The Recall and the Founders

John Zvesper

October 1, 2003

In 1792, when the government established by the Constitution was not yet three years old, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison led the organization of what amounted to a “recall Alexander Hamilton” movement. This movement was designed both to persuade President George Washington to rid himself of Hamilton (his Secretary of the Treasury), and to send a message to Congress that their constituents were very displeased with their acceptance of Hamilton’s policies.

Even among those who favored the recall of California’s Governor Gray Davis, many have expressed misgivings about the recall process itself. Some good questions about the nature of constitutional democracy are being raised. But the argument being made by some commentators that the recall constitutes a “populism” or “direct democracy” that does violence to the more regular, deliberative and stately politics anticipated by traditional American constitutionalism, seems to forget that America’s Founders themselves prudently added a populistic device to the Constitution of 1787—namely, the party system that they initiated in the 1790s. From this amended Founders’ point of view, if the recall is suspect in constitutional democracy, this is not so much because it is populistic as because it is insufficiently partisan.

Admittedly, Jefferson’s and Madison’s message in 1792 was to be sent largely by means of the regular electoral process, but this process was now to be centrally coordinated towards stated policy goals, and it was to be based on a well-orchestrated media campaign condemning Hamilton’s policies. Compared to the Founders’ original description of the way the new government had been expected to work (most famously in The Federalist Papers), this open partisanship—as James Madison’s contributions to that media campaign show—was intended to create a way for public opinion to have greater influence on government. The American party system has been from its outset a way for (in Madison’s words) “the great body of the people” to “interpose a common manifestation of their sentiments.”

From this point of view, what is suspect about the recall is not that it gives public opinion a more direct and immediate influence on government, but that it is too candidate-centered, and too neglectful of the energy and the constraints that political parties can bring to government. What the Founders would object to about the recall is not its populist aspect but its non-partisan aspect. Recall contests bring to the center of public attention not political parties, with their shared ideals and memories, but individual candidates. The recall makes it possible to remove untrustworthy officials and to replace them with more trustworthy-looking candidates, but that is actually less populistic than party-centered elections. In a recall based on comparative trustworthiness, the people give their trust to the newly-elected official, and lay down fewer guidelines for official conduct and fewer criteria for future accountability than they would in a more partisan election. Political parties are still there the morning after, providing a large target to be rewarded or punished by the electorate’s judgement of their performance in office.

It will be interesting to see whether Arnold Schwarzenegger governs in ways that help refurbish political parties, and whether he runs for re-election as more than a nominal Republican. These are not easy challenges to take on. The California constitution and its many amendments are riddled with Progressive, anti-party assumptions and devices, and in all modern democracies there are many reasons (television prominent among them) why candidate-centered politics often supplants partisan politics. Nevertheless, for sure and durable public influence on government, it is difficult to imagine a more effective set of institutions and techniques than those that political parties can provide. Of course, if political parties fail to do their primary job of sending the people’s messages to the people’s servants in government (why could Davis and his party not be removed from gubernatorial power in the regular election of November 2002?), they will—deservedly—continue to play second fiddle to other political players.

John Zvesper is an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs. He is an American author residing in Europe.