California Deficit Caused by Surplus Democracy

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Representation is not the only important component to healthy governance. Absent rule of law, respect for individual rights and restraints on the size and scope of government, democracy in itself can be just as dangerous as totalitarianism.

As Will Wilkinson, who directs the Social Change Workshop for the Institute for Humane Studies, wrote on his Weblog:

“Democracy is a genus, not a species. Getting a democracy is rather like getting a 'mammal' for a gift. Kittens are nice. Wolverines will lunch on your eyeballs. You don't drop a wolverine in your friend's lap, and then walk away feeling you've done him a favor, since ‘the best pets are mammals.’”

That in mind, let’s look at what’s going on in California.

Kitten or wolverine?

Or, is the California recall and the progressive-era reforms that spawned it a desirable or lamentable variety of democracy?

One of the reasons California faces such a formidable budget crunch right now is that another progressive-era reform -- the direct ballot initiative -- has for years given Californians the ability to (a) restrict the amount they’re taxed (a good thing), and (b) approve all sorts of targeted, state-funded programs without giving any real consideration as to how the state would pay for them (not such a good thing). The result of (a) and (b) is that California now has a panoply of righteous causes the state must fund (after-school programs, health care programs, anti-smoking programs, environmental programs, and so on), and an increasingly narrow set of options available to fund them.

This of course is because “the people” love children and clean lungs and green trees, but they’re also rather fond of ballot initiatives limiting the ways they can be taxed.

I’d submit that California's version of democracy is neither a wolverine nor a kitten, if by wolverine we mean the “tyranny of the majority” type of democracy feared by our founders, and by kitten we mean the ideal, republican system whereby “democracy” is somewhat removed from the masses by the public election of officials who do the careful weighing of taxing and spending for us, and whom we can hold accountable when they fail us.

No, what’s going on in California is the weasel form of democracy. It’s probably not dangerous -- at least not yet. But you’d be miffed if someone put a bow on it and dropped it in your lap.

What’s more interesting, however, is how the recall has caused liberals and conservatives to abandon their respective principles and to embrace the other’s philosophy -- all of in the name of politics.

The left has long favored a form of democracy that puts more power in the hands of the masses. That means they’re generally fond of progressive-era reforms such as the direct election of U.S. senators (as opposed to their appointment), ballot initiatives, direct democracy and, yes, the ability to recall elected officials. They like laws that make it easier for more people to vote.

The right, on the other hand, has generally favored democratic mechanisms that put political power in the hands of fewer people, but then hold them accountable on Election Day. So they support the Electoral College (as opposed to electing our presidents by popular vote), they’d probably appeal the 17th Amendment if they could and they loathe the kinds of ballot measures Californians have been voting on for years now (though the measure that started it all -- a restriction on property taxes -- was welcomed by the right).

But because the governor who’s being subjected to this mass democracy happens to be a Democrat, California’s Democrats have become Republicans, and the state's Republicans have become Democrats. Its leftists have become advocates for a detached, aristocratic government, and its rightists have morphed into populists.

An August 17 roundtable on NBC’s Meet the Press provides a fine example. Liberal pundit Joe Klein railed against California’s system of direct democracy, calling it “utter insanity,” and “an excess of democracy and a dearth of citizenship.” Leftist historian Doris Kearns Goodwin agreed, imploring that the founders “deliberately rejected the idea of a recall” and must be “rolling in their graves.” By contrast, conservative stalwart Robert Novak transmogrified right there on camera into a pitchfork-waving populist, sticking up for “ordinary people” and insisting that recall opponents just don’t like the idea of the “common man having a voice.”

Note that Goodwin and Klein aren’t urging a “no” vote on the recall so much as attacking the very principle upon which the recall mechanism rests -- a kind of political reform generously laced with democracy. And note that Novak isn’t urging a “yes” vote so much as embracing a kind of anti-elitism he’s despised for his entire career as a pundit.

We’ve entered political Bizarro World. Up is down. Left is right. The left is warning of the perils of democracy run amok, while conservatives are chanting “power to the people.”

In a way, they’re both correct. And they’re both wrong. The left is correct in that California clearly needs to temper its penchant for direct democracy with a healthy dose of republicanism. There’s no accountability in a democracy driven by ballot initiatives. But the right is correct, too. So long as the recall mechanism is law, California’s politicians, courts and voters ought to abide by it.

It looks like the recall is back on. It’ll be interesting to see what happens if a Republican wins and inherits the same deficits and handicaps wrought by California’s weasel democracy that Gray Davis inherited. My guess? Republicans will turn into republicans again, and Democrats into democrats. But neither will come home because of any noble, prodigal return to principle.

They’ll embrace old principles because the old principles will once again be in their best political interests. And in the end, a politician’s only real principle is politics.

Radley Balko is a writer living in Arlington, Va. He also maintains a Weblog at

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