California’s Recall Election: Dangerous Democracy at Work

by | Sep 24, 2003 | Elections, POLITICS

Most people realize that there is something deeply wrong in California’s current political fiasco. Critics of the recall are right, this election is wrong, but not for the reasons they have given. Far from being anti-democratic, the recall is democracy in action, and that is precisely its danger. The Democrats who criticize Republican advocates of […]

Most people realize that there is something deeply wrong in California’s current political fiasco. Critics of the recall are right, this election is wrong, but not for the reasons they have given. Far from being anti-democratic, the recall is democracy in action, and that is precisely its danger.

The Democrats who criticize Republican advocates of the recall say that we need to respect our democratic processes and allow the governor to complete his term. To subject the governor to the direct vote of the people is “undemocratic.” Democracy, they claim, means following the rules despite the clear wishes of the people.

The Republicans, on the other hand, say that the desire of the people to rid the state of an atrocious governor trumps such concerns. Democracy, to these Republicans, means respecting the will of the people despite the requirements of the constitution.

What is the truth here? In the Federalist Papers, James Madison said that the first great difference between a democracy and a republic is that a republic is “the delegation of the government . . . to a small number of citizens elected by the rest.” A democracy is rather a society in which the citizens “assemble and administer the government in person.”

Under republican government, the citizens select official representatives, for defined terms, with specific powers. The officials then administer the government. The people may not demand the removal of an elected official unless his actions are manifestly illegal. This is so even if the majority favors the recall. The requirements of the constitution elevate the rule of law over the short-term desires of the people.

In contrast to a republic, a democracy runs on direct citizen action. The citizens may assemble, in the voting booth, and exercise their power directly, by affirming particular policies. This is what voters do when they remove sitting officials in the mid-term, in defiance of the terms mandated by the constitution.

The recall is a solidly democratic action. Power is no longer delegated by the people, but exercised directly, in the form of popularity contests that may descend on an official at any moment. This is a repudiation of republicanism in favor of democracy.

The clause in California’s constitution that permits this is a deadly concession to democracy, and a repudiation of the constitution’s own principles. A constitution that allows the people to override its own mandates provides no means to stop such popular referenda from becoming the norm. Such a constitution sows the seeds of its own destruction.

If not stopped, such a trend could lead our state and federal governments to mutate into species akin to countries that recall their officials every few months. We could see budgets, judicial appointments, and enforcement decisions crafted to win popularity contests. This would be democracy–placing the officials under the direct and immediate thumb of popular demagogues–and the death of the republic.

For the Democrats to oppose a democratic vote and the Republicans to support it is a consequence of the short-range opportunism that has overtaken politicians on both sides. Each has no where to go, except to win the contest of the moment, with no concern for the longer-range consequences of their actions. How the Republicans will escape the next recall, instigated by their Democratic opponents, is not something they care to consider.

California has a lousy governor, who plays to the whims of the moment for short-range advantage. But the answer to such incompetence is not to institutionalize the whims of others through the ad hoc removal of elected officials. The California recall is wrong, not because it undermines democracy, but because it elevates democracy over republican principles. Proper understanding of the difference between republicanism and democracy has been lost today. It needs to be regained, if our republic is to be preserved.

John David Lewis (website) is a Visiting Professor of Political Science, Duke University. He has been a Senior Research Scholar in History and Classics at the Social Philosophy and Policy Center, and an Anthem Fellow.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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