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Tyranny of the Mob Rules in California

August 19, 2003|Larry J. Sabato | Larry J. Sabato is director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics and author, most recently, of "Midterm Madness: The Elections of 2002" (Rowman & Littlefield).

California's national spectacle has been called a circus, but it's more like a zoo with the cages of the untrained animals pushed wide open. Every stereotype of the Golden State has been validated, from its regrettable obsession with superficial Hollywood celebrity to its arms-wide-open welcome for, well, unusual people. This widespread bashing is unfair, of course. Most states have plenty of their own embarrassments, and a large majority of the other 49 would give a great deal to possess California's wealth of people and resources.

But whatever their shortcomings, almost all the other states do not have California's extreme system of pure democracy, a wildly popular but destructive legacy of the Progressive movement. The Progressives' bequest has perverted the founders' desire for trusteeship government, which is based on the essential need of a busy, distracted electorate to place faith in representatives it elects. These leaders, chosen in free elections for fixed terms, were meant to make decisions in our best interests -- with the people exercising judgment about those decisions by endorsing or replacing those representatives at the next scheduled election.

Tragically, California has adopted another, far less successful form of democracy, a kind of "mob-ocracy" with the tyranny of transient majorities in never-ending elections and initiatives. The recall (successful or not) will inevitably lead to other recalls; already various groups have made clear that, should a Republican be elected to replace Gray Davis, there will be a near-instantaneous effort to recall that replacement.

After all, even a losing Davis may well accumulate far more votes at the top of the ballot than his winning successor on the bottom, who must compete with those 134 other candidates and will probably win well under 40% of the votes cast.

The popular-vote comparisons between Davis and the recall winner will be inevitable -- and unlike the 2000 presidential election, there is no electoral college to explain the disparity.

The recall is just the latest manifestation of mob-ocracy. Californians have piled foolish initiative upon foolish initiative in modern times. The result: A sizable majority of California's budget is rigidly predetermined by voter-mandated allocations to education, transportation and criminal justice, regardless of the economic conditions prevailing at any given time. Each initiative sounded good, but the budget hole is greater than the sum of these parts, as voters should have learned in the midst of their $38-billion state shortfall.

Should the golden promise of California fade in the 21st century, as it appears to be doing economically, and should other states continue to gain on what was once the nation's most blessed land, California citizens might eventually ask a useful question: Why do almost all other states choose not to have California's easy form of recall, or its insane tradition of initiative-led government?

For most states, the fail-safe checks on a runaway governor are legislative impeachment, as well as automatic forfeiture of office upon conviction of a serious crime, and these are quite enough. Moreover, voters across the U.S. generally use elections, not initiatives, to send popular messages to elected leaders. These messages are received loud and clear, and without the awful unintended consequences that often come with initiatives.

The nation's founders, not the Progressives, were right. Representative democracy is far superior to pure democracy. Recall, except in a dire emergency, destroys rather than enhances effective government, as does excessive use of the initiative process.

Davis may or may not be worth supporting, but this vital principle of American constitutional democracy is. Consider it before you vote -- and maybe take a clothespin for your nose when you go to the polls. It might help in this season of abundant bad choices.

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