That rule applies in many serious situations. It guides a lot of courtroom interaction. And here, we apply it to the policy discussion context - i.e.: never ask a question requiring a wonked out answer if you don't want a wonked out answer.
I don't know if he wanted one or not, but when Josh Trevino asked how today's Special Election threatens representative democracy, I had no choice but to wonk out and tell him. So here's what I wrote. I welcome all comments on both the opinion expressed in my comment and my gross simplification of political history (Professors Pitney and Blitz, I apologize in advance):
Glad you asked Josh - though be warned, you've now opened the door for me to wonk out in a way I usually reserve for my own blog.By the way, the number one rule to which I refer in the title of this post is a general rule. My number one political rule is: Never Leave The Original In The Copier - though I'll admit that Jack Pitney taught me that and many others have learned that the hard way. Political Rule Number Two is: Always Confirm The Microphone Is Off.
As I'm sure you recall from your high school civics class, the Greeks experimented with direct democracy and realized that it flopped when the population exercising it grew beyond, oh, let's say 7 people or so. Any true majority view ran the very real risk of getting lost in the white noise of everyone having a literal, direct say in running the state. So they had to get a bit creative with how they ran things. Compressing and mutilating years of political history gets us to the representative democracy. A republic. The form of government guaranteed to us in the Federal constitution and the term that best describes our current system of government (sorta).
The idea is that - see, we're all busy people who'd like to spend more time enjoying the guarantees of freedom, life, liberty, etc, than we would like to spend enacting the laws that guarantee it. So we elect people to take care of it for us - endowing in them our unalienable rights, etc [cue "1776" songs here].
In California, we have 3 branches of government: legislative, executive, and judicial. The representative branch of government is the legislative branch. The executive branch is supposed to execute the laws written and passed by the legislators, and the judicial branch is there to hash out what the hell the first one said and how the second one got it right/wrong/took a walk/etc.
But in 1911, under the corrupt, unbearable influence of greedy railroad dudes, Californians said "enough" and gave themselves the rights of initative, referendum, and recall. Ah the Progressives . . . . Hiram Johnson, the governor at the time, is the historic architect of the 3 powers and if you have a problem with the consequences of his reforms (ie: the 2003 recall and subsequent selection of Arnold Schwarzenegger and the unending California election season), you can visit his grave and have words with him - he's buring in Colma (file that under slightly useful local trivia for your next pub quiz emergency).
So now, what have we got? We have a branch 2 dude (that's Arnold) talking about how's going to do branch 1's job by taking legislation straight to the people via the initiative process, removing our representatives from the process altogether. The practical effect is that most voters learn what they can from 30 second, absurd television ads and a few ballot pamphlet paragraphs, if they haven't already thrown it out come Election Day.
More practical effect: anyone with a few million dollars can qualify ANYTHING for the ballot. The courts don't have the power to say "yo, dude, you wrote that wrong/into the wrong section of the code/it's stupid/etc" - their power to pre-adjudicate ballot measures is highly limited to a few issues (single-subject rule; prohibition on revisions, etc).
More reality? There's a term in political science known as "drop-off." That describes what happens when people drawn to the poll for the top of the ticket (Presidential elections, etc) give up on the rest of the ballot because it either stretches on too long, they don't know as much about everything else on there, or they just don't care. This is their right as voters, of course, but it undermines the idea that ballot measure are "The Voice of The People." They are more likely The Voice Of Well-Funded Interests Who Could Get Their Targeted Language On The Ballot And Run Enough Ads To Convince People To Stick Around Long Enough To Vote Their Way.
This election, featuring very few candidates, will play out a bit differently - but in the normal course of things, the butchered "direct democracy" idea doesn't bear out and usually serves to hamstring our elected representatives to the point that they can't legislate effectively. Which in turn makes the well-funded types or others antsy. Which makes them run more initiatives, which makes the legislators look like they aren't doing anything . . .Rince. Repeat. Dizzy yet?
Now - there are some - some - things that might need to go directly to voters. And those things are provided for in the State Constitution. But we've mucked up that bad boy too. If you haven't read it - take a moment to marvel at its girth: http://www.leginfo.ca.gov/const.html.
Little of what Arnold is trying to pass was fully cooked by the time it landed on the ballot. For instance, my personal preference is for redistricting reform - the sooner, the better. Except not the way Ted Costa wrote it. He botched it. Bad. And Arnold's threats of "if you don't do it, i'll go to the ballot box" aren't really the best way to start meaningful deliberation about needed reforms. He wanted to blow up boxes, but all he's really terminating is representative government by removing the representatives as often as he can.
I elect legislators to legislate. I don't elect the governor to legislate. I certainly didn't vote for the recall or Arnold, but even if I had, I would not - and do not - favor any governor who's main selling point is "vote for me so I can get rid of that pesky first branch of government."
So I voted No on everything today because I completely disagree with the motivations for this election and I want today's results to send a message that Californians are smart enough to protect they form of government guaranteed to them by the United States Constitution and given them by their own State Constitution.
There. I have wonked.
Happy Election Day! Go Vote No!