The Triumph of … Liberalism?

Nov. 6 1998 3:30 AM

The Triumph of … Liberalism?

What the ballot initiatives mean.

As Democrats eagerly tout their break-even performance in House, Senate, and gubernatorial races as a grand triumph, and as Republicans spin the same numbers into an affirmation of the conservative status quo, both sides are overlooking the election's most astonishing results: the ballot initiatives.

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Initiatives have made news in recent years by advancing conservative causes: limits on gay rights, immigration, and affirmative action. And there were certainly some initiatives to delight the right this year, too. Voter initiatives approved in Alaska and Hawaii banned gay marriage. An initiative in Michigan upheld a ban on assisted suicide. Initiatives in the deep South further restricted the rights of prisoners (who knew there were any restrictions left to impose?). An Alaska measure made English the state's official language. And a Washington initiative modeled on California's Proposition 209 abolished state affirmative action programs.

David Plotz David Plotz

David Plotz is Slate's editor at large. He's the author of The Genius Factory and Good Book.

But the overriding theme of the 1998 initiatives is not conservative at all. It is that American voters, at least in this complacent year, are a lot more liberal than Republican pollsters would have you believe.

Initiatives rewarded both lefty libertarians and paleoliberals. On the libertarian front, five states--Alaska, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, and Arizona--put medical marijuana on the ballot, and five states approved (or in Arizona's case, re-approved) it. That means the entire Western flank of the nation now permits marijuana as medicine. Oregon voters also killed an initiative to re-criminalize marijuana possession. Initiatives in California and Missouri expanded legalized gambling, a libertarian cause increasingly embraced by Democrats. And both Colorado and Washington rejected bans on partial birth abortion.

(The Colorado abortion vote is a powerful argument against those who say that initiatives are dangerous because they are too crude and voters are too easily conned. At the same time Coloradans refused to ban partial birth abortion, they also voted to require parental notification for children seeking abortion. The split vote on abortion suggests a subtlety among voters that critics of initiatives rarely acknowledge.)

The initiatives also expressed a surprisingly strong faith in government and a willingness to expand it. Voters gave a full-throated endorsement to public education. Californians approved a $9 billion school bond issue, and Rhode Islanders OKed a (much) smaller one. Coloradans rejected a proposal to give tax credits for private school tuition, and South Dakotans rebuffed an effort to stop financing schools with property taxes.

Five states--Arizona, Maine, Michigan, New Jersey, and North Carolina--endorsed ballot initiatives to expand state environmental funding and, in all but Arizona, by huge margins. South Dakotans voted to restrict corporate hog farming, as well. Only in Oregon, where a massively broad ban on logging was proposed, did an environmental initiative fail. On animal rights, too, voters cast ballots for more government regulation, choosing to ban cockfighting in Arizona, animal baiting in Missouri, and animal traps and horsemeat sales in California. (Alaska did reject a ban of wolf traps, and Ohioans voted to continue the hunting of mourning doves.)

Washingtonians voted to raise the minimum wage. Floridians imposed a new waiting period for gun purchases. Arizona and Massachusetts both passed campaign finance reforms allowing public funding of state candidates. Nebraska--conservative Nebraska--turned down an effort to impose mandatory restraints on state spending. Iowa gender neutralized its constitution (New Hampshire did not), and Florida passed an equal rights initiative. And, in the "it may not sound like progress but it is" department, Utah residents overturned a 102-year-old law limiting the property rights of married women, and South Carolinians struck the miscegenation ban from the state constitution.

Democrats afflicted with a foolish optimism may view these initiative victories as a sign of an impending liberal majority. I suspect they represent something else: the generosity of the prosperous. According to exit polls, American voters feel happy and rich. These votes reflect a generous, expansive mood. Sick people want to smoke a joint? Let 'em, what harm does it do? More money for schools? Sure! Clean water? You bet! These are not liberal activist votes, cast because the initiatives advance a progressive agenda. They seem to be smile-on-the-face votes, cast because the initiatives are modest and well-intentioned and, at worst, harmless.

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