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Propositioning the President

Philip Davies examines how People Power has come to the fore via citizen initiatives in recent American history.

Tuesday November 8th, 1994, is election day in the USA. In 1992 almost 105 million Americans voted in the presidential election. President Clinton will not face the electorate again for another two years, but his team will already he planning for that challenge, and will examine the 1994 campaigns carefully for its lessons. There will be plenty of evidence to consider. The thousands of offices up for election will include one-third of the US Senate, the whole of the US House of Representatives, and state and local offices across the nation.

Millions of citizens will be invited to vote on referenda covering a wide range of issues. Presidential campaign teams will look for political clues to the future. A 1978 tax-cutting referendum in California was an early sign of the wave that brought Reagan to victory in 1980 – the entrails of the 1994 elections will be subject to detailed examination by the political seers and their clients for indications of changes in the public temper. But change is not the watchword of every element of US democracy.

The town of Cornish, New Hampshire, has been governed by an annual town meeting ever since its establishment in 1768. Almost half the community's residents attended the 1988 town meeting: They voted to raise money for town trash removal, decided against the expense of establishing its own police department but in favour of investing in computers for the town treasurer, saved 90 per cent on a contractor's estimate by organising volunteer citizens to paint the town hall, and established citizen working parties to examine issues of moment to the town. The roles of citizen, voter, legislator and executive mould together in a way dear to the American faith in the potential for 'hands on' democracy. But townships with the political tradition and modest size that allow Cornish to sustain such a seamless system of direct democracy are rare in the United States.

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