Where the Right Lost

After the muddled 2000 election and the evenly divided Congress it produced, it didn't take any special wisdom for the pundits to conclude that nobody got a mandate and that voters were too split to send any clear signal. But on some major issues, the electorate spoke with absolute clarity. One such issue was public education. Voters overwhelmingly rejected voucher initiatives in Michigan and California, approved a measure to make it easier to pass local school bonds in California, and supported initiatives to increase funding and teacher salaries and reduce class sizes in Colorado, Oregon, and Washington.

Equally important was the nearly unequivocal vote of no confidence in the nation's repressive drug laws. Of the seven major drug-law-reform initiatives on state ballots, five passed. Easily the biggest was California's Proposition 36, which requires that virtually all persons convicted of nonviolent drug possession be sent to treatment rather than jail or prison; voters endorsed the proposal by a surprisingly large margin--61 percent to 39 percent. [See Peter Schrag, "Declaring War on the Drug War," TAP, September 25- October 9, 2000.] Proposition 36 appears to have won by a larger spread than any other seriously contested issue or candidate in the nation. In addition, voters in Colorado and Nevada approved initiatives legalizing the medical use of marijuana, while citizens in Utah and Oregon elected to liberalize asset forfeiture laws.

Another big winner, for better or worse, is likely to be the initiative process itself. Ever since Vietnam and Watergate, voters have been ever more distrustful of politicians and conventional politics. Increasingly, in the two dozen states that have it, they are inclined to use the initiative to make major policy decisions. On tax policy, legislative term limits, and criminal sentencing; on affirmative action and immigration; on wildlife protection, tougher gun control, and increases in the minimum wage--the center of gravity in policy making is shifting to plebiscitary democracy.

Because many of this year's victories included liberal causes, such as new gun control measures in Colorado and Oregon, and because the losers included a number of conservative proposals--among them, initiatives calling for large tax cuts in Alaska, Colorado, and Oregon (though one passed in Massachusetts)--the outcome challenges the widespread belief, held since the start of the 1978 tax revolt in California, that direct democracy is almost entirely an instrument of the right.

Let's look at the issues one at a time. Surely the election's biggest losers were the billionaire sponsors of school voucher initiatives. Tim Draper, the Silicon Valley venture capitalist who almost single-handedly funded California's Proposition 38, was buried by an avalanche of no votes (71 percent to 29 percent), despite the $30 million he spent on the campaign. In addition to Draper's loss, there were the two-to-one defeat of the Michigan voucher initiative funded by Amway founders Betsy and Dick DeVos and the rejection of a broad charter school measure in Washington State sponsored by yet another billionaire, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. The election may not have driven a stake through the heart of the voucher movement, but it made clear that any future attempt to secure voters' approval to use tax funds for private-school tuition would have to be much more limited and finely tuned.

The only vouchers now in place--all approved by elected officials, none enacted by initiative--are targeted to low-income students (as in Cleveland and Milwaukee) or to students in failing schools (as in Florida). After his drubbing on November 7, Draper said he planned to try again--this time with something that all voucher supporters can agree on. But he's likely to find it's easier said than done. Like the market-happy Draper, who declared he wanted to create "an opportunity society, not a needs-based society," the religious schools that now enroll most private-school students don't like restrictions on voucher programs. But most moderate voucher supporters, seeking equity for poor kids, want targeted programs; most suburbanites won't support any proposal likely to take money from their public schools. As a result, all previous attempts to push voucher initiatives--most prominently, one in California in 1993, and another in Colorado in 1992--were overwhelmingly defeated. In those instances, it was said that the money of the teachers' unions swamped the relatively meager resources of the voucher proponents. But this year, as Dane Waters of the Washington-based Initiative and Referendum Institute says, the fight was a case of "Goliath versus Goliath." Nobody was outspent, and everyone got his message out.

If the balloting on vouchers and school funding can be read as a vote of confidence for the nation's traditional system of public education, the message on drug policy reform was certainly a vote for change. With this year's wins, the drug campaign--backed by financier George Soros; John Sperling, the founder and CEO of the private, for-profit University of Phoenix; and Cleveland insurance billionaire Peter Lewis--extends a string that began with the passage of medical-marijuana initiatives in 1996 and includes legislative victories in a number of states that now allow the sale of syringes without a doctor's prescription. But as Ethan Nadelmann, who heads the Soros-funded Lindesmith Center-Drug Policy Foundation and speaks for Soros on drug issues, puts it, Proposition 36 is "the single-biggest step forward in terms of reversing incarceration of nonviolent drug offenders in this country."

It's not clear where the campaign goes from here. Nadelmann has indicated that significant effort will go into the implementation of measures already passed, including attempts "to get the federal government, particularly drug czar Barry McCaffrey, to stop playing its obstructionist role." Earlier this year, Nadelmann and the drug law reformers got a federal court injunction in San Francisco to stop McCaffrey from going after doctors who prescribe marijuana under California's Proposition 215, the law permitting the medical use of marijuana that voters passed in 1996.

That injunction will hardly end the problem. California, like most states, was woefully short of drug clinics even before Proposition 36 passed, and while the measure appropriates an additional $120 million a year, it's not likely to be enough. Nadelmann warns that the criminal justice system "will try to grab all the money even as they try to make the whole thing look bad." Legislation to make the marijuana laws easier to use is also needed.

But at the same time, an almost unbroken series of ballot box and legislative victories over the existing drug enforcement system--by Nadelmann's count, 17 of 19 attempts have been successful--will almost certainly reinforce the campaign. There no doubt will be further polling to determine which other jurisdictions have voters who are sufficiently disillusioned with the war on drugs to support additional reforms. And there will be probes to determine which noninitiative states--such as New York, with its draconian Rockefeller drug laws--have legislatures that might be amenable to liberalizing drug possession laws through conventional legislative action.

The Soros-backed reformers insist that they're not pursuing drug legalization; Nadelmann says what they want is to reduce both drug abuse and the harm caused by existing drug policy. "We don't want to treat drugs like alcohol and cigarettes, but we don't think people should be incarcerated for possession," he says. "We prefer a public-health approach." The big obstacle, of course, is still federal law and Congress's fear of being perceived as soft on drug enforcement. But the message from the voters is perfectly clear.

In the face of the election mess, traditional politics and representative government could end up the biggest casualties of all. Shortly after the recounts began in Florida, Robert B. Reich did a piece on National Public Radio in which he declared a winner: And he is (drumroll) Alan Greenspan. The argument was perfectly plausible. The Federal Reserve likes gridlock in Washington because it reduces the likelihood of large tax cuts and of extraordinary spending increases. But the larger winner is likely to be any institution not tied to conventional electoral politics and politicians. In a number of states, especially where unions or gun control activists organized strong grass-roots campaigns, the conventional political process generated hopeful changes--among them, the election of Democrat Debbie Stabenow in Michigan over incumbent U.S. Senator Spencer Abraham. But the general effect, particularly of the presidential election, is still likely to be further disenchantment with conventional politics and a corresponding increase in the use of the initiative, both among voters and the deep pockets who fund it.

Dean Tipps, the political director of California's Service Employees International Union, recently said that the initiative is an easy (and relatively cheap) way for the rich to buy themselves legislation. And while this year's backers of vouchers failed dismally, no one can even make it to the ballot in a large state--and maybe not in any state--without a hefty bankroll. In California nobody gets to play without at least $1 million. And as the success of the Soros-backed drug reform measures indicates, a lot of deep pockets were winners--as often, or maybe more often, on the left as on the right.

Those players are increasingly coming from Silicon Valley. California's Proposition 39, which made it easier to pass local school bonds, was funded largely by venture capitalists John Doerr and Reed Hastings; Ron Unz, another Silicon Valley businessperson, funded the successful initiatives curtailing bilingual education in California (1998) and Arizona (2000); and there's every expectation that such people will become even more involved in the future. Also important is the growing gap between the culture of the new technologies, with its mouse-click interactivity, and the slow, deliberate process of representative government and the traditional electoral system. For the citizens of the new economy, that gap appears to be getting increasingly less tolerable.

In an era when distrust of government is substantial and when polls show (as they recently did in California) that voters have far more confidence in citizen initiatives than in governors and elected legislatures, the behavior of candidates and the systemic confusion about this election's outcome can only reinforce voter disenchantment. That's almost certainly a gain not just for the initiative process but for the deep-pocket players--both individuals and interest groups--who have become the principal sponsors of ballot measures. ¤

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