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Too much democracy, with Gordon Lloyd (San Francisco Chronicle) August 21, 2003

Posted by daviddavenport in Newspaper Columns/Essays, Op/Eds.

The popular children’s book “Too Much Birthday” poses the question whether there can be too much of something really good. At first, children laugh at the mere possibility but, by the end of the story, they recognize how much too much of a good thing can make things worse, and not better.

At the risk of seeming undemocratic, we ask whether the California recall election is too much democracy. While the media focus on the carnival-like show of the second question on the ballot – who should replace Gov. Gray Davis if he is recalled? – responsible citizens must not jump over the democratic implications of the first and fundamental question: whether the governor should be recalled.

The apparent ease with which a governor, re-elected only months ago, could be recalled raises the classic and important question of whether we live in a democratic republic or a direct democracy. Benjamin Franklin captured the view of the founders when he said we have “a republic, if you can keep it.” Ironically the more exercise the processes of direct democracy – deciding hundreds of ballot propositions and recalling officials – we undercut the larger democratic objectives we seek to advance.

The Oct. 7 ballot – where Californians vote on both the recall and the 280th ballot proposition of the last 20 years – typifies the Progressive approach of the last century. Progressive such as California Gov. Hiram Johnson sought to recapture the best of Athenian democracy and colonial New England town hall meetings where people gathered on the spot and made direct decisions on community concerns. The strategy was to graft instruments such as the initiative, referendum and recall, and more recently term limits, onto the existing representative government structure.

What would the hardheaded wisdom of our founding fathers have made of all these “progressive” measures? It seems clear to us that James Madison and his fellow founders would have described this utopianism as very dangerous to the republic, and would characterize the California recall campaign as a tea party that they would not attend. Voters taking back decisions from elected officials – first with term limits, then ballot propositions, and now recall – undercuts the deliberative process and unleashes a force with no inherent limits.

But recall is in the California Constitution, its defenders remind us, and it is there to be used. The fact that something is legally permissible, of course, does not make it prudent. If voters can identify some extraordinary wrongdoing on the part of the governor, which was not known when he was re-elected a few months ago, that is one thing. But simply to say the Constitution gives us the right to change our minds about the governor invests too little trust in the processes of a democratic republic.

Isn’t it interesting that the question of recall was favored by just more than 50 percent until a popular movie star entered the race and suddenly the number of supporting recall has soared? The founding fathers would not be impressed with that kind of thinking.

Let’s admit that this election is more about frustration than it is about the principles of democracy. Californians are rightly frustrated with the bad choices they face and the ineffectiveness of government in addressing the real issues. But the test of a democracy is not whether the intense and immediate feelings of a majority are expressed, but whether a deliberative process enacts the will of the majority over time. With 135 candidates conducting a two-month blitzkrieg campaign, and the prospect of the winner garnering only a tiny percentage of the total vote, that isn’t likely to happen.

The Federalist Papers remind us that there are not direct and simple answers to the problems of democratic life. The real answers are long-term and difficult. We need to run and elect better candidates. We need to forgo locking up the state budget and making decisions through endless ballot initiatives. In stead, we must hold elected officials accountable to do the work.

The founding fathers remind us that representative democracy requires thoughtful citizens to restrain themselves from the immediate self-expression of direct democracy for the larger good of the republic. On the surface, recall, ballot propositions and the other tools of direct democracy seem more democratic. But sometimes more is less. In the end, will California be more governable with more ballot propositions and recalls? We don’t think so.

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