Conservatives use populists' initiatives to rid California of core liberal issues

May 24, 1998|By George F. Will

SAN FRANCISCO -- The decay of liberalism into a synonym for cynicism is writ large in the frantic dishonesty of the campaign against Proposition 226, the ballot initiative that would bar California unions from spending a member's dues for political purposes without the member's written permission, renewed annually. The opponents' mendacity is a measure of the intellectual poverty of their arguments, but also a natural byproduct of an anti-deliberative process for making laws.

California unions spend $40 million a year on politics, 90 percent on Democratic candidates and causes. Conservatives (particularly the one-third of union households that vote Republican) are disgusted about the brazenness of the falsehoods being told about 226. However, such brassy tactics have been seen before. And complaining conservatives should acknowledge that they have come to enjoy in practice something they should deplore in principle -- the institutionalized populism of the initiative process.

Opponents of 226 are understandably reluctant to argue straightforwardly against giving union members a choice about the use of that portion of dues not used for matters pertaining to labor-management relations. So they have ginned up legal opinions by making the spurious argument (echoed by an

unauthorized memo from a staff member at the Virginia headquarters of the United Way, which has five union officials on its board of governors) that 226 would cripple charities by making it impossible for employers to withhold workers' voluntary charitable contributions. Foes of 226 also have funded a telephone campaign telling voters that 226 would put police at risk by requiring their home addresses to be made public. (When a Californian questioned a caller about that preposterous claim, the caller said, "I don't really know anything about it; I am just reading what is in front of me."

False information

Ads by opponents of 226 say it would "weaken patient protections against HMOs, privatize education and export American jobs." There they go again.

In 1984 California Republicans were displeased by the congressional redistricting done in 1981 by the Democratic legislature. (The Democrat in charge merrily said the new map of exotically shaped districts was his contribution to modern art.) So Republicans put on the ballot a proposition to give judges responsibility for redistricting.

Serious arguments were made for and against the proposition. But the opponents' most effective weapon, an ad that aired just before Election Day, featured, among other vignettes, film of harp seal pups. The announcer baldly asserted that the proposition would put the pups in mortal danger.

The ad's implicit "argument" was that a different redistricting procedure would mean the election of more Republicans, which would mean the death of beauty, innocence and joy. The proposition lost narrowly. Willie Brown, then speaker of the Assembly (now San Francisco's mayor), who orchestrated the campaign against the proposition, contentedly called the vignettes in the election-eve ad "the most extensive collection of con jobs I've ever seen." (Sacramento Bee, Nov. 27, 1984.)

Conservatives are rightly appalled by such ads, but they cannot be both conservative and surprised. The initiative process -- making laws by mass appeals in a nondeliberative setting -- is an invitation to demagoguery. One function of conservatives should to remind Americans that their nation is a republic, their Constitution guarantees each state a republican form of government and the premise of republicanism comes from James Madison.

In a republic, Madison said, the people are the source of power but not the exercisers of it. The principle of representation is the rivet securing the republican form of government. That principle: The people do not decide issues, they decide who will decide -- representatives in an assembly that can be a deliberative body.

However, conservatives, especially in California, have been prospering by disregarding Madison's principle. Twenty years ago next month the passage of Proposition 13, which restricted property taxes, was a harbinger of the conservative tide that produced the Reagan presidency. Since then the conservative agenda, from adopting term limits to ending racial preferences, has been advanced by the populist means of initiatives and referendums.

Low-level debate

For the cynical tactics by which opponents of 226 obscure the substance of the issue, they deserve to lose. However, conservatives should not be shocked by the depths to which the debate has sunk.

Conservatives cannot be blamed for playing by the political rules of particular jurisdictions, and in California the initiative rules are a legacy of an anti-conservative impulse -- early 20th century populism. However, conservatives have struck a Faustian bargain, advancing their agenda by a process that infuses public discourse with vulgarity and volatility, the prevention of which should be a primary purpose of conservatism.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 5/24/98

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