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June 6, 2008
The Proposition 13 Revolution Turns Thirty
Thirty years ago, on June 6, 1978, Americans began a political revolution. Unlike most political revolutions in our history, this was not a revolution at the federal level and it was not a revolution led by politicians. The Revolution of 1978 was more, in fact, a popular revolution against political leaders than a revolution led by politicians or political parties.
What was this revolution? It was called "Proposition 13" and its immediate consequence was to limit the exploding property taxes in California. Rising property taxes were a form of unlegislated tax increase triggered solely because of the rising value of California homes. These tax hikes did not reflect an increase in the income of Californians who continued to own their homes, and the practical effect was to compel many California homeowners to choose between selling their home or destitution. Proposition 13 passed with a whopping 65% of the vote.
This Revolution of 1978 changed how government operated. Twenty-one states have a direct initiative and referendum process, and these are overwhelmingly located in the Pacific Coast, Rocky Mountain region and the Great Plains. Yet this tool of the people had been seldom used. In the thirty years before Proposition 13, Californians only approved seventeen propositions or about one every two years. In the thirty years since Proposition 13, Californians have adopted seventy-four propositions or about five every two years.
But it was not just the initiative component of direct democracy that was ignited in 1978. The bundle of direct democracy includes initiative, referendum and recall. Using recall the people of California removed from office a sitting a sitting Governor, Gray Davis, from office because of his corrupt Democrat machinations. He was only the second governor in American history to be recalled.
The will of the people was increasingly determining the law of our largest state. Consider that in the decade from 1961 to 1970, the people in states adopted only 37 ballot initiatives. In the decade from 1991 to 2000, the people in states adopted more than five times as many, 188 ballot initiatives. These propositions did not always lead to conservative victories, but in many cases it did and even when a conservative proposition went down to defeat, it was often by a close margin in California.
What was true in California after the Revolution of 1978 has been true throughout those states which allow direct democracy. The people, overriding legislatures and state bureaucracies, have implemented through initiative and popular vote policies like allowing school vouchers and charter schools, ending bilingual education, making English the official language, establishing term limits for elected officials, enacting Right to Work, requiring a vote of the people to increase taxes, ending racial preferences in hiring, and requiring notification of parents in case of abortion.
Circumventing legislative cabals is important, but circumventing the Leftist media establishment is at least as important. Abortion is a perfect example of how direct democracy can not only trump the established bosses of legislatures and special interests but, more importantly, how direct democracy can trump the established bosses of the establishment media. What is the drumbeat of Leftist media reporting on abortion? "Most Americans do not want to overturn Roe v. Wade.") Really?
That is simply a reflection of how Roe v. Wade has been presented to America. This deformed, macabre decision has little to do with the right to abortion - any state government could have legalized abortion and three states had legal abortions at the time of Roe v. Wade. What the Supreme Court did was to prohibit state regulation of abortion on the grounds that some nebulous constitutional right to abortion swamped states' rights (never mind that murder and rape are illegal only because state laws make them so.)
Consider how the Leftist media's own polling data exposes true public sentiment on abortion. CBS News in 2003 polls showed sixty percent of Americans wanted abortion illegal or more restricted than now. An ABC News poll the same year showed only twenty-three percent of Americans wanted abortion legal in all cases. A CNN poll in 2003 showed only twenty-four percent of Americans wanted abortion legal in all cases. An L.A. Times poll in 2007 showed only thirty-one percent of Americans wanted abortion legal in all cases and a CBS poll the same year shows only twenty-six percent of the people wanted abortion legal in all cases. Very few Americans want the grotesquerie called Roe v. Wade.
Or consider affirmative action. The Gallup Poll in 2003 showed that only twenty-seven percent of Americans believe that race should be a factor at all in college admissions. Moreover, forty-four percent of blacks and fifty-nine percent of Hispanics believe that college admission should be based exclusively on merit. This was in almost perfect accord with a Hart and Teeter poll which showed only twenty-six percent of Americans favoring the use of race as a factor in college admission. In both polls, two-thirds of Americans opposed using race at all as a factor in college admissions.
In these two "hot topic" areas - abortion and affirmative action - polls by the establishment Leftist media show an overwhelming opposition to both abortion on demand and racial preferences in college admissions. Yet we subjects of self-appointed secular priests are shoved into the moral and intellectual ghettos of "racism" or "misogyny," and told that we have no weapons beyond humble appeal to the remote, condescending high courts of bureaucratic Leftism to make our case.
The Revolution of 1978 was about who governs America. State governments, like the federal government, are largely dominated by career politicians, legislative staffers, bureaucrats, advocacy groups and complicit media. Whether public schools work or not matters much less to this gaggle of government gamesters than the lash of teachers' unions. The damage of affirmative action counts less than the hissing of civil rights careerists. And can anyone conceive of legislators voluntarily placing a limit on their terms of office?
Legislators of every sort are increasingly remote from the people. Members of the House of Representatives, for example, have about 600,000 constituents per district - and that is from the branch of the federal government intended to be closest to the people. When the Constitution was adopted, there was a congressman for about every 30,000 people. Those who were once our democratic representatives have become instead members of nobility - something that our Founding Fathers banned.
Plebiscite politics, placing government decisions directly in the hands of the people, including the right to compel a vote on issues, is imperfect - but then so is democracy. Churchill famously quipped: "Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the rest." The purpose of democracy is not to create a government that makes good laws or wise policy decisions, but rather to prevent government from becoming oppressive. This is a bit of history which professional politicians have forgotten. In the Declaration of Independence, after the famous statement that the purpose of government to protect "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness," Jefferson wrote "That it is to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, drawing their just powers from the consent of the governed." That it is to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men.
We, the governed, have been progressively denied a direct voice in our governance. Congress is now a Congress of Nobles, a Second Estate in pre-Revolutionary France, protected by courtiers of myriad type and interest. The First Estate, what was then the clergy and is in America the judiciary (especially the federal judiciary), governs autocratically our consciences, telling us what is right and what is wrong. What influence average Americans have in our laws or policies has been reduced to something greater than a vote by a Soviet citizen, but into something growing more like a pseudo-vote.
The exception is when citizens can band together in states, circulate petitions, wage policy campaigns and hold elections on laws. Conservatives overwhelmingly have used this tool to circumvent the bosses of our politics and government. That does not mean the substance of what we seek always wins - it does not - but it does mean that a ruling elite vastly more remote from our lives than King George III and Parliament were from the lives of American colonials in 1776 have a weapon used well to fight back for our freedoms and our values. The revolution has been going on for thirty years. The first shot was fired in California in the Revolution of 1978