Paul Jacob

"They had a gun to our head. They took hostages, and they promised to start shooting." This is not the complaint of a victim of a horrible crime -- unless democracy is a horrible crime.

This is, instead, the protest of California Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg. She was describing the trauma she faced from a citizen initiative to reform her state's workers' compensation system. California's new governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, had used the initiative drive as leverage against legislators, who quickly realized that if they didn't reach an agreement with Governor Terminator something worse would happen: voters would go even further.

Not long before, similar foreboding about democracy could be heard from California politicians. To some, the Rodney King-inspired Los Angeles riots of a decade ago were political expression. Yet, the voter recall of former Governor Gray Davis was some kind of "mayhem" and the voters' ability to place an issue on the ballot a form of terrorism.

Something strange has happened, something has happened to democracy.

Popular Government

It has often been observed that democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others. Neither direct nor indirect democracy provides a good way to come up with a stable economic program, for example. Economists have shown that voting is too ungainly a tool to make consistent policy. Democracy can't help but be a bit messy.

But it does serve one important function, as Karl Popper insisted: it allows for the peaceful removal of rulers.

In a famous letter, Thomas Jefferson wrote of refreshing the tree of liberty with the blood of patriots and tyrants. But democratic "revolution" is better than bloodshed, as I'm pretty sure he also believed. The framers of the Constitution sought to create popular government, a peaceful means for citizens to regularly check and reconstitute their servants running their government.

Paul Jacob

Paul Jacob is President of Citizens in Charge Foundation and Citizens in Charge. His daily Common Sense commentary appears on the Web and via e-mail.