind the $50 sanity firewall, playing to its elitist core audience rather than the broader sphere of readers that engage in the political process. Today's editorial on referenda exposes Pinch's crew as the worst kind of elitists -- those who believe that American voters cannot be trusted with a democracy at all, but should instead rely on their betters to instruct them on how to behave:

Government by referendum should come with a warning: vote yes at your own risk. Measures placed on the ballot by citizen initiatives are by their nature missing the devil of the details. The questions are designed to be brief, often to the point of being misleading or confusing. When the list is interminable, as it is in some states this year, the overwhelmed voter might be best advised to just say no.

It's a wonder that in California, there hasn't been a proposition against propositions. The poor voters are wrestling with eight questions, thanks to their action-loving governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, who scheduled a special election to push through his own pet propositions. Other special interests followed once he had opened the door. Most of the questions involve matters that should be handled by the State Legislature. Voters are being asked, for instance, to choose between two different initiatives on prescription drugs, one sponsored by consumer groups and the other by drug companies, and both fatally flawed.

If Mr. Schwarzenegger thinks that the Legislature has failed to do the right thing when it comes to budgetary matters or teachers' tenure in the public schools, he should be out campaigning for different lawmakers, not asking the public to do their work during a quick trip to the polls. The problem, of course, is that districts are so carefully gerrymandered that they make almost every incumbent invulnerable to public pressure. The one proposition California voters should consider involves the one thing the legislators can never be expected to do for themselves: taking redistricting out of the hands of party power brokers and putting it into the hands of a nonpartisan commission.

Got that? The only time that Californians should get directly involved in creating the rules by which they live is to correct the manner in which their masters hold power. Otherwise, the poor dears shouldn't confuse themselves with so many different issues at one time. Why, this ballot contains eight different measures! Californians can't possibly derive informed and mature positions on that many issues at the same time, can they?

As a California native now living in a non-referenda state, I can assure the bluebloods at the Gray Lady that 30 million people can and often do multi-task when it comes to politics. For some reason, the Times considers this an impossible task -- but at the same time, I see that their RSS feed for the Opinion section today happens to have eight articles on completely different topics. What makes the Op/Ed editor more capable to make value judgments on that many topics each day than Californians making judgments on the same number of issues in an entire election cycle?

The Times apparently has little faith in the wisdom of the electorate. Do referenda sometimes get things wrong? Of course they do, and the Legislature can issue their own corrective action after the fact to fix it. The difference between California and Minnesota, though, is that Californians can directly do the same thing when the Legislature screws up, while Minnesotans cannot. They must wait for the next electoral cycle to pressure their representatives to revisit issues, which only works when voters can get significant seat changes in the election.

Direct democracy allows voters to hold their own check on legislative arrogance. It's telling that the New York Times demeans this power and encourages its abandonment in favor of an entrenched political class that has demonstrably become less accountable to the electorate.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at November 5, 2005 9:49 AM

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