British Rule In California

by Robert Herold
In his televised counterattack against recall, California Governor Gray Davis accused Republicans of, once again, trying to steal an election they couldn't win at the polls. Republican Bill Simon said in response, "Let me ask Gray Davis this: Is it a conspiracy when 2 million of our citizens sign a petition? When 87 percent of the citizens in our state disapprove of Gray Davis?"

Neither has it right.

Those conspiring Republicans were doing nothing more than what was permitted by California's truly nutty laws.

In California, we're watching not so much a conspiracy but a total meltdown of the state's governmental process. Call it the perfect storm of governance. Begin with those ever popular progressive reforms, add in a weak party system, make available the paid signature-gatherers and then blend in the political equivalent of baking powder: a critical problem. In California's case, there's the power crisis, the collapse of the stock market and the resulting budget crisis. Add all this together, and what do you get? You get this asinine recall.

Enter Arnold, the symbolic expression of lost hope in government: The government clearly isn't working, so let's at least have some laughs!

And Simon's disingenuous observation serves only to worsen the problem -- not Davis's problem so much as California's problem. Does Simon means that citizens should substitute popularity polls for regularly scheduled elections? Or does he suggest this only in cases where he opposes the incumbent?

The Golden State mess serves to call our attention to the political virus that lurks in all governments which have separated the power to legislate from the power to execute, that assume the intrinsic value of regularly scheduled elections and that presume to develop and choose elected leadership through plebiscites that prey upon the worst instincts of a largely uninvolved and apathetic public.

Still, we have here a very dark cloud that still just might contain a silver lining: Why not use the California farce as a launching pad for real reform? I urge a bold move: California could use this moment of crisis to introduce parliamentary government to their state. It would be a first -- and we know how California likes to be first.

Our Founding Fathers rejected this most reasonable of governing systems because -- well, because they didn't want anything British. So, they thought, we would have no king, no Parliament, no prime minister; and by the way, we would begin our little experiment by denouncing political parties (which is why that granite personage, George Washington, who could float above all things partisan, was such a great first choice to be president). Instead, we would embrace a version of this new concept: the separation of powers. Actually, the early theorists who advanced the idea had in mind separating the head of state from the head of government; which, of course, is exactly what the British had done. In other words, our form of separation of powers is only one form; others such as what we see in Great Britain may offer all the protections ours offers, but also give a far more effective government.

In a parliamentary system, consider how things would play out in California: First, we have our prime minister, aka Governor Davis, sporting a popularity rating that has dropped to Nixonian depths. Now, the question becomes, so what? This would be answered by his own party -- not paid petition-gatherers, not pundits, not right-wing talk show hosts. If these elected representatives sensed that their support at home was actually threatened by Mr. Davis's low popularity -- and isn't that what counts if it is accountability you are after? -- then one of two actions would be taken. Either they would caucus and choose a successor for Mr. Davis, or they would deny Mr. Davis support on an issue of importance. If the latter course came to be, then Davis would be obliged to dissolve the entire state assembly, general elections would be held, and the issue of who had the public's support would be clearly answered.

No phony petitions, no Arnolds or any other wannabes who have absolutely zero political or government experience. And in the end, responsible and effective leadership emerges. A new government is formed, one possessing a true mandate.

Thirty some odd years ago, one Robert Kelleher, an attorney from Billings, Mont., and a man ahead of his time, invited me over to his digs to participate in a panel he was putting together to discuss this very idea. Seems Montana was redesigning its state constitution and Kelleher had actually proposed the idea of parliamentary government. I had a great time. The panel included a senior congressman from California, a much-published geographer from California, several political scientists from Canadian schools and yours truly. We didn't reach consensus, but I do recall the prevailing opinion was that Montana likely wasn't ready for Kelleher's bold proposal.

But that was then, before California placed before us this most wonderful opportunity. If necessity is the mother of invention, what could be more necessary than saving one of the largest economies in the world from governmental meltdown? And if parliamentary government could work in California, then...

Publication date: 08/28/03

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