Traverse City Record-Eagle

Op-Ed Columns

August 30, 2012

Phil Power: Issues change, debate doesn't

"A republic, madam, if you can keep it." — Benjamin Franklin

The story goes that Ben Franklin, at the end of the Constitutional Convention in 1787, was asked, "Well, doctor, what have we got? A republic or a monarchy?" His answer was perfectly relevant to the political concerns of the 18th century, a world in which hereditary monarchies were the prevailing form of government. Our founders, however, opted for a democratic republic — and laid out the foundations of what was then a radically new structure, our Constitution.

Today, people are again debating what kind of government to have. And while the major issue is different, it is just as important. Today, the talk is about the distinction between a republic — in which elected representatives of the people make the decisions necessary to govern — and a direct democracy, in which many issues are left up to a direct vote of the people.

The changes in the way we pick senators and presidents were arguably for the better. But the tendency to make laws by statewide votes on ballot proposals has been much more destructive.

Some states, notably California, have seen state policy-making hobbled, year after year, by the enormous number of state ballot propositions, some of which contradict each other.

This has been made worse because it has become almost ridiculously easy to get a proposition on the ballot. I am far from alone in thinking referendum-run-amok is the best argument for preferring a "republic" to a "direct democracy." Ominously, this seems to be happening here, as well. Michigan, too, has a large number of ballot proposals kicking around. Backers of no less than seven proposals have collected the signatures required to get their respective issues on the ballot.

Many of these are currently tied up in the courts, and it's not my intention here to discuss the merits of any of them. What concerns me more is the increasing tendency to bypass our established governing institutions to improperly inject into the state Constitution propositions that at heart are special-interest political pleadings, such as requiring a public vote before building an international bridge.

Others are outright appeals to economic self-interest — the proposal to build eight more gambling casinos obviously benefits the folks who would own the designated properties.

Rich Robinson, who heads the watchdog group Michigan Campaign Finance Network, told Bridge Magazine nearly $30 million has been raised and $20 million already spent in support of various statewide ballot proposals. Robinson thinks this is a record.

"Voters should understand that, for the most part, ballot initiatives are anything but grass-roots democracy. Mostly, they are driven by an interest group with very deep pockets facing off against opposing interest groups with very deep pockets," he said.

The net result of this process, of course, is the very best (or perhaps worst) government that money can buy.

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