Themes in American History: Capitalism, Slavery, Democracy

The Difficulties and Dilemmas of Democracy

One of the big news stories today was the victory of California Governor Gavin Newsom over Larry Elder, in what is known in California as a “recall” election.

As we begin to move towards an exploration of our class theme of Democracy, it seems like an appropriate time to draw on current events to enhance our understanding of what this contested term means, and how that meaning has changed over time and been used (and abused) in different places around the world, including within the United States.

Under California’s unique system, voters can vote an elected governor out of office before the end of his or her term (4 years) by collecting enough signatures to hold a referendum—a special election in which a question is put directly to voters. In this case, many people were angry at Gov. Newsom’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis, which included relatively strict mask mandates and forced business closures (not unlike Gov. Cuomo’s approach in New York). Newsom inadvertently added fuel to the fire when pictures were leaked of him attending a 2020 dinner at an expensive San Francisco restaurant, unmasked. The incident added to perceptions of Newsom as a hypocritical elitist who is out of touch with ordinary Californians.

In theory, California’s recall system represents a form of direct democracy—in which questions of great import are put directly before the people, can use the democratic process to unseat the most powerful political figure in the state. But as this New York Times article points out, certain aspects of the process seem fundamentally undemocratic. Under the terms of the recall, only a simple majority—greater than 50 percent—is needed to unseat the governor. But once that threshold is reached, the candidate with the next largest number of votes is automatically elected governor. In practice, that means that, if Newsom had received only 49 percent of the votes, Elder could have replaced him by winning only 25 percent—or only a little more than half the number of voters who voted for Newsom.

The article goes on to cover some of the history of California’s recall system, which dates back to 1911, when voters approved a series of reforms meant to curb the power of railroad corporations, which then dominated the state. But ironically, as the article points out, in recent years referendums and ballot initiatives have been used by corporate interests, such as Uber and Lyft, who can promote their agendas simply by collecting signatures and using the power of the internet and social media.

Opponents also argue that such special elections are also extremely costly—the current recall effort cost the state $276 million—and distract from important issues at critical times, in this case as California confronts the ongoing pandemic as well as a series of wildfires and other environmental issues related to climate change.

In the past, recall elections and other ballot initiatives have had a tremendous impact on California. In 2003, then-Governor Davis was replaced by actor Arnold Schwartzenegger after a recall effort. Proposition 13, a referendum aimed at reducing property taxes, has been blamed for the declining quality of California’s public schools since the 1970s, and in the 1990s, a majority voted to deny certain benefits to undocumented immigrants under Proposition 187.

In this case, Gov. Newsom defeated the recall effort by something like a 64 to 36% margin. The lopsided result was blamed on the extreme ideas of his Republican opponent. Elder, a conservative radio talk-show host, has a history of making disparaging comments about women, opposes the minimum wage and abortion, and said that the descendants of slave owners, rather than the descendants of slaves themselves, should receive reparations (Elder himself is African American). These views are out of step with the majority of Californians, but the terms of the recall election made it possible that Elder could have won—before today’s result, many were predicting a close election.

What do you think? Is California’s recall system truly democratic? If not, what reforms could be taken to make the process more representative? What is democracy anyway, and why does it seem to be such a hot topic in 2021, after a century or more in which America’s system of government appeared to many to be among the most stable and democratic in the world?

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