Earthquakes, Riots, Mud Slides, Plagues of Locusts...and Democracy?

Posted: Sep 28, 2003 12:00 AM

Between the time I write this and the time you read this four minutes later, things may have changed in California. It may be even wilder and crazier there now. There may be monkeys falling out of the sky. However, whatever it is that's happening now, please don't blame democracy.

There are two kinds of political events transpiring with respect to the attempted recall of California's chief executive, Gray Davis, the governor who never met a deranged spending plan he had the fiscal discipline to veto, nor a suspect quid pro quo he had the dignity to decline.

One of the happenings is democracy, to wit, the on-again, off-again, on-again vote on whether Californians should or should not continue to be afflicted with Mr. Davis. The other is the attempt to derail or dismiss democracy by entrenched power brokers who dislike the inconveniences of democratic assessment.

There is nothing outré or fandooglish about the sheer ability of California voters to rein in elected officials via direct democracy. Sure, some commentators--most, by last count--seem to think that the voter's reluctance to serve as expendable guinea pig shows that the voter is suffering from advanced dementia. "All Politics Are Loco!!" blares this Sunday's New York Times Magazine, in an article that chortles about the high number of Californians who think they could do better as governor than the insistently incompetent Davis. Isn't the real question whether it's possible to find someone who could be worse? (It's a good article to read, though, for the opinions of the governor's next-door neighbors.)

Or flip open the august pages of The Economist, the British weekly that sometimes manages to steer clear of the clichés of the American press, and learn how the "mad" situation in California got even "madder" as the activist Ninth Court of Appeals sought to delay the recall election. That the conduct of the Notorious Ninth, now suddenly wringing its hands about punch-card chads, is loony, cannot be disputed, and all hail to British summations of AP wire stories for noting this. But the exercise of the recall power by Californians is only a very sane and reasonable attempt at self-preservation. It is, after all, sane to wish to live without undue impediment and harassment. And perfectly unreasonable to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous political conduct when one has the power by opposing to end it.

The media--that crazy guy--speaks of the California recall as if the voters of that state are the victims of war or natural disaster. Words like "chaos," "mayhem," "loco" and "dis is crazy boss" are tossed about with such hectic abandon that if one did not know better one would be sure that one were witnessing either the LA riots or the heat death of the universe. In fact, I think the LA riots may have even gotten better reviews--oy, those poor underprivileged marauding thugs, no wonder they had to torch the Korean grocer.

Seems Mr. Media and Mr. Political Elite like democracy best when the voters are shoved to the sidelines. Impeached former President Clinton went to California to oppose the recall too, and, like everybody else who sneers against direct democracy, he certainly didn't bother to defend the track record of one Mr. Gray Davis, who is the subject of the recall vote. Even the man who can spin anything can't spin Gray's gray performance into anything creditable. Nonetheless, California's much-pummeled voters are supposed to simply grin and bear it. Otherwise, opines the impeached former President, they risk becoming "laughingstocks." Uh...okay, whatever.

Let's get serious here for just a moment. I mean, come on. Should we really be ashamed of a political process in which voters have the power not only to elect their leaders but also to fire them, without firing a shot? The constituencies of Hitler, Stalin and Idi Amin should have been so lucky. No one was going to recall Saddam Hussein or the Taliban. There's no recall process in North Korea, nor in any other dictatorship. Yeah, they're crazy over there in California. Crazy like a fox. Or a people who believe they are free to exercise some minimal measure of governance over their governors.

The world may be laughing at us. (Doesn't the world have anything better to do?) But, unfazed by the corrupt mockers of the old world, Americans have long chosen the "chaos" of freedom and democracy over the calm and orderliness of boss rule.

Democracy. We think we'll keep it.