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.