The Talisman of Direct Democracy

direct-democracyby Robb Davis

In an April 2011 in-depth report The Economist catalogued the failure of California’s 100-year experience with direct democracy. And while it reserved special ire for ballot initiatives, it also questioned the way that referendums and even recalls (the two other forms of direct democracy in our state) have been implemented, concluding that the de facto “citizen legislature” has “caused chaos”.

Contrasting California’s approach to direct democracy with that of Switzerland, The Economist noted that while the Swiss model was designed to move opponents towards compromise, the California system was designed to create confrontation. The result, the report argues, is a fragmented and even contradictory legislative process, an ineffective and bound legislature, opaque budgeting and appropriations processes and a disjointed constitution.  What goes unexamined in the analysis is the effect of direct democracy on local political processes.

As the calls multiply for various issues to be placed on the ballot here in Davis (The Vanguard noted four possible initiatives on August 20th), I think it is important for us to take a critical look at the purpose of these calls, and examine alternatives that remove the confrontation inherent in them while providing us with what we as a community need to move forward on contentious issues.

I am not opposed to direct democracy-especially if it is deployed to hold elected officials accountable.  But in order to use it effectively for that purpose we must focus first on increasing accountability in a way that makes referendums rare-a kind of last resort for when the priorities of the community are disregarded.

I have two major concerns about the use of direct democracy-especially for initiatives or to contest ordinances that are, obviously contentious but consistent with community priorities:  First, direct democracy requires an informed electorate-one that can not only understand the pros and cons of a particular initiative but place its value within the context of the broader needs of the community.  Second, and related to this point, because a city is a complex (if adaptive) system, any significant decision will have knock-on effects and be in tension with other priorities. As a result, and by their very nature, initiatives tend to be very narrowly focused and framed without reference to competing needs.

The history of initiatives at the state level demonstrates that both of these problems have plagued our “experiment” in direct democracy and because of their confrontational nature they do not lead to the kind of community dialogue that could lead to constructive compromise.  Too often they are developed and promoted by narrow special interests that seek advantages for a limited group of citizens.

While Davisites pride themselves in being informed and aware of local issues, it is difficult to argue that even a majority of citizens are engaged enough to cast an informed vote on a given issue (as evidence I appeal the percentage of people who, though registered, do not participate in local elections). Further, we are naïve if we think that special interests will not come, over time, to inhabit our local direct democracy processes.

Ballot initiatives are taken hostage to demagoguery, misinformation and rank fear mongering as proponents/opponents seek to compel their co-citizens to vote.  These realities characterize nearly every ballot initiative I have been part of since moving to California nearly 15 years ago.

Obviously, I am not suggesting that Davis “go it alone” and somehow attempt to limit citizens’ ability to use the direct democracy tools granted us in our state constitution.  Rather, I am asking us to consider what we might do to increase our confidence in our representational form of government so that our local elected officials can get on with making the hard decisions of governing our city. Again, I feel this is important because the issues facing our city are complex-and we need an informed group of elected citizens to account for this complexity in the decisions they make. We need leaders who understand that it is their role to consider the “big picture” in their decisions and help citizens to understand this, even if said citizens passionately disagree with leaders about decisions leaders make.

What then do we need to assure the foregoing and move towards both greater accountability and trust?  I would suggest four steps: 1) develop, update and routinely appeal to clear “end” statements in our decision making; 2) eliminate money from local elections; 3) facilitate more opportunities for face-to-face interaction between elected officials and citizens; 4) challenge candidates to articulate the values and principles that will underpin their deliberations and decision making processes.

Before describing each of these in a bit more detail I want to note a reality we must all acknowledge. The truth is that we, like all Americans of this era, live in what Rick Perlstein calls Nixonland. That is, we live in a time when our political discourse is characterized by intentionally constructing a deep sense of mistrust in our elected officials. “Nixonland” is a place in which the motives of politicians are known a priori and those motives are uniformly evil.  I am not suggesting that our elected officials are “pure” or above reproach, but what I am saying is that our default is to not give our leaders the space to lead because we are constantly questioning both their intentions and their fitness to lead.  It is hard to build trust in “Nixonland” but if we at least acknowledge that it is in the very air we breathe we may be able to curtail its worst excesses.

To build deeper trust through accountability we first need to be clear on the ends we are trying to achieve as a community.  I fully understand that conflict is more frequently found in the “how” than in the “what” but without clear ends towards which are agreed to collectively move, all decisions become subject to fundamental conflict over the objectives we are trying to achieve.  Several commenters on The Vanguard have noted that our General Plan is in need of updating and it is critical to do so because it functions as the key “ends” document of our city (there are others but we should be careful not to multiply them and assure they are grounded in the General Plan-a topic requiring further discussion).

However, we do not need to just create such documents (ideally through a citizen-centered process), but we must also actively use them.  Staff should be required to demonstrate how its recommendations are or are not consistent with our ends documents and that not in some perfunctory way, but with clarity and a critical assessment. City Council should expect the City Manager to utilize the ends documents as key guideposts and any goals it sets should be made in clear reference to it.  We must actively use these documents to frame the debates of this city and update them in a routine way. Commissions (a critical way citizens speak into our decision making processes) should be challenged to frame their actions in relation to these documents.

Part (or even a great deal) of the mistrust concerning our elected officials concerns money: who gives it, in what ways or amounts (notwithstanding locally-accepted limits) and to what ends.  I fully understand that we cannot legislate taking money out of local politics (it is apparently now enshrined as part of our free speech rights).  However, we can expect and even demand that our candidates run campaigns without it.  Raising money has become a kind of proxy for “support” or the “seriousness” of a given campaign but it comes with costs: both opportunity costs (how else could those resources be deployed?), and the cost to our degraded discourse because of the doubt its mobilization casts on the entire process.

Getting money out of our local electoral process is linked to the need to find more creative ways for our candidates and leaders to meaningfully engage with the citizens they represent.  Money does permit candidates to “connect”-albeit indirectly-with residents so eliminating it means we need to find ways to create connections-hopefully more meaningful connections. This leads me to believe that some form of regional election process is necessary for our city.  Connecting with 70,000 residents requires a mass marketing approach.  Connecting to a fifth of that number, while challenging, may allow for more personal, face-to-face interactions especially if that fifth is geographically defined.  I have lived here long enough to know that this idea has been (softly) batted around on and off for years.  I am suggesting it as a means to create more personal connections, more accountable encounters, and a greater sense of connection that leads to deeper trust between citizens and elected leaders.

Finally, we need to engage (in these more personal spaces) our candidates and elected officials in a different way.  We must spend more time helping them tease out for us the values, principles and motivations that underlie their decision making processes.  The more we understand the motivations the more we can challenge leaders about how their decisions are or are not consistent with them.  The more we understand them the less prone we will be to accept the gratuitous mudslinging that characterizes Nixonland.

We face complex choices and decisions that must account for the complexity while staying true to the “ends” we seek.  Direct democracy is poorly suited to deal with the complexity and, though promises are made to the contrary, does not lead to a better informed debate and dialogue on the issues.  We need to allow our leaders to lead by knowing them and their motivations better, by keeping them focused on critical ends with a deeper assurance that they are not unduly influenced by unseen forces.

Representative democracy is not a talisman but it is the best-suited approach to moving our community ahead as we face the continuing complex challenges of our age.  Strengthening it should be our priority.

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  1. SODA

    Robb, thoughtful as always. Thanks for your article. I was intrigued by the reference to Nixonland and will look it up. I have found myself slipping into that mentality, perhaps more often because of a Vanguard reader or because I enjoy watching the CC (and PC and School Board-yes get a life), questionaing and criticizing local representatives for their verbiage, postering and motives. Why? Often it is because I have thought they would be on ‘my side’ of a vote, and they have appeared to change….so it might be me being disappointed in the outcome and hence challenging their motives. No matter, you give good reasons to examine MY motives and get out of Nixonland (didn’t like him anyway!)…..

  2. Frankly

    Great work Robb! I enjoyed the read.

    By the way, I’m sure that you know our framers were as fearful of direct democracy as they were the tyranny of dictatorship.

    I’m sorry to get partisan again, but it is the political left that is at the root of this corruption of our representative democracy design. Read “This Town”, by Mark Leibovich and I think it helps to explain my accusation and this gravitation toward direct democracy.

    In a nutshell, a corrosive symbiotic relationship has developed between politics and the money-making entertainment media machine. Now, there had always been a corrosive symbiotic relationship between business and politics; however, it was the media that we could count on to help weed-out the crooks and shysters. Now these charlatans in politics and media are either one-in-the-same, or they are in bed together. And it is the Democrats that are doing most of the acting and sleeping around.

    The collapse of trust, confidence and approval of our government is in large part due to the fact that we have no remaining institution of power keeping it in check. It used to be the press/media, and to some degree the judicial. But even the judicial has been browbeat by the media-driven public opinion generator as proven by Justice Roberts vote to approve Obamacare and later justifying it as his role including the responsibility to protect the reputation of the court.

    Just look at how the IRS debacle has been handled by the media. This is something that would have taken down any President of the past. But the Obama Admin and the Democrats are the cash cows for the very media that should be critical of this absolutely fear-worthy action from one of the most powerful and corruptible agencies of the federal government.

    So, now we are left with this conundrum of how we combat the creep of tyranny that results when absolute power corrupts absolutely.

    Welcome direct democracy.

    The people are pissed off, and the initiative process is a useful, albeit problematic and messy, tool to prevent those elected officials from abusing their absolute power that derives from their ability to lie, cheat and steal without any oversight from the media.

    Personally, I welcome the California initiative process if only to prevent the actors in State politics from making a bigger mess.

  3. Don Shor

    I think Davis residents are happy with the practice of direct democracy to keep growth and development in check. Updating the General Plan is important, but for now it is the guide to our city’s growth policies. The commissions exist to provide citizens the opportunity to review proposals and make suggestions. The council relies on those commissions. Our zoning reflects the General Plan.
    It is when interest groups try to go outside the process (as with the land swap), or propose projects that conflict with the values that are reflected in the General Plan and expressed in past elections, that Davis citizens have had — time and again — to fall back on direct democracy. This happened with sufficient regularity that the voters chose to make it automatic with Measure J, and chose to extend that with Measure R.
    Stick to the process and you have a greater likelihood of getting your proposal through. Try to bypass citizen participation and you can expect strong, negative feedback.

  4. Davis Progressive

    “Stick to the process and you have a greater likelihood of getting your proposal through. Try to bypass citizen participation and you can expect strong, negative feedback. “


  5. JustSaying

    “Stick to the process and you have a greater likelihood of getting your proposal through. Try to bypass citizen participation and you can expect strong, negative feedback.”

    I can’t imagine that you really believe that “getting your proposal through” is at all likely if developers “stick to the process.” Measure J/R did not evolve in order to protect process, but to overturn legitimate process decisions and take them out of the hands of those we elected specifically to oversee the processes and make decisions.

    Furthermore, there’s a minority mob rule aspect to the direct democracy under discussion. How many issues get caught up in the moment, move ahead on a diet of special interest money and misinformation only to turn out to be something that the majority finds surprisingly bad or something that the Supremes remind us is unconstitutional.

  6. scooter

    this is a well written thoughtful piece that deserves publication beyond the Vanguard. Thank you for your thoughtful effort to bring some intelligence to this discussion

  7. B. Nice

    [quote]I fully understand that we cannot legislate taking money out of local politics (it is apparently now enshrined as part of our free speech rights). However, we can expect and even demand that our candidates run campaigns without it. [/quote]

    I agree with the sentiment, but unsure what this would like in practice? Do you mean the aren’t allowed to spend money on their campaign or they aren’t allowed to fundraise or accept money to run their campaign?

    [quote]First, direct democracy requires an informed electorate-one that can not only understand the pros and cons of a particular initiative but place its value within the context of the broader needs of the community.[/quote]

    I think this is a fatal flaw in the direct democracy system. Ballot measure’s are often confusing and misleading. The advertising around them is as well.

    [quote]I am not suggesting that our elected officials are “pure” or above reproach, but what I am saying is that our default is to not give our leaders the space to lead because we are constantly questioning both their intentions and their fitness to lead.[/quote]

    This is a part of local politics I have a lot of problems with. Wether or not we agree with our local elected officials they are basically volunteering a lot of time and energy this work (or getting paid very little by the hour), and for the most part receive no personal gain (Although it can be argued that some use it as a steeping stone to higher office). The disrespect often shown to them and the personal attacks they endure are disheartening.

  8. Robb Davis

    @B. Nice – Agreeing to keep money out of races could ONLY be done voluntarily. It is not a question of anyone allowing or disallowing it. If enough pressure were put on candidates by citizens I believe we could have voluntary pledges but it would only, ever, be that.

    @Don Shor – I think land use issues are an example of systematic disregard of process and priorities in the past. Indeed, I would probably concede that in Davis, land use issues (specifically taking land out of ag into housing or commercial/industrial) should probably continue to be placed on the ballot. This is not surprising because land is one of our most precious and scarce resources here (I know some will disagree with me on this), and so it is bound to be contentious and require more direct community engagement. The most recent “land swap” issue does, however, demonstrate that elected officials can get things right re: process.

    @Frankly – I hope you will read [i]The Economist[/i] special report. Unfortunately I cannot post it because it is behind a paywall. It will confirm some of what you write but challenge other parts.

    @SODA – [i]Nixonland[/i] is compelling but also a very useful history of the late 50s, 60s and 70s in the USA. It helped me understand much of what was going on around me when I was growing up in small town America during that period.

  9. Don Shor

    Davis residents elect council members based on a variety of characteristics: resumé, personal qualities, pedigree being prominent in recent years. We don’t expect them to be experts on things, really; we expect them to know how to find things out. What Davis does that is somewhat unique is the use of specialized task forces such as the WAC, the parking advisory task force, the innovation park task force, and so on. There citizens dig deeper, in public, and help move complicated issues forward. Sometimes it involves heavy public input: the housing element committee a few years ago was a very well-run, good example of citizen planning.
    So when those task forces put forth their recommendations, they have extra weight behind them. It can also be a very useful way to bring together different interest groups and get them to hash things out (the parking task force comes to mind).

  10. Robb Davis

    Don – I actually wanted to hold out such groups as examples of how representative democracy can operate to include more citizen engagement. Though it has not received as much publicity, the TAG has also done an amazing job on the Transportation Element update (I hope CC acts on their work soon). I simply forgot to include this point in what I wrote and am glad you raised it. My point would have been that such things–commissions, task forces, advisory groups–are and should be part of our representative democracy process.

    This does not imply that I want commissions to proliferate–they take staff time and can go off the rails. Indeed, I have advocated publicly that the commission that I serve on–the BAC–be folded into a transportation commission that would include the SPAC and maybe even be part of planning. Anyway, my colleagues on the BAC disagreed (as did the TAG).

  11. Don Shor

    I think most should have a sunset provision, or each new council should renew them. BEDC hasn’t met for three months because half the seats are vacant and they don’t have a quorum. So maybe it’s time to fold that into another commission. The short-term specific-duty ones really seem useful. We may need a WAC for a while longer, for example, but I don’t see it as a permanent body.

  12. Davis Progressive

    commissions are advisory bodies. they have limited power to change things. however, most have specific charges from council to conduct certain tasks.

    what is it that you are objecting to?

  13. Robb Davis

    Having seen the work of the WAC and TAG and being part of the DPTF, I would concur re: “short-term specific-duty ones really seem useful” I think this is a good model going forward.

    GI: these commissions are not trying to “change” things. The BAC is a good example. To get grants for most bike projects (street, education, etc.) the City needs a bike plan. This commission helps to develop that plan. Commissioners are unpaid volunteers who provide feedback to staff on the plan (and other issues) and are thus a useful sounding board to assure that community priorities are considered as staff develops the plan. I think that is a very useful role. The WAC and TAG did some serious, heavy lifting to supplement the work of the City Council. They were not out to “change” anything but to merely advise. I think that is a useful role for citizens to play in a representative form of government.

  14. B. Nice

    “My point would have been that such things–commissions, task forces, advisory groups–are and should be part of our representative democracy process. “

    These volunteers are also subject to harsh and often personal attacks and criticism from members of the public. I’m grateful there are people willing to donate so much or their time and expertise despite this.

  15. Don Shor

    Forwarded to me due to server problems….

    “You know guys, sometimes things are okay just the way they are, we don’t need all these commissions trying to change things.”

    I could not disagree with this statement more. There is no such condition as “things are okay just the way they are.” Such a condition does not exist. Nothing is static. Circumstances are constantly changing. And successful organisms and organizations are constantly adapting. Even those entities that are working their asses of to retain the status quo are changing relative to their environments.

    Transitioning from the philosophical to the practical, our community is not okay, so change is absolutely required. We do not generate sufficient revenue to meet our community needs and as a consequence, services are being cut and our infrastructure is deteriorating. The current state of our community is simply not sustainable.

    -Michael Bisch

  16. jimt

    Good article David,

    Moving toward something like the Swiss model should be contingent on strictly limiting (perhaps eliminating completely goes too far) the amount of money donated by any individual/business/organization to elections, and limiting lobbying (e.g. restrict # ‘free’ lunches and hosted ‘vacation’ meetings, etc.), such that no officeholder is beholden to special interests; no favors owed–this is especially important with regard to the City General Plan (as per Don Shor’s comments above).

    I guess I’m getting worried that as the workings of the City and the cities problems grow more complex; and we hire very sophisticated and executive-level paid personnel like our new city manager and the newly created high-tech business development liason (I forget name of the position); the complexity of the dealings and the specialized language that these guys employ will take the discussion out of the realm of the intelligent non-specialist (average voter in Davis); and the decision-making process is effectively sequestered to an inner-circle of the business-savvy senior level city employees and their connections in-the-know: this exposes those in the inner circle to temptation to, er, profit a bit (though no more than they are due, as can easily be rationalized when the opportunity comes) by compromising with big monied interests (who exert relentless pressure in areas such as land development). I’m posing this as a conundrum; I don’t have the solution for it. Thoughts? Meanwhile, I’m not ready to take it on faith that somehow senior city employees (decision makers) are invulnerable to temptation; and perhaps we do them a dis-service by exposing them to such temptation.

  17. Dave Hart

    Robb Davis was (is) a gift to the city of Davis and this article seems even more relevant than when it was written nine years ago.  The current DISC proposal distills much of the problem.  As a community we don’t know where we are headed or where we want to be with development of land or our economic base 50 years from now.  We have no vision for what we want the future of Davis to look like.  Our arguments fragment around rather trivial issues like traffic or if the developers are overselling some aspect to get a yes vote when, all along, the community should be weighing the pros and cons against the goal of what we have agreed we want for our future.  With no real goals, no vision, there is no give and take or compromise possible.  Fears of what we don’t like on a personal level fills the void and stands in for informed decision-making.

    1. Ron Oertel

      With no real goals, no vision, there is no give and take or compromise possible. 

      As opposed to Natomas, Elk Grove, Sacramento, Folsom, San Jose, Los Angeles . . .

      Robb Davis was (is) a gift to the city of Davis and this article seems even more relevant than when it was written nine years ago.

      Strikes me as someone who takes himself a little too seriously, as do others.  Almost cult-like, regarding how some others view him.

      Certainly quite a few not too happy with his support of Trackside, at least.

      But at least he didn’t sue his own constituents.

      I miss the days of Wagstaff, Harrington, Greenwald (no, not the Vanguard’s Greenwald), . . . Though it seemed to have been a short moment in time, before some rather hostile forces took over the council, again.

  18. Ron Oertel

    Seems to me that some folks have lost sight of the reason for Measure J, in the first place.  Its primary purpose is to ensure that decisions to take peripheral prime farmland out of production are not taken lightly, or decided by 3 people on a council.

    I’ve been frankly shocked on this blog, at how that goal is discounted. Probably by people who don’t care about that issue in the first place. I view it as near-insanity, regarding how anyone not financially connected to a proposal would think this is (generally) a good idea. You’d think that this wouldn’t even be a “controversy”.

    1. Craig Ross

      People have not forgotten that.  Everyone has different priorities.  One of the problems with Measure J is that it further politicizes a process.  The way to defeat a project is to make hyperbolic claims and scare the public.  On the other hand, instead of putting forward the best possible projects, the developers put forward a project they think (hope) can pass a vote.  Strangely you trust the voters to vote against a project but not to vote for representatives.

      1. Ron Oertel

        There’s no need to “scare the public”, as there’s actual downsides to peripheral proposals.  Starting with paving over farmland and open space, then moving on to traffic, greenhouse gasses, etc.

        And yet you don’t mention how developers and their allies put forth hyperbolic claims in support of their proposals.

        The public is less-inclined than council members to support development proposals.  Not just in Davis, but in almost every city. However, I’m shocked at how many voters DO support every proposal.

        Getting back to Robb Davis, one of the consequences of taking yourself too seriously is that you then tend to believe that you “know best”, or at least better than the “unwashed masses” – as another commenter put it.  And when you have cultish followers, it’s even worse.

        And then tend to downplay the actual values of others, as well.

        Personally, I’d like to see a LOT FEWER proposals come forth in the first place. Give the city a break, for once. Let it digest what it’s already approved.

        1. Ron Oertel

          The same reason that proponents put forth their claims. Though only one side really has any type of direct financial stake, and the funds to get their message across.

          No – there’s nothing fun about it. Which is one of the reasons I’d like to see a lot fewer proposals in the first place. If DiSC can be defeated, maybe that will put the kibosh on them for awhile.

          And then, the Vanguard can back to fighting social justice battles, full-time. (At which point I’d look forward to tuning out, or chuckling in the background at some of those claims.)

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