Along the Tracks

Thursday, October 09, 2003

California, populism, conservatism and federalism

George Will’s column in today’s Washington Post is strange - not up to his usual standards. He never embraced the California recall, so it’s not surprising to find him poo-pooing the aftermath. (UPDATE: Kaus is somewhat surprised.) Arnold’s social liberalism makes things all the worse, in Will’s view.

His anti-populist argument (in the same vein as - but obviously far better crafted than - the Blade’s house left-wing nut Marilou Johanek) is that “the people” were not meant to have such direct authority over government, and recalls and initiatives allow short-term thinking to dominate governance. I believe he and others (see John Scalzi, for a non-conservative argument eerily similar) are only giving half the story.

Recalls and government-limiting initiatives don’t happen in a vacuum. They are generally instigated by mismanagement or corruption in the halls of power. Mere “unpopularity” doesn’t do the trick. California has a century-long tradition of these populist options to rein in overreaching government. So while the purpose of any individual initiative may well be instigated by short-term problems, the larger system which includes initiatives (and recalls) is stable and has a long-term goal: To provide an ever-present reminder to the politicians that voters have the final word.

Such a system should, in theory at least, encourage the following characteristics in state government: broad-based appeals to the public over special interests; strong popular leadership over party favoritism; a generally conservative (old definition: wary of changes) approach to governance over agenda-driven change. When big changes are needed - and sometimes they are - a populist system like California’s encourages the building of voter support and, ultimately, a direct statement by the voters on the issue at hand.

Will, Scalzi and others are correct: This is not what the Founders had in mind when they wrote the constitution. What they fail to note is that the constitution was written specifically for the binding of many states into a single, federal system. At the top level, the Founders designed a republican form of government which intentionally limited the effects of populism. Remember, the unwritten word found between the lines throughout the constitution was “slavery,” which already was a bitter dividing line. The Founders feared that an unbridled release of populist power in a union of the states would inevitably result in civil war - and they were right. Their shameful and tragic decision to whitewash institutionalized slavery not withstanding, the Founders were completely successful in diluting populist power among various legislators and the executive on the federal level.

But here’s where Will, Scalzi and co. make their mistake: The Founders explicitly did not require the same anti-populist formula for the states. In fact, their philosophy toward state government was, in a nutshell: Hands off. Remember all those “reserved to the states” phrases inside the constitution and its amendments? The states were largely free to form their own systems, as long as they met a very few guiding standards: they were to have “a republican form of government,” treat citizens of other states equally and they could not interfere with the function of the federal government as spelled out in the constitution. That’s all.

So, let’s see ... California has an elected legislature and executive. Yep, they meet the standards of the Founders.

Federalism has taken a beating over the past 50 years, but it is a traditionally conservative point of view that the feds should respect state sovereignty on issues where the federal government does not have explicit constitutional authority. That includes the specific manifestation of democracy each state chooses. Conservatives who use the “Founders spinning in their graves” argument against Californian populism are being hypocritical.

Do I think California’s populist system is all pork roast and taters? Hardly. The way things are now, California’s government meets the standards of the evolutionary theory “punctuated equilibrium”: short periods of voter activism followed by long stretches of voter apathy. The recall of Gray Davis marked a pinnacle, if you will, of direct action by the electorate. Still, Will, Scalzi and others are correct that just 11 months ago, this same Gray Davis won re-election. What gives?

Will’s argument - an unconvincing one, drenched in elitism, in my opinion - is basically “you made your bed, now lie in it.” Voters were downright stupid to re-elect Davis, and they should pay for their stupidity by suffering through four more years of lousy leadership.

Their are several problems with this: 1) The Republicans (and “third parties,” for that matter) forwarded an unappealing option in the 2002 campaign; 2) Davis lied about the state’s budget woes; 3) the media failed to do its crucial duty in a democracy - deliver information to the public; 4) the state has had the recall option for a century, so why not use it?

Condemning a state to proven ineffective, even deceptive, leadership when that state’s long-held system allows for removal seems petulant.

Scalzi’s reasoning is better, and addresses problems with the California populist system which could benefit from improvement.

Scalzi points out independently-minded voters do have choices in regularly scheduled elections, they just refuse to exercise them. Yes and no - “choices,” yes, but the primary system (modeled on those of non-populist states) discourages the participation of the general electorate in winnowing the choices. The solution? Hold a combined primary/runoff, with all gubernatorial candidates on one big ballot (just like the second half of the recall). The top two vote-getters would then face off in the general election. If the two main parties cannot field their best candidates under the present system, take that responsibility away from the backrooms and hand it to the people. Democrats and Republicans would no longer be forced to follow a centrally-scripted philosophy; independents and third parties would have an opportunity to prove themselves before voters make their final choice. This would be a “populist” reform in line with the overall California system.

Finally, living in Ohio, a non-populist state in which “initiatives” are the playthings of the governor and state legislature, I feel a little envious of Californians. We were nearly facing a devil’s choice of video gambling or a permanent sales tax hike, complete with ass-backward language in which “no” meant “yes” - until the Republican-dominated legislature agreed with the Republican governor and simply raised taxes to pay for the 11 percent budget increase. Now, we have the “Third Rail Initiative,” or whatever it’s called, which will put Ohio further in debt so that the governor can pick and choose which industries Ohio will seek to attract. State planning - socialism - at its best, courtesy of Bob Taft. A Republican.

Meanwhile, Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell has announced plans to get his own ballot initiative certified for 2004, in an effort to roll back the recent tax hikes. The GOP and Democratic establishments are livid. He’ll get the signatures - this tax hike on top of ridiculous spending increases is the last straw for many Ohioans - but has almost certainly ended any chance he had at state party support for his expected gubernatorial run in 2006. In Ohio, that could cripple his chances.

During last year’s campaign, Gov. Taft downplayed the coming budget shortfall (which ended up being $4 billion). The Democrats ran a county commissioner against Taft. We also had a “Natural Law Party” candidate and a Reform Party candidate, if I remember correctly - neither of which seemed like a leader or budget-fixer. I (pretty conservative, mind you) voted for the Democrat - one of about 17 people in Williams County to do so.

In other words, Ohio’s situation was almost precisely the same as California’s. The media focused on personalities rather than issues the whole campaign, even though the budget problems were not hard to identify (I did a story in The Leader with our two area legislators, both Republicans, stating the deficit would be as much as $4 billion). The incumbent governor won, suddenly “discovered” a huge deficit, and offered the legislature the “hard choices” that go with huge budget increases coupled with huge tax increases. After a little him-hawing (and a minor revolt among conservatives), the GOP leadership cut a deal with a few Democrats and, presto, we got slammed with a 20% hike in sales taxes, expanded those taxes into some services, and boosted a large, if carefully chosen, list of fees. The tobacco settlement fund was raided. All the “tough choices” involved more costs to Ohio’s taxpayers.

In Ohio, we are stuck with Taft for three more years. As a fairly well informed voter, I don’t feel like Ohioans were given a “real” choice last year, and would sign a California-style recall petition in a heartbeat. Will Ohio’s predicament result in more voter involvement and a Columbus leadership held responsible for its failings? Maybe, in a few ways - the Blackwell initiative, for one. Mostly, though, voters will become even more frustrated with the system, more convinced their vote doesn’t matter, and more likely to feel helpless while the parties collude in the decay of Ohio. Instead, life-long Buckeyes, their children and their businesses will vote with their feet and find places more responsive to the electorate.

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