Does the Citizen Initiative Weaken Party Government in the U.S. States?

This is a review of Does the Citizen Initiative Weaken Party Government in the U.S. States? (2008) by Justin H. Phillips. State Politics and Policy Quarterly 8 (summer): 127-149. You can find the original in Google Scholar.

Democratic governments tax the most; Republicans tax the least; divided governments are in the middle. But here’s the rub: these relationships disappear in states with direct democracy.

When Progressive reformers first championed adoption of the citizen initiative and other direct democracy institutions, a major reason was to limit the ability of political parties to pursue extreme policies.

In the absence of direct democracy, political parties might not have much reason to promote moderate policies. Republican legislators would generally prefer policies to the right of the median, while Democratic legislators would prefer policies to the left. Whichever party has the legislative majority has a variety of tools at its disposal to help it push policy away from the median and towards its own ideal point. These tools include control of the legislative agenda, control of committee chairmanships, and so on. In addition, the need to appease major campaign donors and partisan activists increases the incentive to use these tools. As a result, it is not the legislative majority that governs; it is the majority of the majority party that governs. When legislative control shifts from Republicans to Democrats, you might see a large shift in policy outcomes–even if only a couple of legislative seats changed hands.

But this is exactly the sort of thing that the Progressive movement sought to end. A purpose of direct democracy was to force legislators to produce policy outcomes closer to what the median voter would want–regardless of which party has the legislative majority. The purpose of Phillips’s article is to ask whether they succeeded.

There are two main mechanisms by which direct democracy can be a median-enhancing institution (from Gerber 1996). The first mechanism is direct; voters can impose specific legislation on the legislature, as happened with California’s famous Prop 13. The second is indirect; even if voters never use the initiative, its presence acts as a deterrent against extreme behaviors by the legislature.

Phillips finds evidence that direct democracy does matter. Party government is weaker in states with the citizen initiative than in states without. Here’s how he did it:

  • Dependent variable: The state tax burden.1
  • Main independent variables: First, a few dummies to measure partisan control.2 Second, a dummy indicating whether a state has direct democracy. Third, interactions between these two sets of variables.

As expected, he finds that the partisan dummies have strong relationships with the state tax burden. Democratic governments tax the most; Republicans tax the least; divided governments are in the middle. But here’s the rub: these relationships disappear in states with direct democracy.

The existing literature on the relationship between partisan control and size of government has had mixed results. Phillips contends that these mixed results can be explained, at least in part, by looking at direct democracy.

I have only one complaint with this article. I’m not convinced that a simple dummy variable can adequately measure direct democracy. From state to state, there are huge variations in how easy it is to use the initiative process, leading to huge differences in how frequently the process is used. This article could be far more persuasive if it dealt with direct democracy in a more nuanced way.

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  1. Matt Unregistered
    Posted July 21, 2008 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

    Is it really that big of a problem to just dummy direct democracy? Sure, it might vary from state to state, but even in states where the initiative is rarely used you still have the indirect deterrent effect.

  2. Posted July 21, 2008 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

    Matt, my criticism is based on the evidence in Bowler and Donovan (2004), “Measuring the effect of direct democracy on state policy: Not all initiatives are created equal.” Their argument is that the deterrent effect can’t work well if citizens can’t credibly threaten the legislature with an initiative because it’s too danged hard to get an initiative on the ballot.

    They give about a dozen variables as I recall, divided into two dimensions: Ease of qualifying a proposal for the ballot, and difficulty to the legislature to amend or ignore an initiative.

    In fairness to Phillips, I was fiddling with a working paper a couple years back and found that an initiative dummy alone worked as well as all the variables in Bowler and Donovan, at least for my research question. But once I inserted a control for how many times the initiative process had actually been used in each state over the previous decade–which gets at the same concept as Bowler and Donovan’s index–the initiative dummy was blown out of the water.

    To me, that means that an initiative dummy alone isn’t good enough. Bowler and Donovan’s index might also not be good enough. But you if you’re going to base your argument on the “threat” created by the presence of direct democracy, you need to pay some attention to whether that threat is credible.