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Sorry, Hiram, but Times Change

June 22, 1986

It is blasphemy to some, but it had to be said: Hiram Johnson was not perfect.

Surely it was only a gentle, and tangential, slur on the legendary King Arthur of California's progressive political movement early in the 20th Century. But Judge William A. Norris of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals was right on the money when he said last week that the Progressive reforms had emasculated the effectiveness of political parties in California. Norris' comments came in the court's declaration that state political parties have the right to endorse candidates in primary elections.

The existing ban on primary endorsements is unconstitutional and represents "a form of paternalism" that is inconsistent with the federal First Amendment protection of free speech, Norris said in writing the opinion for the three-judge court. The Progressive reforms had drained political parties of any effective role in the conduct of politics in California, added Norris, himself a long-time worker in Democratic politics.

Emasculating the parties, of course, is what Johnson and fellow Progressives had in mind when they created open primaries; nonpartisan local elections; the initiative petition, referendum and recall, and other reforms. Many of these provisions remain valuable tools of government today. But the evil that Johnson was after was not party politics as such, but its control by economic interests--almost exclusively the Southern Pacific Railroad.

In the past seven decades a sort of mystique has developed around Johnson and his reforms. But times have changed, and the reforms desperately needed in California in 1910 may not be good for California in 1986. There is no such concentration of economic power now. Indeed, the problem today is a fragmentation of power and the inability of political parties to exercise influence over candidates and officeholders who purportedly represent them. What often masquerades as good government is weak government propped up by politicians who instill loyalty by channeling campaign money to supporters. The system seems to have no particular goal other than to perpetuate itself.

Johnson himself was not a very heroic character. He was a peevish person who bitterly battled his father, a politician who defended the Southern Pacific and resigned from the state Senate when son Hiram became governor. The brief ascendancy of the Progressive movement in California was fraught with infighting and intrigue. Internal feuding, and personal pique on Hiram Johnson's part, caused Republican Charles Evans Hughes to lose California, and the presidency, to Democrat Woodrow Wilson in 1912. Johnson presided over the disestablishment of the Progressive Party in California in 1916, and went to Washington as a Republican U.S. senator.

Weep not for the sacred legend of Hiram Johnson progressivism in California. Fear not the specter of Chicago-style boss politics in California. Strengthening the political parties may in fact help bring some reason and order to an impotent, chaotic political system that many mock and shun. If so, the public good has been served.

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