Conservatives Fall for the Allure of the Davis Recall

Conservatives are supposed to maintain steady hands on the tiller of the ship of state, maintaining a constant bearing despite the rapidly shifting winds of public sentiment. However, they too sometimes find it easy and temporarily rewarding to float easily along on popular breezes. Rather than being so unseemly excited by the opportunity offered by the potential recall of the unpopular California Governor Gray Davis, they should be soberly assessing the long term damage such recalls can inflict.

The whole idea under girding representative democracy is the assertion that the best governance arises from the deliberation of elected representatives. Proper governance often requires the acquisition of information and the weighing of choices that require more time and effort than most people can devote. People are rightly concerned with their own occupations and caring for the needs of their families. Assent of the governed comes in periodic elections allowing the polity to pass judgment on the effectiveness of their legislators and executives.

Progressives at the beginning of the last century found their agenda stymied by the political machines that often served mostly to enrich those in power. They believed if only there was more direct democracy, their agenda could be implemented. Progressives were responsible for the amending of many state constitutions allowing for referenda so that the people could, in effect, vote for legislation directly. The referendum movement really did not have much of an impact as the political machines began to atrophy.

After 1978, much of this changed. Up until then, referenda in California were not particularly successful. At the end of the 1970s, property values in California were rapidly increasing resulting in a windfall of state revenues. Rather than decreasing rates to offset this infusion of funds, California politicians preferred to increase spending. This increased tax burden walloped homeowners whose incomes did not increase as rapidly as the value of their homes. Elderly homeowners on fixed incomes were particularly hard hit. In this environment the public was angry and, to the surprise of conventional politicians Proposition 13 to limit taxes easily passed.

Despite the salutary effect of that proposition, there was one important unintended consequence: the embrace of ballot initiatives and referenda across the country and particularly in California. Californians have now been asked to legislate on hundreds of issues. The result is the implementation of so many mandates, that the California legislature is hamstrung. According to Fareed Sakaria, 85% of the California spending has been mandated and cannot be controlled by the legislative process. The occasional referendum or ballot initiatives may serve to instill healthy constraints on political leaders, but their routine use undermines the effectiveness of representative government. In what engineers call a “positive feedback loop,” the less effective government is the more appealing simple solutions in the form of referenda appear. The ugly irony is that it would take a referendum to undue the constraints previous referenda have imposed.

Both Conservatives and Liberals have been loath to constrain the use of referenda and initiatives in California. Besides that fact that is easy to caricaturize such a position as anti-democratic, the process allows both Conservatives and Liberals to win occasional victories that would be difficult to achieve within the checks and balances of the legislative process.

Now California promises to give another such gift to the country: recall elections. There seems to be a strong consensus that Governor Davis is doing a dreadful job. Davis can only manage a miserable approval rating of 24%, according to the California Field Poll. In 2006, they will be able to select a new governor that they can hope will be more successful. They should wait until then.

There have been charges that Davis essentially sells state political positions in exchange for campaign contributions. If that can be proved, then he should be impeached. Aside from impeachable activities or some clear severe medical or emotional incapacity, waiting for the normal election cycle remains an important public discipline. The length of a normal campaign allows for a fuller vetting of potential candidates. In California, the recall system is structured such that a candidate that garners only a small plurality can become governor. Can it really be said to serve democracy for a new governor to win with possibly a vote percentage even smaller than Governor Davis’s pathetically low approval rating?

Despite the prospect of a political victory over Davis, Conservatives and Republicans ought to be less than sanguine about disrupting the normal political process and yielding to populist impulses.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.