In 1979, the San Francisco-based punk-rock band Dead Kennedys released its first single, “California Uber Alles” (alluding to the now-retired first stanza of the German national anthem, which begins “Deutschland, Deutschland uber alles,” or “Germany above all”), which cast then-Gov. Jerry Brown as the state’s Furher and a “new age” fascist. The Dead Kennedys may have been a quarter-century premature, however, since the new era of politics ushered in with the success of Tuesday’s recall election may better fit the description.
Governor-elect Schwarzenegger brings with him to Sacramento the dangerous potential for heightened “interest group fascism,” rather than Gov. Brown’s “new age” variety. A strong precedent has been set for state politics in California and the 17 other states with a recall provision, demonstrating how small-interest groups can oust politicians from office — not for impeachable crimes, but for simple policy disagreements.
As governor, Gray Davis never took bribes, extorted funds or committed any other legal transgression that could have subjected him to an impeachment vote. Rather, he was guilty of working to govern the nation’s largest and most diverse state through economic and energy crises, and of presenting an unexciting television persona. Though these acts are not crimes, they have proven to be politically damning enough to end a California officeholder’s tenure, thanks to a nearly century-old amendment to the California Constitution that provides for the recall of state and local officials.
Of course in 1911, when the recall was written into the state constitution, corruption was rampant and the state’s political landscape was notably different from that presided over by Gov. Davis. In response, reformers known as progressives introduced three tools of “direct democracy” — the recall, initiative and referendum — to give the people a check on their elected officials.
Though they were initially successful at removing interest groups’ stronghold on lawmaking, the tools of direct democracy have since become more susceptible to abuse and manipulation than elected legislatures ever were.
The initiative, which allows voters to pass ballot measures that become law without any input from designated lawmakers, was the first to fall. In 1978, controversial Proposition 13 passed, mandating massive property tax cuts and effectively gutting the state’s social services and education systems. Of greater significance than the measure’s large economic and detrimental social impact was the sea change it caused in state lawmaking. Proposition 13 set a radical precedent in the use of new media technologies to advance “populist” causes funded by small interest groups, and, as one political analyst wrote, it awakened “the romance of the initiative as a source of real political power.” And in the quarter-century since, more and more “big ticket” items on the political agenda have been decided in the popular arena, not the legislative one.
Understandably, the initiative is an attractive tool for interest groups and some elected lawmakers themselves. Whereas passing legislation often requires compromising at various points during lobbying, debate and legislative review, initiatives may contain precisely the content its sponsors desire without concession. A network of political consultants, direct-mail specialists, signature gatherers and media buyers has sprung up to support and capitalize on sponsors’ efforts to identify potential financial supporters, petition signers and voters. Presenting ballot propositions has become such a big business that it has been dubbed the “Initiative Industrial Complex.”
Direct democracy has become a farce of a misnomer, since there is little involvement of “the people” in drafting initiatives. Instead, in an ironic twist of political fate, the initiative process is dominated by relatively small, well-established and well-financed special interest groups.
And now, the recall has gone the way of the initiative. A single political actor with a personal political agenda, Republican U.S. Rep. Darrel Issa, was able to fund the effort to capitalize on Davis’ low approval rating by calling for a new election right away, rather than letting Davis serve out his term and presenting voters with a choice then. The recall has provided interest groups with the ability to act on the “temporary delusions” and “impulses of passion, or of interest” of the people that James Madison warned would be harmful to a representative government in Federalist No. 10.
As a result, officials in all states that allow for recalls might now be kept on their toes, forced to constantly spend some of their time and money campaigning, and prevented from making the responsible but unpopular policy decisions they previously felt comfortable making when the next election was still months away.
The net effect of the initiative — and now the recall — is to cause representative government to be partially paralyzed. This paralysis has added to the government’s perceived inefficiency and will in turn only fuel greater reliance on initiatives to make state laws and on recalls to remove unavoidably-ineffective politicians.
If direct democracy and the recall have caused anything to rise “uber alles” in California, it is the power for small-interest groups to manipulate the system — it is certainly not the people of California themselves.
Brian Goldman is a junior in Jonathan Edwards College. He is a native Californian.