U. BUFFALO (US)—Ballot initiatives, long thought to encourage democratic citizenship, may actually have the opposite effect of fostering distrust in state government, a new study finds.
Joshua Dyck, assistant professor of political science at the University at Buffalo, says state ballot initiatives on things like same-sex marriage, eminent domain, tax reform, education, and a host of other issues actually create an environment that encourages citizens to distrust their governments.
“The evidence presented in this study strongly supports the notion that distrust is an institutional byproduct of direct democratic institutions,” Dyck explains, “a finding that should motivate researchers to question more seriously the effect of this distrust on policymaking in direct democratic environments.”
He makes his argument in a paper published in the journal American Politics Research. Dyck says his study is one of the first to question existing notions about whether living in a richly democratic ballot initiative environment has a positive effect on democratic citizenship.
Dyck notes that until recently it has been difficult to test the influence direct legislation has on trust because when national surveys ask about trust in government they specify trust in the federal government. Ballot initiatives occur at the state level, however, and so should have the greatest effect on voter trust in state government.
In order to assess how trust in government is related to state ballot initiatives, Dyck examined data from two surveys.
The first, the 2004 National Annenberg Election Survey, asked more than 3,500 respondents “how much confidence do you have in state elected officials: a great deal, a fair amount, not too much, or none at all.”
Dyck found that citizens exposed to the highest frequency of ballot initiative usage are about 11 percent more likely than those with no exposure to choose “not too much confidence” or “none at all.”
The second study, the 1997 Pew Trust in Government Study, asked 800 respondents similar questions. Here, as well, Dyck found that the use of ballot initiatives predicts lower levels of trust in state government.
“Indeed, across multiple surveys the effect is apparent. Exposure to ballot initiatives leads to lower levels of trust among Americans,” Dyck says.
Dyck notes that studies by political scientist Marc Hetherington of Vanderbilt University have found that the key change in American public opinion over the last 40 years is that Americans of all stripes have lost faith in the federal government to implement and administer public policy.
Dyck adds that this distrust fuels volatility in the political system, making distrusters more likely to support non-incumbent candidates or vote for political outsiders, and less likely to support social spending programs.
Should ballot initiatives lead to decreasing levels of trust at the state level, potentially negative repercussions of that decline would be expected, he says.
“The American progressive movement in favor of direct legislation in the early part of the 20th century was founded on prospects of good government and perceived failings of representative democracy at the state and local level,” Dyck says.
“The belief at the time was that the initiative, referendum and recall would empower citizens in a manner that would make both the inputs and outputs of government fall more closely in line with majority opinion.” he says, “In fact, many scholars have argued that direct legislation has positive secondary effects on democracies by encouraging citizens to become more involved in government.
“But all the conflict and turmoil generated by these elections has also put citizens in an adversarial relationship with their governments and has led them to alter their view of the political process—namely, to question if public officials are trustworthy,” Dyck says.
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