Social conservatives are often wrongly accused of past projection – attempting to turn the world as it is into the world as it was, back in the “good ol’ days.” But modern conservatives are far more visionary than they get credit for, especially in Michigan. Following what seems to be a national trend of including voter initiatives to spike turnout, Michigan conservatives during the last two election cycles have not only rejected the status quo, but actively have sought to create a new political reality – and with quite a bit of success. How? Through the re-election of George W. Bush and continued support for Republican congressmen amid scandal? No – by way of ballot initiatives.

Sarah Royce

This November, Michigan voters – just like California and Washington voters before them – will determine the future of affirmative action. Spurned once again by the court system, which in 2003 upheld affirmative action in principle even as it struck down the University’s undergraduate admissions system, conservatives have decided that the people should make the final decision.

In November 2004, conservatives in Michigan and 11 other states let the people decide on the issue of gay marriage. All of them banned not only gay marriage, but any form of homosexual union.

Note that I wrote “conservatives” rather than “Republicans.” In Michigan, a traditional battleground state where campaign dollars and votes are tough to come by, support and funding for the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative came by way of conservative efforts at the grassroots level. Michigan Republicans, for the most part, have distanced themselves from the campaign, well aware of the effects of high voter turnout in a traditional battleground state. From Dick DeVos to Michael Bouchard to the state party, Republicans have failed to support a social issue most of the party base supports for fear they’d lose moderates.

Although Ward Connerly, who led the successful campaign against racial preferences in California, backs MCRI, it’s been overwhelmingly the efforts of conservatives at the grassroots level – rather than Republicans preaching from the bully pulpit – who got MCRI on the ballot, brought the debate to the voters, and who will deserve the credit for banning affirmative action.

And going to the courts hasn’t fared conservatives any better. The opinions from both Bakke v. Regents of the University of California in 1978 and Gratz v. Bollinger were either too weak to ban affirmative action or upheld it in principle. These were just the latest in a long line of Supreme Court rulings that have angered conservatives. Conservatives have been convinced that “activist judges” were making up the laws as they went rather than analyzing the plain text of the our supreme law ever since the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in Brown v. Board of Education – and they’ve been reaffirmed on issues as far-ranging as abortion to the Pledge of Allegiance. Conservatives have only recently begun to fight back. If Republicans have merely failed to support the conservative agenda after being elected, then the high courts have all but repudiated it.

History may well show that the beginning of the end of judicial activism came in February 2004, when the Massachusetts Supreme Court struck down a state law banning gay marriage – a law that had been passed by elected representatives and signed by the governor. On the heels of that decision, conservatives decided to fight back. While the Right has always decried “activist judges” in the pages of conservative magazines or think-tank studies, such outside-the-system criticisms have done little to compel actual public policy. Rather than merely attack those sworn to interpret the Constitution, voters in 12 states chose to write the Constitution themselves. After all, it’s not “unconstitutional” if it appears in the black ink of the Constitution.

In the conservative unwillingness to rely on top-down solutions to social problems – a distrust that politicians would forcefully advance conservative views or that the Supreme Court would find merit in conservative legal arguments – conservatives stumbled upon the most effective bottom-up strategy of all: ballot initiatives. Such grassroots initiatives are alluring to conservatives because they put them in the driver’s seat in achieving social change, rather than waiting for another high-court ruling to grumble about. And by going to the voters and asking “we, the people” to decide where we stand on important social issues, conservative gains are at once irreversible and unquestionably legitimate. They were passed by the voting public, “the people” themselves. What could be more legitimate?

James Dickson can be reached at davidjam@umich.edu.

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