When young Alexis de Tocquevile - he was just 26 - first traveled the land seeking material for his classic study of American democracy, he quickly singled out one under-lying principle guiding the new nation. "It is with the doctrine of the sovereignty of the people that we must begin," he said.
Young as he was, Tocqueville was not hampered by naivete. He knew that the principle of popular sovereignty was observed more in political speeches than political actions - and that it was subject to demagoguery and cynical manipulation.
"The will of the nation,'" he said, "is one of these expression which has been most profusely abused by the wily and the despotic of every age . . . Some have even discovered in it the silence of a people, on the supposition that the fact of submission established the right of command."
Nonetheless, Tocqueville was a believer. The American revolution, he was convinced, had been marked by a "mature and dignified taste for freedom. "There was nothing vague or ill-defined about it. "it contracted no alliance with the turbulent passions of anarchy."
Born too soon, surely. Now we are witnessing another kind of American revolution, ill-tempered, imaginative, emotional, carrying with it the seeds of a destructive king of anarchy. I refer to what we in the Press and Politics calls, in typical shorthand, the tax-payers' revolt as personified most recently in California.
The overwhelming endorsement of Californians for Proposition 13, slashing property taxes and costing the state some $7 billion in tax revenues, is the dramatic news, of course. But the issue goes far beyond California.
What's at stake is nothing less than the operation of government we have and what it accomplishes. The current fed-up-with-government-and taxes mood severely challenges political leadership at every level from the White House down. It also offers a classic opportunity for political demagoguery and an exhibition of wide spread public mean-spiritedness.
Make no mistake about it, this issue is not transitory. It's certain to gain increasing national attention and momentum. California has only sharpened the focus on a movement that has been building steadily across the country during the 1970s; now, it's finally emerging nationally.
Five years ago California voters were faced with another statewide initiative, Proposition 1. The idea, simply, was to put a legal limit on the amount California could collect in state taxes. Although the idea was supported strongly by then Gov. Ronald Reagan, the voters rejected it by a solid 54 to 46 percent. Reagan later said the proposal as defeated because its backers "didn't have muscle to combat lies and distortions. Everyone who had a place at the trough lined up against it."
Others felt the real reason for the defeat was the complexity of its language and the lack of clarity in its purpose. Whatever, that California effort became the model for similar moves in many states.
Tax and spending limits have been submitted to legistlatures in such states as Colorado, Illinois, Maine, Georgia, South Dakota, Florida, Massachusetts, Iowa. Florida decided on a less direct control of spending. Tenessee this year actually enacted a constitutional amendment that restricts spending to the "estimated rate of growth of the state's economy as determined by law." New Jersey has passed legislation limiting spending increases to the growth in state and personal income. That state law stops local governments from increasing their annual spending by more than 5 percent a year.
Passage of the Jarvis-Gann Proposition 13 in California will accelerate the introduction of similar spending and tax limitation measures in other states.
As Dan Pilcher correctly reports in State Legislatures, a publication of the National Conference of State Legislatures: "The dissatisfaction Americans fell over the growth in their taxes and the size of their governments is no longer a mood. It is now the focus of an identifiable, nationwide movement which hopes to convert that mood into constitutional limits on state tax revenues and spending."
Already, a national organization exists to accomplish these ends. The National Tax limitation Committe, which initially drew on the kinds of conservative support that gave Ronald Reagan his political base, is seeking to build a broad bipartisan base for its national campaign. The organization is well-financed and now active in 40 of the 50 states.
After Proposition 13 passed in California, a state representative in Tenessee who was the principal sponsor of the constitutional amendment limiting spending there described the national movement in historical terms.
"We are seeing the most important philosophical change in the operation of government in 200 years," David Y. Copeland III told this reporter. The ultimate target - the spending of the federal government - will be brought in line over the next decade, he predicts.
Hyperbole and hopes aside, Copeland is right about the target. Already 23 states have passed resolutions calling for an amendment to the U.S.? Constitution requiring a balanced federal budget.
It's estimated that federal funds account for one dollar out of every three received by state and local governments today. That's $73 billion, ten times the federal aid level in 1960. You don't hear any states clamoring to reject that money, but you do hear the argument that Washington, not the state-house, largely determines how that money is spent. That, and something else - the actions of the federal government are a prime cause in inflation; and it's inflation that forces more and more people into higher income brackets, forcing them to pay higher and higher taxes, including higher taxes on the inflated values of their homes.
The familiar villain, Washington, rises again. But the latest explosion of public resentment at the locallevel has the ironic effect of forcing greater reliance on central authority - first, from the California capital for emergency funds to operate such essential services as schools, fire and Police, and then from California to you knew where. And who suffers most? As always, those who have the least of everything, including political clout.
The frustration and anger are understandable enough, but the result - a furious and selfish lashing out at all forms of government services - tragically sets the stage for even uglier days to come.
What impressed Tocqueville most about the Americans and their democratic experience was their sense of Public duty.
"In no country in the world do the citzens make such exertions for the common weal," he said. "And I am acquainted with no people which has established schools are numerous and efficacious . . . or rads kept in better repairs."
He was celebrating the form of government they were creating. It's the task of today's American political leadership to channel public grievances over the governmental system into constructive, instead of destructive, change. As Californians starkly have demonstrated, that won't be easy.