The news from Wisconsin yesterday, while the polls were still open, was all about high voter turnout in that state’s recall election. The turnout seemed more like what one would expect in a presidential election rather than in an “off-year” election (let alone a race taking place at the beginning of the summer vacation season). In fact, the record turnout was probably better by far than what we sometimes see even in some presidential elections. So, whatever else one concludes about this episode, it was, in that one specific sense at least, an experience of popular electoral democracy. And, these days especially, that’s something to give at least a cheer about.
But surely not three cheers!
One reason for limiting the cheers is certainly the role played in this campaign by the pernicious power of money. One of the traditional arguments against restricting campaign spending is that challengers need to spend more to gain recognition and make themselves better known. In this instance, however, it was the incumbent Governor who vastly outspent his challenger. And, of course, he won. Much of the victor’s cmapaign money also came form out-of-state.
So that should surely bring it down to two cheers at most!
But, most importantly perhaps, the recall is the third of the familiar trinity of century-old, progressive-era, populist reforms – the famous trinity of Initiative, Referendum, and Recall. Traditionally touted as intensifying the experience of direct democracy, recall elections seem to me to be particularly problematic for democratic governance. If part of what bedevils our current politics is what has come to be called the permanent campaign,which makes difficult if not impossible the give-and-take, good-faith deliberation and debate, needed for post-election governing (further coarsening our culture in the process), then the recall is the permanent campaign taken to the ultimate extreme. It’s hard enough to exercise serous political leadership when everyone is focused not on policy but on the next election. If the next election is going to get triggered ahead of time, the chilling effect on even the limited amount of serious governing that goes on now will be intensified. Like the Republicans’ legally frivolous impeachment of President Clinton in 1998-1999, this effort to unseat a Republican governor who had only been elected less than two years ago not only failed to accomplish its goal, but also in the process probably further de-legitimized the normal electoral process and elected officials’ actual capacity to govern.
So a cheer may well be called for to acknowledge the high voter turnout, but it should be only one cheer at most!