The Story of American Direct Democracy - Part One

Pictured: Kansas members of the People's Party, late 19th century.

Pictured: Kansas members of the People's Party, late 19th century.

This post was written by Ian Clarke, the Tufts University fellow working on the Citizens’ Initiative Review project team this summer. As part of Ian's work, he'll be preparing a weekly blog exploring topics related to CIR and the initiative and referendum system in Massachusetts. June 30, 2016.

We publish all of the information on our site, including the piece I posted last week, in the service of an honest exploration of what the mechanics of the modern ballot system in Massachusetts look like. But in thinking about where this blog should travel as we continue posting, we recognize that context is incredibly important. An essential component in knowing how this institution works in our state today is learning also how it first arose and how it spread to states throughout the nation.

The founders of the United States never really considered the sort of direct governance to which many Americans now have access (or anything like it). Most contemporary leaders of that era were wary of the masses as a political entity without the filter of a representative to vote on their behalf. Government in the United States adhered to this strictly representational course without interruption for over a century after the Revolutionary War.

But many Americans in the late nineteenth century came to feel that representative government was unduly influenced by industrial interests. Rather than try solely trying to occupy and re-assert control over the system that had escaped them, populists crafted proposals to circumvent the thick weeds of representative government by borrowing ideas the Swiss had used since the thirteenth century. The concept allowed ordinary citizens to assemble support for laws they wanted and then pose these questions to the people directly on Election Day.

By the year 1918, the enthusiasm for adopting these measures into state constitutions catapulted initiative and referendum mechanisms into over half of the states. The details and logistics did, as one might expect, vary from state to state. But they were without question all a product of a broad, common energy that had taken hold in the hearts and minds of millions of Americans.

The desire for this sort of democracy carried the day most strongly in the West, where farmers and laborers most identified the specter of the Eastern establishment as a threat. States in a bloc ranging from Montana to Arizona and California all enacted initiative and referendum measures during this period. However, across the wide swath of eastern states where direct democracy remained largely nonexistent, Maine and Massachusetts broke the mold and inserted these institutions into their state constitutions.

As we explore the best ways to conduct direct democracy in the state of Massachusetts, it's important to start thinking about the original impetus and inspiration for the system itself. In doing so, we also ask ourselves how well direct democracy functions in fulfilling that original hope: to renew a vital connection between the people and the laws they live under. But that story is for a second entry. More to come.