October 9, 2003


How direct should democracy be?: Schwarzenegger prepares for office, but some see recall as part of a broken system. (Mark Sappenfield, 10/10/03, The Christian Science Monitor )

To some, the Golden State's travails are part of the inevitable evolution of democracy, as the people take the full power kindled in the Constitution's opening words, "We the people...." To others, California voters are the prime culprits in their own mess, as they malign the very lawmakers needed to make government work. Indeed, California's experiment is challenging some basic assumptions underlying American democracy since the writing of the Federalist Papers, particularly the idea that elected officials should use their judgment to act on voters' behalf. In recent decades, Californians' deep distrust of politicians has increasingly led them to limit politicians' power and discretion through ballots - and now the recall.

That, say experts, is the aspect of the recall that could resonate nationwide. Across the country, as here, the heightening stakes of politics has led to greater partisanship. Yet across the country, as here, people have never been less partisan, with registering voters eschewing both parties in record numbers. The result is a decline in respect for government and a new willingness to reshape it. In this context, California will go some way toward determining if there are limits to a government "by the people."

To Larry Gerston, the answer is already apparent: The recall is but the latest example that California's political system is broken. Many of the problems predate the era of the ballot initiative, which essentially began when voters passed Proposition 13 in 1978 to cap property taxes. But voters' best intentions have only compounded the problem.

"We attempt to solve a problem, and we create another one that is unforeseen," says Dr. Gerston, a political scientist at San Jose State University.

Take term limits. More than a decade ago, California voters passed Prop. 140, establishing term limits for state legislators. In response, the Legislature passed a redistricting plan two years ago that made every seat safe for incumbents, in part so they wouldn't have to spend their limited time in Sacramento worried only about getting reelected. The result, however, has been an increasingly polarized Legislature representing districts dominated by the political extremes - meaning that voters played a significant role in creating the partisanship that helped fuel the recall.

"I don't think [term-limit] reformers even considered that," says Gerston, who suggests that California's political problems are so entrenched that the state needs to convene a constitutional convention.

NPR did an excellent interview yesterday, Recall and Democracy (Talk of the Nation, Wednesday, October 08, 2003)
The recall election is just one tool in the arsenal of the democratic system. We'll look at how the recall fits into American democracy.

Howard Ernst
*Assistant Professor of Political Science at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md.
*Author, Dangerous Democracy? The Battle Over Ballot Initiatives in America

Given that there are few more significant issues in American life than our overdemocratization and that the Left, which foisted it on us, has begun to get burned by it, now would seem the moment to try and get it under control again.

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 9, 2003 10:59 PM

Good commentary, and I agree that this should be the beginning of a healthy debate on democracy. California's structural problems are partly the cumulative result of voter initiatives starting with our Prop. 13. Each successive "good idea" in isolation has led to an intractable budgetary situation.

Unfortunately, another criticism is also largely true: California voters are not sufficiently engaged in or informed about the political process. Our press is mediocre at best when it comes to covering local and state issues. In good times, that has given us a combination of general apathy, combined with the power for special interests to do real damage through the initiative process. This is over and above voters' general tendencies to like goodies, and legislators willingness to "give" them to us.

As we have just seen, excesses in good times lead to fiscal catastrophe in bad times, and public apathy turns to anger.

Posted by: Dave in LA at October 10, 2003 4:34 AM

I lived in LA when Prop 13 was passed.

A large increase in property values in the years leading to Prop 13 led to a couple things:

1. Huge increase in tax money available to politicians.
2. People being taxed out of their homes.

That huge increase was independent of any demand on the money. The correct answer would have been to reduce tax rates to match resources with existing demand. The actual answer was to spend every cent of the swag tidal wave.

Politicians, particularly of the Democrat species, would sooner throttle themselves than reduce tax rates.

There was absolutely no movement to address the problem of tax induced impovershment and eviction until Prop 13.

What was the alternative?

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at October 10, 2003 7:28 AM

Stop spending so much money.

Posted by: oj at October 10, 2003 8:43 AM

Prop 13 was a good sentiment that was poorly thought out. There are other ways of shorthciruting the system of unvoted increases. Ohio adopted one. But California would have a hard time adopting a better system because Prop 13 is part of their constitution and cannot be changed by their legislature.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at October 10, 2003 9:10 AM

Dave in LA:

We sent the book, no need to flatter.

Posted by: oj at October 10, 2003 10:16 AM

"Stop spending so much money. "


1) That still doesn't answer the problem of people getting taxed out of their homes, if the taxes are still in place.

2) The idea of politicans stopping spending money is so risible that I almost had a hernia over it.

Posted by: Joe at October 10, 2003 7:53 PM


You beat me to it. I had to go to the doc to get my hernia fixed.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at October 10, 2003 8:07 PM

Our government here doesn't do it.

Posted by: oj at October 10, 2003 8:11 PM

NH has quite a different tradition - and voters who are proud of it (and who are willing to enforce it). CA does not. Why do you think Aaron Sorkin made Bartlet from NH?

Posted by: jim hamlen at October 10, 2003 11:12 PM

Then the fault lies with Californians, not with their legislature.

Posted by: oj at October 10, 2003 11:33 PM


Posted by: jim hamlen at October 10, 2003 11:40 PM