This Is Direct Democracy Run Amok

California is known for setting precedents for the rest of the nation.

In the past, we’ve taken great pride in setting the standard for higher education, a strong and diverse economy, environmental protection and opportunity for all.

But today, California is setting a very different kind of precedent -- how not to govern a state. Elected leaders are failing to resolve the worst fiscal crisis in state history, term limits are creating timid, weakened politicians and ballot initiatives are usurping power from those we’ve elected legitimately. Last week, the state’s bond rating dropped to near junk-bond status.

At the same time, an ill-advised recall election of the governor has been set for October that will result in greater political disruption and could cost taxpayers an additional $30 million to $40 million.


As Fred Allen once said, “California is a great place to live if you’re an orange.” For the rest of us, it is a state that has become virtually ungovernable. How did this happen? Will we face future recalls and initiatives as people take governance into their own hands? Or can trust be restored in the democratically elected leaders and processes that should guide our future?

California has a long tradition of cross-filing, bipartisanship and progressive politics. But today, it has become a state of political extremes. Both parties are locked in ideological trench warfare. Sound bites have replaced consensus.

Republicans will never agree to raising any taxes. Democrats will not agree on spending cuts. The reality is that both taxes and cuts are needed, but instead we’re facing political gridlock on the most important budget issues facing the state.

Redistricting has reinforced the partisanship by creating “safe” districts for both parties. Elected representatives need not reach out to other constituencies or new voters when their political base is all that counts. Ideology, not compromise, is their key to political survival.

Special interests and campaign fund-raising also have contributed in their own way to the gridlock. The average voter feels isolated from a process that is dominated by wealthy contributors and interest groups. That money comes with a price tag and an agenda that is rarely subject to compromise.

The result is that fewer and fewer elected leaders are willing to take the political risks inherent in governing for fear of jeopardizing their financial support. Term limits that were supposed to inspire greater independence instead have produced temporary and often timid office holders who care more about the next step in their careers than the future of the state.

The consequence is that many people feel disenfranchised from a process of governing that is failing to respond to their needs. Less than a third of California’s eligible voters cast ballots in the last election. Out of frustration, various groups have turned to the reform tools established in California’s progressive history. But these tools were not designed to substitute for governing, they were developed to protect against abuses.

Instead, in the last 25 years, the initiative process has fundamentally changed the governing structure of the state. Between 1978 and 2000, more than 600 statewide initiative petitions were circulated, 118 appeared on the ballot and 52 passed. Policies from prison terms to car insurance rates to property taxes to dedicated funds for education and conservation have been enacted not by the governor and Legislature but by the initiative process.


And if groups and partisan interests can afford to put their particular initiative on the ballot, then why not use the same process as a partisan weapon to go after unpopular political leaders regardless of when they were elected? The current recall effort is in many ways the culmination of direct democracy run amok.

But the initiative and recall processes are not the real problem. They are merely symptoms of a much larger problem: the breakdown in trust that is essential to governing in a democracy.

The more the elected leadership of California engages in partisanship and gridlock, the more the public will take governing into its own hands regardless of the consequences.

The only way to avoid runaway initiatives and recalls is for the elected leaders and the voters to recognize their common responsibility to effective self-government.


Leaders must be willing to take the political risks inherent in governing, and the people must be willing to fully exercise their right to vote in the normal election cycle.

It is only when leaders are willing to lead and all of the people are willing to vote that California will get back to truly governing itself.


Leon E. Panetta, a former congressman from California, was chief of staff under President Clinton.