“Has California’s unique brand of direct democracy gone too far? Recall is ultimate test”


When California’s newly elected governor, Hiram Johnson, delivered his inaugural address on Jan. 3, 1911, he made a radical proposition.

My first duty, Johnson declared on that celebratory day, “is to eliminate every private interest from the government and to make the public service of the State responsive solely to the people.”

His words sent shock waves through halls of power accustomed to an easy exchange of money and influence. Determined to “arm the people to protect themselves” against such abuses, Johnson proposed amending the state Constitution with “the initiative, the referendum and the recall.”

The savvy electorate of the day understood that their governor, a Republican well-versed in the Progressive agenda, was arguing for voters to be given the right to place laws on the ballot through petition, to weigh in on laws passed by the Legislature and to remove public officials from office without cause or judicial procedure.

Ten months later, voters agreed, and representative democracy, the crowning achievement of the ounding fathers in 1787, now had a powerful rival — direct democracy — that would leave an indelible mark on California’s political landscape.

“The people of the State of California are ready to rule,” Johnson said. “They have the intelligence and the sense to rule.”

California, popularly heralded as fertile ground for personal reinvention, now had the ability to reinvent itself politically. Citizens, quick to slough off the trappings of the past, had tools for building their future, bringing a fluidity and dynamism to the legislative and electoral process that has only gotten stronger, if not exaggerated with time.

Today Johnson’s vision for California is in the final days of a campaign that kicked off in April when a little less than 5% of the population decided to recall Gov. Gavin Newsom, who took office in 2018 with almost 62% of the vote.

If the drama has at times resembled a sideshow with a traveling bear, a yogic healer and billboard celebrity among the 46 candidates, then it is a measure of how far the democratic spirit that Johnson championed has evolved.

Social media, celebrity candidates and attention seekers have altered the equation, but more than 100 years after Johnson’s reforms, there is no turning back.

“We have all been socialized in a state where we expect voters to directly flex their muscles,” said Thad Kousser, professor of political science at UC San Diego.

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