An interesting irony of last week's hearing at the United States Supreme on the appeal of Proposition 8, an amendment to the California state constitution confirming the traditional restriction of marriage to heterosexual couples, is the historical background to how such amendments come about.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, Americans grappled with the incredible changes to their lives brought about by the transportation and industrial revolutions. Different groups, many with conflicting agendas yet most describing themselves loosely as progressives, attempted through the political process to address some of the problems that emerged with the new industrial order. They worked on both local, state, and federal levels to secure reforms and regulations.
Because the political parties seemed ineffective and the courts proved unresponsive, many progressives sought changes in the political system itself to secure the changes they desired. In order to bypass the legislative bodies and the courts, progressives began advocating reforms of the political system that included the use of initiatives, referendums, and recall elections. Initiatives are opportunities for the citizens to enact laws directly after the required amount of signatures on petitions have been obtained. Referendums take place when direct approval by voters is required of a law or ordinance enacted by some legislative bodies. Recalls provide voters the option to remove an elected official without waiting for the next election.
Initiatives, referendums, and recalls constitute forms of direct democracy through which progressives hoped to make the political system more responsive to the will of the people.
Ironically, California has grow famous for the increasing use of the initiative for conservative causes. Well known initiatives in California included those restricting property taxes and eliminating affirmative action preferences in areas of public employment. Proposition 8 has become the most famous or for progressives--infamous-- of California initiatives.
The double irony is that now the courts, once seen by twentieth century progressives as the unresponsive and obstructionist enemies of progress, have become the modern progressives' best friend.