Page Two

The capricious, political use of recall and referendum perverts and endangers the idea of our constitutional republic

Page Two

In the past, this column has considered how hard it is to love democracy in action. In the abstract, the concept is as a golden statue of Apollo shining in the sun, flawless and magnificent. Close up, it is ugly and misshapen: It moves too slowly or too quickly; it never listens, never does what you want it to do. In the mind, it is long lines of beaming, fully vetted voters waiting to cast their ballots for clean, fresh candidates uncorrupted by money, special interests, or too many years in politics. In reality, it is pitched wars over who is eligible to vote and who isn't, fraud, manipulation, demagoguery, procedural screwups, human error, and all-too-human candidates, and it too often seems like you're voting only for the lesser of two evils, if your vote really counts at all. The former is a utopian hallucination; the latter is the real world.

When this argument about democracy's inherent unlovability has been made, one can feel many on the left nodding in agreement with me, as we watch our Republican brethren verbally trash and legislatively attack democracy's basic functioning. But the left is little better. Those who don't just want to see the Democrats win, but rather "democracy restored" to this country, are missing the point. So are those who voted for Nader rather than compromise their lovingly tended principles. Democracy is a mess. It is ugly and inherently unappealing. Our form of government, a constitutional republic, is probably worse. Here the majority rules, though there are built-in protections for the minority. This means government moves slowly and awkwardly. It also represents the genius of the founding fathers, who understood just how slowly and awkwardly government should move. It privileges every voice – those with which you disagree as much as those with which you agree. Sometimes, maybe often, the numbers run against you.

Persistent, pervasive ideological integrity, which sounds like a personal goal and the best asset of any politician, is actually a deadly cancer in a constitutional republic. A constitutional republic – a functioning democracy, if you will – is about compromise. It is about working together, and it is about the vitality and validity of the ideas you hate, not just the ones you like.

Say what you will of the 2000 election. I still assert that the system worked, in that we had an orderly transition of power, no matter how much the Republicans and Gov. Jeb Bush perverted things (which is a partisan view – Republicans think the Democrats were trying to steal the vote; I think the Republicans stole it – that's what makes a constitutional republic tick).

Point out what a mess the 2004 election was, from voter registration fraud and challenges to unaccountable electronic voting machines. Damn the president who, questionably elected four years earlier, did nothing to substantively repair the electoral process. But don't mythologize the electoral process. It's always spewed oil and blood, money and greed; bred corruption; and survived through abuse, malfunctions, and sabotage. Still, it's always persevered.

Bush is the president. We elected him. To say "he's not my president – I didn't vote for him" is to reject democracy. To say "this is not my government" is to deny democracy its essence: The government is elected by the people and represents the people, even when it champions ideas you overwhelmingly despise. Democracy does not promise you the government you want; it doesn't even suggest that is really possible.

You can oppose the government in every way possible, denounce it, work against it. I don't challenge the legitimacy of the last election, although I have many questions about it. I expected President Bush to be re-elected because, in times of turmoil and uncertainty, the American people tend to stick with what they know.

But when you excuse yourself from being represented by that government (which is a delusional, self-righteous fiction to begin with – but I won't go there now), you are taking the position that, even if you voted, if you got a government you not only don't want but despise, you are removed from it. Keep in mind that those who like this government often dislike the administrations you like and deny they represent them. This is some sort of mutant participatory government – a "bipolar-archy," perhaps – but it isn't democracy. A lot of people ascribe to this line of thinking. No surprise there; my whole point is that a functioning democracy, a constitutional republic, is a hard, hard thing to love for all of us.

On every side, they try to fix democracy. They're never dismantling it, always improving it. Never disfiguring it, only nursing it to health via the vision of the founding fathers as interpreted by, well, them (whatever "them/they" about which we might be talking). They are reforming or returning to original interpretation or strictly interpreting the Constitution or trying to clean the pollution that corrupts our electoral process. They are concerned about who can vote and who is an American, about who is loyal and who is a traitor; they champion term limits and campaign finance reform; they support referendums so the people can vote on issues directly. In every way, they limit, distort, and restrain democracy – always in the name of reform and progress or conservatism and traditional values or some noble virtue – but it all boils down to the fact that they neither love nor really trust this participatory, democratic, constitutional republic of ours.

The idea was that you elect politicians based on their record and what they have said, but mostly because of who they are, and they try to govern in the best way possible. The nature of government is that elected officials often have to make unpopular and difficult decisions. The founding fathers didn't opt for a simple democracy, in which we would vote on every issue, because they wanted our elected leaders to be given some time and protection to do what they think is best for those they serve, no matter what the popular reaction. Not everything they do needs to be popular; that is the whole idea of terms of office: to give them a chance to work out their ideas, matching ideology to legislation in the light of practicality.

All these "improvements" to democracy attack this country's core constitutional ideas (note: "ideas," not language – not specifically spelled-out guarantees and responsibilities). Take the referendum – doesn't that seem to be a purer form of democracy, the people voting directly on laws? But two major hesitations must be noted. We live in a constitutional republic, and referendums remove two of its built-in layers of protection: legislative and executive considerations (the far right is trying to limit or remove judicial considerations, as well). Never trust anyone with money who isn't responsible for the entire budget – for paying the bills, recording income, and balancing the books. Referendums cut and increase spending capriciously and erratically.

A transition here, which follows from the above but is also separate from it: Now, once politicians are elected, they are accountable to all the voters (not just those who elected them), and are responsible for governing as well as they can, regardless of popular opinion or special-interest pressures. Certainly, they are subject to recall for malfeasance or egregious behavior, but recall is not to be used lightly – and absolutely not as a tool to pressure a specific vote or as a weapon wielded to influence a vote.

Writing on tolls has proven interesting. Basically, I was just asking the people who want roads and are opposed to tolls how we are going to pay for them. I came out in favor of neither roads nor tolls. To say the money is already there is to say the $10 billion the Legislature cut during the last session is okay – weakened public health, education, and safety are okay. It's roads that are important. Obviously, different revenue sources are dedicated in different ways, but this is illusory. In a time of "no taxes," the government generates additional money from fees, specific taxes, disguised charges, and the like. But all the money comes from you, goes to the government, and is spent in your service. It is reasonable to suggest that the choice can be at least partially framed as "new roads – or adequate health care and education for all." The decision, in this state, has always favored the former.

Some members of the local anti-toll community, however, are not content to simply disagree. They are casting aspersions on the pro-toll-road faction in a wide variety of ways. The issue is not presented as a difficult disagreement over a loaded and tricky issue; this is the good guys (representing the people) against the bad guys (who are evil and want toll roads for their crooked deals and so they can steal the money).

The question unanswered by the anti-toll faction is, if so many people are illegally benefiting from these roads being built, why are they taking on the uphill fight for toll roads? If they are so corrupt, why don't they just vote for free roads, build as many as they can until the money runs out, and let the graft roll in?

The recall campaign against the mayor is electorally disgusting. This isn't even about his vote on something as important as roads. It's over something as minor as tolls. Sorry folks, tolls are minor. The issue is: How do we pay for the services of the government we want? The anti-toll folks, under the guise of a people's revolution, don't want to pay for them.

If you don't like the mayor because of this, oppose him. Call him, write his office, picket, organize a petition against tolls. In the next election, support his opponent and don't vote for him. But a recall? On a single issue? Where the mayor is only one vote, and not a deciding one?

An election is democratic: Everyone knows the voting day, where the voting booths are, who is running. This recall petition is something else; it is targeted, persistent, and aggressive. As a taxpaying citizen, do you really want to pay for a recall election because of a single position of Mayor Wynn's?

As national taxes on the wealthiest Americans are cut, as Texas continues to have only regressive taxation, a terribly unfair burden is put upon the working classes. No wonder they are protesting. It is going to get worse. Almost every study says federal taxes will have to be increased before the end of the decade. The Bush administration is shifting the tax burden away from wealth and toward income. The earning classes will be paying more.

So the anger is understandable. But a recall campaign over a vote such as that on tolls, in which the mayor is only one of a group of decision-makers, is an argument for a monitoring of government that goes beyond diligent. It passes power from elected officials to driven special interests. It insults not only the intent of the founding fathers, but the logic of how a government should run. It is not democratic, though it sure pretends to be. It is about a small group within the electorate bullying politicians. Politicians are bullied from every direction, in every way, but that is no justification for this recall. The recall is just a sad response to a whole network of events that manages to avoid all the real problems by focusing on a single, artificial one. end story

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