David M. Kennedy: More Democracy in California Has Led to Chronic Chaos

Roundup: Historians' Take

David M. Kennedy, writing in the NYT (Oct. 5, 2003):

On Jan. 25, 1787, 1,200 desperate farmers brandishing barrel staves and pitchforks attacked the federal arsenal in Springfield, Mass. They called themselves the Regulators. Led by a debt-plagued veteran of Bunker Hill and Saratoga named Daniel Shays, they sought firearms with which to enforce their threats to close the courts in western Massachusetts and compel the legislature to enact debt-relief measures, including an inflationary paper currency and an end to mortgage foreclosures.

A single cannon volley killed four of the embattled farmers. Then a Revolutionary War hero, Gen. Benjamin Lincoln, arrived with a militia that scattered the remaining rebels and relentlessly hunted them down through the heavy snow. Yet the Regulators' failed outburst had consequences that have shaped the character of American politics for more than two centuries, up to the current recall election in California.

The uprising was handily crushed. But it intimidated the Massachusetts legislature into enacting laws that menaced the interests of the monied class. Many leaders in the founding generation gagged on this apparently craven pandering to the popular will. Outright insurrection was one thing, but the state legislature's cavalier disregard for property rights was a far more insidious threat. "An elective despotism," Thomas Jefferson wrote, "was not the government we fought for."

Shays' Rebellion, in short, had demonstrated that America was not immune from the inherent affliction that theorists of democracy had warned against since the days of the ancient Greeks: that a government based on the will of the majority would inevitably yield to the demands of the "mob" and lead to a tyranny of the majority. Such a polity would be resentful toward excellence and callous toward minority rights. Worst of all, it would wield the power of the state against more prosperous members of society and confiscate their wealth.

To protect the United States from that unhappy fate, leaders like James Madison called for radically revising the Articles of Confederation, under whose rules the fledgling republic was then governed. The result was the Constitutional Convention of 1787, which convened four months after General Lincoln turned back the rebels. At the convention, Madison and others drafted a new fundamental law whose checks and balances and elaborate federal structure would, among other things, frustrate the confiscatory designs of future would-be Regulators. For better or worse, Daniel Shays thus deserves to be recognized as a founder.

Over time, many Americans came to believe that the Constitution's drafters had seen their duty — and overdone it. The framers had created a federal governmental apparatus too well insulated from the popular will, too difficult to mobilize for any common purpose, whether confiscatory or constructive, and too easily hijacked by special interests whose machinations eluded public scrutiny. At the dawn of the 20th century, that kind of thinking animated a host of so-called progressive reformers, conspicuously including a cantankerous California Republican named Hiram Johnson....

The initiative process that he championed has contributed to the near-fatal weakening of the legislature, and has created prodigious opportunities for manipulating and mismanaging the state's political business....

Proposition 13, for example, which passed in 1978, addressed a real problem — wildly rising property taxes — with an inept combination of inequitably defined tax limits and impossibly large supermajority requirements for any revisions in the law....

Proposition 13's untouchability, and Mr. Schwarzenegger's fierce commitment to it, suggest that something has happened in American society that would have mystified Daniel Shays — and Hiram Johnson as well. In their very different ways, they sought greater democracy as the means to a government that was more responsive to the masses.

But in California more democracy has produced not more attacks on the wealthy and big business but chronic chaos and even paralysis — a kind of political catatonia perversely sanctified by neoconservative and libertarian dogmas that assert, as another former governor of California put it, that "government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem."

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