Democratic Delusions

The Initiative Process in America

Richard J. Ellis

It is becoming common in many states: the opportunity to reclaim government from politicians by simply signing a petition to put an initiative on the ballot and then voting for it. Isn't this what America ought to be about? Proposition 13 in California's 1978 election paved the way; the past decade saw more than 450 such actions; now in many states direct legislation dominates the political agenda and defines political—and public-opinion.

While this may appear to be democracy in action, Richard Ellis warns us that the initiative process may be putting democracy at risk. In Democratic Delusions he offers a critical analysis of the statewide initiative process in the United States, challenging readers to look beyond populist rhetoric and face political reality.

“Ellis masterfully uses vivid cases to illustrate broad underlying problems. This is a book to crystallize simmering discontent.

—Publishers Weekly

“An important book for those seeking to understand debates about how democracy functions in the western United States at the start of the twenty-first century.

—American Political Science Review
See all reviews...

Through engaging prose and illuminating (and often amusing) anecdotes, Ellis shows readers the "dark side" of direct democracy—specifically the undemocratic consequences that result from relying too heavily on the initiative process. He provides historic context to the development of initiatives-from their Populist and Progress roots to their accelerated use in recent decades-and shows the differences between initiative processes in the states that use them. Most important, while acknowledging the positive contribution of initiatives, Ellis shows that there are reasons to use them carefully and sparingly: ill-considered initiatives can subvert normal legislative checks and balances, undermine the deliberative process, and even threaten the rights of minority groups through state-sanctioned measures.

Today's initiative process, Ellis warns, is dominated not by ordinary citizens but by politicians, perennial activists, wealthy interests, and well-oiled machines. Deliberately misleading language on the ballot confuses voters and influences election results. And because many initiatives are challenged in the courts, these ostensibly democratic procedures have now put legislation in the hands of the judiciary. Throughout his book he cites examples drawn from states in which initiatives are used intensively—Oregon, California, Colorado, Washington, and Arizona-as well as others in which their use has increased in recent years.

Undoing mistakes enacted by initiative can be more difficult than correcting errors of legislatures. As voters prepare to consider the host of initiatives that will be offered in the 2002 elections, this book can help put those efforts in a clearer light. Democratic Delusions urges moderation, attempting to teach citizens to be at least as skeptical of the initiative process as they are of the legislative process—and to appreciate the enduring value of the representative institutions they seek to circumvent.

About the Author

Richard J. Ellis is Mark O. Hatfield Professor of Politics at Willamette University. His other books include The Dark Side of the Left: Illiberal Egalitarianism in America and Presidential Lightning Rods: The Politics of Blame Avoidance, both from Kansas, and, most recently, Founding the American Presidency.

Additional Titles in the Studies in Government and Public Policy Series