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The Dangers of Direct Democracy

California has, for most of the 20th and early 21st century, seemed like the last haven for liberals in the US.

Scott Schaffer

Saturday, August 16 2003, 2:49 PM

Here in Pennsylvania, people often wonder how it is that folks get as 'red' as I am. The Amish are the biggest tourist draw where I live; we regularly sum up people's personalities as 'She's a Stoltzfus,' referring to one of the three most prominent Plain People family names in the area; and grocery stores still produce the 9/11 paper flags, and people still dutiful attach them to their cars to show their patriotism. So when they ask me how I ended up so 'liberal,' I have only one response for them:

I grew up in California.

California has, for most of the 20th and early 21st century, seemed like the last haven for liberals in the US. They always do things 'different' out there — surfers, hippies, beatniks, and Hollywood are always the things people ask about, and they're believed to be the role models for how Californians think. People don't know that Californians end up so strange because of the form of government.

California has, since the era of the robber barons, had a populist bent, making sure that the people had a way of keeping The Man in check. The proposition is the most notable and most noticed version of this; if people are motivated enough, they can have just about anything put on the ballot for a vote by the people. From the cessation of public services for illegal immigrants to the end of Affirmative Action, from the reduction of property taxes to mandatory notification of carcinogens in an area, a variety of measures have come from this process.

This process can serve as an effective counter to the power of elected officials. It ensures that even when representatives to the State House are neglecting the needs of the people, those needs can still be met. All it takes are a filing fee, some kind of motivated core of activists, and a certain percentage of the electorate to sign a petition to have it put on the ballot.

I've regularly signed those petitions, even when they were for measures I wholeheartedly disagreed with. In part, this is a kind of political schadenfreude: I'm just twisted enough to see what kinds of insanity the people are willing to vote on. But mostly, I do it because I believe in direct democracy, the capacity of the people to decide their own affairs without the interference of apparatchiks who 'serve the people' as a means of fulfilling their own corporate interests.

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Direct democracy has long been a staple of a Left political agenda. For much of the thirty years between the student movements and the recent wave of Internet activism, it was almost taken as an article of faith that direct democracy was what the Left was about. Democrats and Republicans both were in the pockets of Corporate America; the people were no longer having their interests articulated and acted on; and the people needed to retake the power to determine their own collective affairs.

The wide variety of social movements to arise in those thirty years was about that very thing — providing groups of people with the ability to directly address those in power with a large number of people to say 'this is what we need; make it happen.' The protests against global capitalism in the last five years continued this form of action, with the resulting police state mentality. The State felt the need to protect itself and the decision-makers from this kind of direct address, moving us back to the time of the robber barons deciding everything in smoke-filled back rooms. This time, though, the rooms were in the front and televised live on CNN International, and Internet activism has been our response to this.

So it seems a bit odd that the newest incarnation of direct democracy is the much-publicized California gubernatorial recall election. It's not odd because it's happening — I think few people in California would agree that Governor Gray Davis has been an effective representative of the people's interest. Rather, it's odd because even though the recall process is a form of direct democracy, this hasn't worked that way.

First, only five percent of the California electorate has to decide that the recall of the governor should be put to the people — in other words, only about 897,156 people (12% of the people who voted in the last gubernatorial election) needed to say, in the same way I exhibit my political schadenfreude, that the election should happen. The population of Orange County, home of some of the most politically conservative cities in the country, is somewhere on the order of 10,000,000, making this task not all that hard to accomplish. All it takes is a registration fee and a motivated core of activists; and when it comes to the battle between Republicans, especially of the Bush-like conservative sort that populate the OC, and so-called 'liberal Democrats' like Davis, this is an easy thing to attain. So to think that the recall movement necessarily reflects The Will of the People would be a mistake.

Second, the way the election has come about violates the original intentions behind a populist approach to politics. The recall effort was spearheaded by one person, Darrell Issa, who threw millions of his own dollars behind the campaign. The reason for the recall, according to Issa? Offered in a non-ironic fashion, it was because Governor Davis had betrayed the people of California by running up a huge fiscal deficit, thanks to the 'deal' forced on him by electricity generators and the poor economic performance of the country as a whole after 9/11. So rather than giving Governor Davis an opportunity to figure a way out of a $38 billion deficit, Issa decided to follow in the steps of the Clinton impeachment, the Florida recount, and the Texas reapportionment so brilliantly protested by Texas House Democrats: When the legitimated electoral process doesn't work for your party, find some extra-parliamentary way to get your boys in office. The intention here isn't populist at all; it's partisan at its core, and reflects a growing willingness of the Republican Party to lie, cheat, and steal to attain their political goals.

Third, look at the choice of candidates. The candidates who applied to run for governor — numbering 247 at the time of writing — aren't the choices of people, but folks who had $3,500 to burn. They include the guy who lost the last gubernatorial election; the current Lieutenant-Governor; a porn star; Larry Flynt; and of course, Arnold Schwarzenegger. They're all self-selected, as are nearly all candidates for elected officials in the US. They all have their own set of interests they want to satisfy. And none of those interests appear to be those of the people.

Despite Arnie's protestations of being 'the candidate for the people' (add in Austrian accent if you so choose), nothing could be further from the truth. The people didn't choose him. The people don't even know what he stands for (save for working to save humanity from the Terminators). Former California governor Pete Wilson, who took great pains to ensure that the people of California got screwed under his watch (for example, his selected Regents of the University of California tripled tuition under his leadership), is now Ah-nold's campaign chair. And somehow, I have the feeling that the millions of dollars in his personal bank account (and the millions more I'm sure his campaign war chest will collect in the next eight weeks) separates him from the working poor who are looking for better jobs, good and affordable education for their children, and basic health care.

Pundits around the world have made fun of this recall election, primarily because Ah-nold's involved. Others have said, as Jeffrey Simpson in the Aug 11/2003 The Globe and Mail, that this recall election is 'populism gone wrong.' I don't believe that for a second. I'm a firm believer in populism, direct democracy, and all other mechanisms that give the people the opportunity to decide their affairs for themselves. This recall election just isn't a beneficial instance of direct democratic decision-making, and shouldn't be taken as an example of it.

We on the Left have to remain committed to a real direct democracy — one that doesn't occur when a particular political party wants it to, but rather one that exists all the time. A Left direct democracy would be one that sees political and social policies initiated by segments of the population for the benefit of the greater majority. It might ensure that in instances such as the current recall election, more than a small percentage of the electorate would be required to initiate such a process, so that the entire political system cannot be hijacked by one small segment of the citizenry. And finally, a genuine direct democracy would be one in which all matters of public concern — be they the gouging of the public on their electricity bills or the recall of an elected official — would be carried out in the sunshine through a wider public discussion and debate.

That form of democracy can yield real good for all of us. Unfortunately, the recall election in California will most likely yield nothing but really good humor.

Scott Schaffer is an assistant professor of sociology at Millersville University of Pennsylvania and a member of the Bad Subjects Production Team.

Copyright © 2003 Scott Schaffer. All rights reserved.