Global Forum on direct democracy builds ‘trans-partisan’ coalition

SAN FRANCISCO — At the Global Forum on Modern Direct Democracy this week, and the U.S. Conference on Initiative and Referendum just before it, the words “diversity” and “trans-partisan” were frequently heard and modeled among speakers, panelists and attendees. Four of the biggest names among speakers – Grover Norquist, Ralph Nader, Paul Jacob and Jane Hamsher – reflected the energy, intensity and essentially pragmatic aspects of the event.

Norquist, president of

Americans for Tax Reform, gave Monday’s luncheon address. In an interview, he told CapitolBeatOK, “The political parties tend to be suspicious of the initiative process, until or unless they are out of power. Then, they look at it as a practical means to get power and influence events. But the initiative is too important to leave to politicians and corrupt institutions. It’s the people’s voice.

“The initiative is particularly necessary when the leadership of the political parties in the legislative body agree with each other. They generally are against cutting legislative pay, against opening up the ballot process itself, against term limits for legislators and other state officials, and against tax limitation.”

He continued, “The initiative is also useful in introducing to public discussion important issues that might otherwise never find a champion. Legislators are scared of issues like drug legalization (currently allowing medical marijuana use is a big cause), opposition to racial preferences, and criminal justice reform.

“Those kinds of conversations will only take place through the initiative debates. These are debates that never or almost never will take place in the Legislature, but only in and through the initiative process. Then, win or lose, it becomes easier for politicians to begin to address those kinds of issues.”

At a Saturday night (July 31) reception, Ralph Nader participated via telephone. Nader was the Green Party’s presidential candidate in 1996 and 2000, and ran as an independent in both 2004 and 2008.

Nader responded to questions from the crowd, representative of the diverse attendees holding conservative, liberal, libertarian and environmentalist views.

Among other comments, Nader reflected, “I am fearful for the future of direct democracy, as the initiative has become a tool for the right in many cases. The initiative however, should not be a last resort but a first resort to build up our participatory democracy.”

Nader also said, “I believe the initiative is a way to subordinate commercial values to civic values. There is currently a participatory void in our country. We have to relearn, as Americans, how to practice democracy.”

Paul Jacob of
Citizens in Charge Foundation is a well-known libertarian leader and defender of the processes of direct democracy. Jacob told CapitolBeatOK his motivations for helping organize the conference flowed from many experiences, including those during his work on a spending limitation measure that put him in conflict with Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmondson in recent years.

In an interview on Monday (August 2), Jacob said, “In some ways the people at this conference are beginning to find ways to come together simply because they have been invited to come together. The political process has a way of dividing people. We wanted to find a way to transcend divisions over policy issues, and unite around the integrity and importance of the process.

“Some view the initiative process as a win-lose proposition, but the truth is that because the initiative device itself gives all of us a chance to participate, it is something that is or can be unifying in effect. When you have a chance to talk about real issues, important decisions, you learn that the guy you disagree on the particular policy issue or issues also cares about the country and our common future.

“There are coalitions emerging around the country consisting of people who care about the initiative process. This includes people from the far left and far right, who have invested themselves in defending the process. With personal human interactions, you realize you both care for the country, even when policy views are different.

“My experience is the right-wing and left-wing activists and groups who believe in issues, who believe results count, are less likely to fight bitterly and divisively, if they actually know each other.

“Politicians in the Legislature too often are those who are looking to split up the loot. They don’t like the initiative. People interested in the integrity of that process are less interested in dividing up the loot and more interested in how we govern ourselves. I have had dozens of people remark how different [Republican U.S. Rep.] Ron Paul and Ralph Nader are, but that they respect both of them for their passion to defend initiative and referendum processes.” Paul and Nader are both former presidential candidates.

Jacob reflected, “We pulled this conference together because we believe we need people using the initiative and referendum process to be aware of each other, understanding each others’ motivations, and finding more ways to work in coalitions.”

Jane Hamsher, a well-known political blogger, is the founder and leading force at, a wildly popular news and opinion blog that in addition to its fierce criticisms of U.S. foreign policy has emerged as a leading critic of the new federal health care legislation.

Hamsher and Norquist have frequently worked in coalitions on varied issues, and their collaboration is considered by many attendees at the global forum a sign of the pragmatic ways such collaboration might work in the future.

Hamsher told CapitolBeatOK: “As corporate interests continue to exercise ever-increasing influence over our elected officials, ballot initiatives are one of the only ways citizens have to protect against ‘government for sale.’ Both right and left have a vested interest in maintaining the process, and I think that working together is going to provide our greatest chance for preserving it.”