Seizing the Initiative: the Origins of Direct Democracy in the US


From Process: A Blog for American History by Nick Johnson author of Grass Roots: A History of Cannabis in the American West:

On April 3, Wisconsin voters decided the future of the office of state treasurer as part of a special referendum. This type of direct democracy usually receives less attention than candidates for office, but it often has a more direct effect on voters’ lives.

Lost in the din of the raucous 2016 presidential contest, for example, was another important democratic event: 2016 was the year of the ballot initiative. A total of 71 initiatives, the most of any year in the past decade, made it onto U.S. ballots. The mark was set in a political era already known for intense use of ballot initiatives; since 1990, Americans have placed 969 initiatives on the ballot, 150 more than in the previous five decades combined.

Why are citizens turning to ballot initiatives more often in the twenty-first century? Since the inception of direct democracy in the late nineteenth century, the use of ballot initiatives has spiked several times. Each instance provides clues as to what drives the intermittent embrace of this powerful political tool. What, if anything, can these cases tell us about the future of the initiative and the future of American democracy more generally?

So-called direct or pure democracy—government by a majority vote—dates as far back as ancient Greece, and in the United States it has precedent in the town hall meetings of seventeenth-century Massachusetts.[1] Despite their familiarity with both the ancient Greeks and the town hall, John Adams, James Madison, Thomas Paine, and other founders of the United States believed that true democracy tended to produce political instability. They eventually opted for indirect democracy in the form of a constitutional republic.

Read the rest of the article at Process: A Blog for American History

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