Civic education has eroded in California schools, and the results are clear and discouraging. It’s fair to say that California’s current budgetary and governance woes can be directly traced to our naïve reliance on an uninformed, or sometimes ill-informed, electorate. If things continue as they have been, I can only see this situation getting worse.
Since 1911, with the implementation of the initiative process, California has attempted to govern with feet planted in two separate camps: direct democracy and the republican form of government represented by our legislature.
The initiative was put in place as a response to growing influence in the legislature by moneyed interests, particularly the railroads. The idea was that the people, with no ties to any faction, would make better decisions than a corrupt, bought and purchased legislative body – a noble idea, heavily influenced by the Progressive movement of the time.
However, this experiment in direct democracy depends entirely on the knowledge of the participants. This is where I believe we have failed, very, very badly.
In Federalist 10, James Madison speaks of the danger of faction, a group who are “actuated” and in opposition to the combined, common good. When voters in California sign petitions to place initiatives on the ballot, they are very often acting on emotion, not on facts. Unfortunately, sometimes they are just trying to get the petitioner to leave them alone in front of Wal-Mart or Target.
Is this how it is supposed to be? I don’t think so. It’s true that the courts can eventually act as a check on the passions of the people, but this is time consuming and expensive.
Ultimately much of the problem we have now is connected, directly or indirectly, to poor choices made by uninformed or misinformed citizens.
Changing the California State Standards for civics education to include a detailed study of the initiative process in our state would certainly help educate voters better.
Terri Richmond is a social studies teacher at Golden Valley High School in Bakersfield