Vote No to JG-ish Derogation of Democracy

Posted: Oct 05, 2003 12:00 AM

You're on the rack being tortured by the bad guy. You're whipped, you're scourged, you're slapped around. This goes on for a while. Finally your torturer chuckles evilly and says, "And now...I'm going to triple your car tax. For your own good, of course."

That's it! The last straw. Until now you had been resigned to your fate, assuming that you were stuck with this villain's company for at least a few more years. But now you're fed up, not going to take it any more. Instead of shrugging your shoulders when somebody asks you to sign the recall petition, you're scrawling your John Hancock with a fury. And badgering all your friends and family to do the same.

After all, you didn't vote for the guy. And even if you had, does that mean you deserve to be tortured for the blunder?

Why yes, you do deserve it, according to columnist Jonah Goldberg in a recent column announcing that "Recall election shows too much democracy is dangerous."

Social critic H.L. Mencken once defined democracy as "the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard." Goldberg endorses a version of this view, but sans the tongue in cheek. "The recall, in my opinion, undermines the accountability of voters," he opines, "telling them in effect that they can have a do-over whenever they mess things up by electing the wrong guy. Well, I'm sorry. As I've said before, the people of California elected Gray Davis and now they must be punished."

That may sound like a joke, but we know it isn't because Goldberg then goes on to say: "That may sound like a joke, but it's actually a central tenet of democracy."

Perhaps, then, democracy should overhaul its tenets, evicting the tenets that don't make any sense. These evictees must surely include any assumption that there is a unified, all-knowing civic group-mind that can perfectly transmit its preferences via a transparent and infallible democratic process (even one apparently rigged to favor incumbents) such that "the voters" always get exactly what "they" asked for, and therefore deserve no chance to reverse any mistake before California slides into the ocean.

Does anybody want to adopt as a "central tenet" of living one's life responsibly and with accountability that one may never correct one's screw-ups in the immediate present? In fact, of course, the opposite is true: the refusal to admit and fix one's screw-ups in a timely way is proof of deficit, not surplus, of accountability and self-responsibility. True, the recall power should not be deployed at the drop of a hat. But that's not how it has been deployed in California. The recall provision has been on the books for a century and until now no governor has been recalled. Yet more than a million people signed the recall petition for the present governor. And their causes are not light causes.

Davis-enabler Goldberg isn't joking, and he's not sorry. But that's not to say that he himself would decline to vote in favor of firing Davis if Goldberg himself happened to be stuck living in California. After all, why should Goldberg be willy-nilly punished for the blunders and crimes of other voters?

"Even though I'm against the recall, if I lived in California I would vote for the recall and try to run Gray Davis out on a rail. Why the double-standard? Because if I lived in California, I would have to vote for my immediate interests. And, besides, I never would have voted for Davis in the first place."

Here, suddenly, the Goldbergian "argument" against democratic corrective alludes again to discrete individuals. There's those Other Guys, who deserve to be punished for re-installing Davis (whether they voted for him or not); and then there's Goldberg, who does not deserve to be punished, not even if he were living in California. Or perhaps Goldberg's view is that he would indeed deserve to be punished for living in California if he were living there, but that, being human, he would act self-interestedly anyway. Hard to know, because Goldberg neither observes nor defends the implications of his own ethical-political contentions. He merely asserts that the people of California deserve to get Gray Davis good and hard.

There are theories of democracy, and there are institutions of democracy. It is true enough that some theorists regard democracy as a mere offshoot and instrument of collectivism, as if society were a kind of organism that could periodically express a unitary "will" via opinion polls and the ballot box. But this is baloney, so we have to go with another theory.

Democracy is a means of exercising control over government, and it is premised on the basic rationality (at least potential rationality) of the human beings entrusted with the power to vote. But the process is not perfect. Voters generally are obliged to choose among imperfect alternatives in imperfect circumstances. The voters are not perfect either, of course.

Democracy is a means, not an end. That end is not to "teach the voters a lesson" but to preserve and protect individual freedom and individual rights. When that end is jeopardized, it may be appropriate for citizens to ask their fellow citizens to try again.