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August 25, 2003

what's wrong with the California recall

(Written in Camden, Maine) On August 16, the Washington lawyer Robert F. Bauer wrote an interesting opinion piece on the California Recall election. He noted that the recall is competitive, largely non-partisan, short, and intensely engaging to the public and the media. These are the very qualities that reformers usually find lacking in our long, partisan, low-turnout elections. Thus, Bauer says, reformers should be delighted with the recall as an alternative to "politics as usual." Instead, they rail against it as a "circus" or even a "tragedy." That is because it is not "the controlled, tidy, deliberative politics that some of them profess to care about: 'serious' candidates engaged in 'serious' debate mediated by political 'experts,' such as themselves, in an established, familiar setting." Bauer thinks that reformers are sanctimonious and also impractical; normal politics is much better than they believe. The specific progressive reform that led to this election—allowing governors to be recalled—was really an attempt to banish "politics." That is what progressive reformers always want, Bauer thinks, and the results always backfire.

Implication: progressives should rethink their support for campaign finance reform, regulation of lobbying, and other "anti-political" ideas that will, like recall elections, create disasters.

I think Bauer's criticism applies to Ross Perot and some Nader-type reformers, who really are anti-political and therefore would like to see less campaigning, weaker parties, less campaign spending, and less ideological mobilization. Hence their support for term limits, initiative and referendum, and spending limits. I have never belonged to this camp, and neither do some of the leading reform groups, such as Common Cause. I think parties are good, and that it is helpful for them to mobilize mass support. I don't believe that elections last too long; in fact, I think the presidential primary season may soon become too short. And I don't think that too much money is spent on elections. Last time I checked, the total amount was not more than $16 per capita, which is not much to communicate to a mass public.

However, we do not have just two alternatives: the California "circus," and politics-as-usual. We could have a political system that was less influenced by private money, more "serious" (in the sense of being more closely connected to weighty choices that we need to make), fairer, more competitive, and more engaging to all people, including those with less money and education.

To me, the California election is a fiasco, because it represents a failure of Californians to control their own futures. If Arnold Schwartzenegger wins, it will not be because a plurality of Californians are moderate Republicans (which would be a tolerably democratic result). Instead, he will win because a plurality of Californians don't have any idea what is going on in state government, so they imagine that a macho new leader can simply banish all their fiscal problems. This will show that they have no grasp of the ideological differences that have led to a budget impasse. Democrats oppose deep budget cuts, and Republicans oppose tax increases—principled positions that create huge deficits when put together. Citizens need to choose one position or the other (or split the difference). But Schwartzenegger claims that he can just clean up the mess: a totally unprincipled position that sounds impressive only to people who have never seriously considered the difficult choices implied by a budget crisis. Thus, if Arnold wins, it will show that many Californians feel no personal responsibility for the way their own government has acted in the past.

August 25, 2003 12:10 PM | category: deliberation | Comments


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