Bill Maher says no to superheroes and no to normal people, so what does he want?

I usually really like Bill Maher, but today I think he is confused.  Tonight on the “New Rules” feature of Real Time, he started off his final new rule by saying that we can’t solve our problems by electing superheroes.  Spiderman, he said, punches bank robbers in the balls, while Obama just writes them a check.  And he went on to give a really terrible rant about governmental reform that was just dead wrong.

Crossposted at

Then Maher went on to talk about how Arnold Schwarzenegger can’t govern California because it’s ungovernable.  Because of ballot initiatives, he said.  Ordinary people, said Maher, couldn’t handle the responsibility of voting on complex issues and just wanted “beer” and “vagina trees.”

But Bill Maher doesn’t have a solution.  He doesn’t think it’s ordinary people.  He doesn’t think it’s superheroes.  Maybe he’s an anarchist?  Then no one would be doing the governing, which seems to be what he wants.

The fact of the matter is that ballot initiatives are not such a negative thing as they’re made out to be.  In California they’ve caused some damage, but they’ve also done considerable good throughout that state, other states, towns all over the nation, and countries and towns around the world.  In fact, in recent history progressives have done much better at the ballot box than conservatives, even though the few slight conservative victories have been publicized much more:

At the end of the day, progressives won important victories and beat back right wing backed initiatives all across the country in 2008. All in all, voters advanced progressive policies and rejected the right wing’s tired agenda. And 2008 showed us that giants can be slayed. But it’s hard work.

Highlights of Progressive Victories

Health Care

• Stem Cell Research and Medical Marijuana: MI

• Home Care: MO

• Children’s Health Care: MT

• Death With Dignity: WA

• Long Term Care: WA

• Paid Sick leave: WI (Milwaukee)

Clean Energy

• Clean Energy: MO

Right-Wing Defeats

Reproductive Freedom and a Woman’s Right to Choose

• Parental Notification: CA

• Definition of Personhood: CO

• Abortion Ban: SD


• “Paycheck Deception”: CO, OR

• “Open & Clean Government”: SD

• “Right to Work”: CO

Anti-Government Tax Measures

• Eliminate Income tax: MA

• Income Tax Cut: OR

• Corporate Tax Cut: ND

• Revenue Cap: NH (Somersworth)

Anti-Equal Opportunity

• Affirmative Action Ban: CO

Ballot initiatives (and if you’re going to discuss the subject you should at least know the basic lingo – the recent special election in California was comprised of legislative referendums) are a great tool in government.  They really do give the people a voice – and what that actually means is that citizens can address a problem if the legislature doesn’t.  For example, in 2008 the penalties for carrying marijuana were lessened in both Michigan and Massachusetts by ballot initiative.  And it’s not like Michigan is some kind of liberal haven.

From what I’ve seen, the problem in California (and most other places with ballot initiatives) is that the implementation of the process is not as good as it should be.  It’s just like representative government.  Congress has given us or allowed such things as the war in Iraq, torture, the Patriot Act, the Vietnam War, segregation, slavery, and a genocide against natives, amongst other things.  But with representative government we know not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.  We know that what is needed is reform.

And there are significant reforms needed in California and throughout the nation!  A few simple reforms can go a long way toward fixing the system.  For starters:

1.  Word limits on initiatives.  This will keep them from being complex.  I am not talking about the summaries, but the proposed laws themselves.  They could be limited to a few thousand words (maybe about 10 pages or so).

2.  A supermajority needed to pass a constitutional amendment.  There are different kinds of supermajorities, mind you.  It could be a 2/3 majority, or it could be a majority of 50%+ of registered voters (to give you an idea, about 32% of registered voters voted in favor of Prop 8), or it could be a majority of registered voters in two separate elections, as is being proposed here.

3.  Some campaign finance reform!  Maybe ban out of state donors or limit the contributions to official campaigns or anything like that.  And the limits should not be some huge amount like $100,000, but something much closer to what an average person could afford.

4.  Deliberative committees.  A certain form of this is going to be voted on by the Oregon legislature soon, which is great progress.  It is a jury-like committee of citizens that reviews each initiative.  It is being proposed here, but would be more powerful than the Oregon version.

Initiatives are very effective tools when the legislature fails to do their job.  In fact, if representative government is working as most people think it should, with the two major parties of our country converging on a moderate base, then initiatives offer a resource for citizens who are not content with the two parties becoming similar (and consequently not addressing every issue, or not addressing controversial issues):

Voting is an important way citizens signal their policy preferences; for many it is the only way. To convey a preference, a voter must have a choice in the ballot box. The initiative provides a choice: vote for the proposal or reject it in favor of the status quo. Candidate elections do not always provide a choice. Indeed, competition in candidate elections is likely to lead to an absence of choices as Downsian parties converge on the same policies. The convergence of candidates, a fact continually bemoaned by ordinary citizens, has some desirable properties if they converge in the vicinity of the median voter. However, if the parties perceive the position of the median voter incorrectly, they might converge on the wrong point, and there is nothing in the electoral process that would self-correct. The initiative offers a way to break the gridlock of Downsian competition because it allows proposals to reach the voters outside the milieu of party competition. The fact that even seemingly crazy and hopeless proposals can be placed before the voters by a determined petitioner is particularly important, because these are the proposals that are unlikely be brought before the public under party competition.

— John Matsusaka

Surprisingly, another chance for reform might even be to expand the right of initiative in this country.  Currently, about two dozen states and hundreds of municipalities give citizens the chance to petition and put a law on the ballot.  But if we were to implement this in some new states or even nationally, it would give us the chance to implement a new and improved initiative process that has the reforms I listed above incorporated into it (and it would hopefully inspire reform in states and places that already have the initiative process).

That is a big part of the idea behind The National Initiative for Democracy, a plan to amend the Constitution and allow for national ballot initiatives.  Before you reject the idea, consider this:  it is not your grandmother’s ballot initiative.  It is not the system that was put in place in a lot of states in the late 1800s and early 1900s by the first progressives of this country.  It is a highly improved initiative system that includes powerful deliberative committees, an administrative body, a double election and a majority of registered voters to amend the Constitution, and many more checks and balances to ensure that nothing dangerous makes it to the ballot, but that citizens still have a voice in government.

So Bill Maher was wrong.  The answer is not to throw the baby out with the bathwater by condemning (or getting rid of) ballot initiatives, but to reform this wonderful system and possibly even expand it.


    • rossl on May 23, 2009 at 06:45

    Whatever they’re called at this strange new place.

Comments have been disabled.