How direct should democracy be?

Schwarzenegger prepares for office, but some see recall as part of a broken system.

When Gov.-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger expressed his wonder that Californians had given him their trust Tuesday, perhaps even he was not aware of how profound his statement was.

The success of Mr. Schwarzenegger's antiestablishment campaign only emphasizes California's immense and abiding distaste for its own political leaders. In no other state have voters so frequently and fundamentally attacked the structure of their own government - through initiatives that shifted tax structures, set spending mandates, and limited legislative terms.

Now, Californians have again stormed the marble halls of Sacramento, but it remains unclear whether all their tinkering has put the state - and America - on a new political path or is taking it down a dead end. "California is once again at the forefront of political change," says Howard Ernst, coauthor of "Dangerous Democracy? The Battle Over Ballot Initiatives in America."

For the moment, the wisdom of such change sits squarely on Mr. Schwarzenegger's shoulders. As he fielded calls from foreign dignitaries and named his transition team this week, the depth of the state's fiscal and political challenges came into focus.

Rewriting US government

To some, the Golden State's travails are part of the inevitable evolution of democracy, as the people take the full power kindled in the Constitution's opening words, "We the people...." To others, California voters are the prime culprits in their own mess, as they malign the very lawmakers needed to make government work. Indeed, California's experiment is challenging some basic assumptions underlying American democracy since the writing of the Federalist Papers, particularly the idea that elected officials should use their judgment to act on voters' behalf. In recent decades, Californians' deep distrust of politicians has increasingly led them to limit politicians' power and discretion through ballots - and now the recall.

That, say experts, is the aspect of the recall that could resonate nationwide. Across the country, as here, the heightening stakes of politics has led to greater partisanship. Yet across the country, as here, people have never been less partisan, with registering voters eschewing both parties in record numbers. The result is a decline in respect for government and a new willingness to reshape it. In this context, California will go some way toward determining if there are limits to a government "by the people."

To Larry Gerston, the answer is already apparent: The recall is but the latest example that California's political system is broken. Many of the problems predate the era of the ballot initiative, which essentially began when voters passed Proposition 13 in 1978 to cap property taxes. But voters' best intentions have only compounded the problem.

"We attempt to solve a problem, and we create another one that is unforeseen," says Dr. Gerston, a political scientist at San Jose State University.

Take term limits. More than a decade ago, California voters passed Prop. 140, establishing term limits for state legislators. In response, the Legislature passed a redistricting plan two years ago that made every seat safe for incumbents, in part so they wouldn't have to spend their limited time in Sacramento worried only about getting reelected. The result, however, has been an increasingly polarized Legislature representing districts dominated by the political extremes - meaning that voters played a significant role in creating the partisanship that helped fuel the recall.

Rule 1: Punish politicians

"I don't think [term-limit] reformers even considered that," says Gerston, who suggests that California's political problems are so entrenched that the state needs to convene a constitutional convention.

Term limits, though, are just one symptom of the deeper and more basic problem of California voters wanting to punish politicians for being politicians, add others. Along with term limits, for instance, voters have mandated that certain minimum percentage of the budget be spent on education and after-school programs.

"These initiatives block all the maneuverability of politicians," says Kevin Starr, the state librarian. "Far from demonizing politicians, we need good politicians."

The irony, he says, is that these strictures have resulted in a weak and inexperienced Legislature more vulnerable to the influence of special interests - another pillar of the recall angst. Initiative proponents don't disagree, they just suggest that no revolution is without its challenges - and this is nothing less than a revolution in how democracy functions.

"The minor claims leveled against the process, that it is expensive, divisive, and disruptive, are accurate but not necessarily meaningful," says Dr. Ernst. "By design, democratic processes are the peaceful means by which we temporarily resolve our irreconcilable differences."

What is different now is that Californians are taking the mechanisms of power in their own hands rather than allowing a professional political class to rule. To the fathers of the United States Constitution, and many modern critics, it is a recipe for disaster: Everyday voters are not aware of the complexities of today's billion-dollar governments. California, and its new populist governor, may well prove them right - or wrong.

"Every step along the way toward democratization, there have been those that have warned [against] moving in this direction, seeing doom and decay around every corner," says Ernst. "Ultimately, in a system based on popular sovereignty, like ours, the citizens must determine validity of the process."

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