California’s direct democracy mess

In a fit of direct democracy run amok, Californians will have the opportunity to recall a governor re-elected less than a year ago. If the recall is supported by a majority of California voters, Gov. Gray Davis will be replaced by someone else. Potential successors include actors Arnold Schwarzenegger and Gary Coleman. While some might celebrate this expression of direct democracy, a successful recall might make wise but unpopular policymaking very difficult in the United States’ most economically powerful state.

California is in the vanguard of direct democracy experiments. More than any other U.S. state, California relies on ballot initiatives to create state laws. Apparently, Californians believe the cure for the ills of democracy, such as legislative gridlock, is more direct democracy. In California, the direct democracy portfolio includes easy-to-initiate gubernatorial recalls.

However, frequent uses of direct democracy mechanisms degrade elected officials’ ability to govern and lead wisely. As James Madison noted in Federalist Paper No. 10, a representative democracy is the perfect antidote to fickle, short-sighted factionism and that under such a governing system “it may well happen that the public voice, pronounced by the representatives of the people, will be more consonant to the public good than if pronounced by the people themselves.” Echoing Madison’s thoughts, political scientist John Ellwood warns that a successful recall will endorse future recall initiatives, and discourage politicians from “taking actions that create short-term pain for long-term gain.” The risk of recall could effectively paralyze tough but necessary decision-making in California.

A successful recall will be a victory for petulant Californians angry at Davis, but a blow to the future prospects of wise and difficult policymaking in the Golden State. This sentiment is wonderfully summarized by George Will, writing in Newsweek: “When Ataturk was creating modern Turkey Ö his saying was: ‘Government for the people – despite the people.’ Californians need someone similar, someone who will make difficult choices Ö and who will tell the people they cannot casually slough off responsibility for the electoral choices they make. Californians need an Ataturk. But they would probably recall him.”