Angry? Blame Hiram Johnson…


“In 1911, Johnson and the Progressives added initiative, referendum, and recall to the state government, giving California a degree of direct democracy unmatched by any other U.S. state.”

It seems clear that Johnson believed that direct democracy could counter the machinations of entrenched special interests (in his day, mostly industrial trusts). What he could not have foreseen was the rise of a professional ballot initiative industry, one that succeeds fiscally whether or not it succeeds at the polls and thus has a vested interest in introducing ballot measures every election cycle. Thus, the California constitution is now hostage to the whims of single issue fundraisers and out of state interests, a group that now functions as an unelected shadow legislature.

I don’t blame the “fundies” for making valid use of a system to further their interests, however much I disagree with those interests. It also seems that the California State Supreme Court shares my dislike of the initiative process as a vehicle for deciding matters of basic human rights, but as was stated in their opinion: “our task in the present proceeding is not to determine whether the provision at issue is wise or sound as a matter of policy or whether we, as individuals, believe it should be a part of the California Constitution. Our role is limited to interpreting and applying the principles and rules embodied in the California Constitution, setting aside our own personal beliefs and values.” The constitution as it currently exists allows for such actions, and it is at the constitutional level that the problem needs to be tackled.

I’ve written about my own feelings regarding the question of gay marriage before. I still don’t believe in it personally, but of course believe that if a right is extended to some citizens of a nation it should be extended to all. The lesson of Hiram Johnson is that even the acts of self termed progressives can produce results far beyond their intention.

The real task in front of Californians is to find some way to balance Johnson’s ideals of direct democracy with some mechanism to prevent the continuing cynical abuse of of the initiative system.

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