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Rally, riot, recall

So, Your Humble Blogger didn’t write about the Wisconsin recall elections, mostly because my thinking is just clear enough to know how muddled it is. In short, I am against recall elections, against setting up a system that makes them easy or even, under ordinary circumstances, possible. I am in favor of some sort of system for removing elected officials during their term should they be found guilty of malfeasance or egregious dereliction of duty (for instance, my town councilor who moved overseas and hoped to fulfill his duties by skype), but I don’t think that popular election serves that purpose well, and of course most of the time a recall election is simply seen as a do-over for an election outcome that has made people grumbly.

In Tuesday’s vote, for instance, two people were removed from office not for any scandal of any kind but for voting with their Party, under whose banner they were elected in the first place. Yes, the circumstances were extraordinary, and I suppose extraordinary measures were called for, but it’s easy to claim extraordinary circumstances when it’s the policy outcome that is really objectionable. It’s a muddle, you know?

Another thing that I am muddled about is the riots in England. I’m anti-riot generally, just as I am anti-recall generally. Gentle Readers may be saying everyone is anti-riot, but of course if the people who are rioting are anti-riot, they are surely making an exception. And I have several friends who are generally pro-riot, who have argued rather well that a populace willing to riot when unhappy keeps the government on its proverbial. There is something to that, certainly, and on the other hand there’s this guy.

But the point is that of course everyone in a riot thinks that they are in extraordinary circumstances, and that extraordinary measures are called for. And I have no idea whether they are right or wrong in any specific case—but I have no idea whether I would be right or wrong in any specific case, myself. I have no scheme in mind for when a riot might have salutary effects, and when it’s just burning down warehouses. Easier to tell twenty years after, but even then, when it’s not much help, it’s hard to gauge.

I’m putting these two together—recalls and riots—despite their being utterly different things, because it strikes me that they are responses to similar situations. Or, rather, that they are symptoms of similar problems. In both cases, they seem to be responses to extraordinary failures of government as well as extraordinary failures of societal norms. In Wisconsin, of course, it was the shutdown of the parliamentary system—not only the attack on collective bargaining rights, which was the policy issue in question, but the breakdown that led to a walkout from the state legislature. In England, the proximate cause is a police shooting, but there are clearly neighborhoods for which the police and the government are viewed (probably correctly) as existed not to protect the neighborhood and its residents but to protect society from the neighborhood and its residents. If the police come in to your neighborhood to shoot people, to beat them up and frame them, and the Government is abandoning the social contract, then ordinary politics is not going to be very attractive.

But what comes to my mind is … how many of us, here in the United States, view the police as protecting us, rather than protecting other people from us? How many people view the Government as part of the social contract? How many people look at the Government (however they see it and however they think of it) and see themselves? How many see the police that way?

And for as many people as don’t see themselves in the system, what new norms are they thinking will make that happen? Fires? Recalls? Tea Parties? The Tea Party impulse—the original one, where they pitched the tea in the river rather than pay the duties on it to a government they felt excluded from, as well as the rallies where people shouted about the tyranny of bailouts—is that a different impulse, really? I’m not saying that it’s all equivalent, you understand. There’s a difference between a rally, a recall and a riot, and there is still a large difference between a good policy and a bad one. What I think I’m observing is an undercurrent of alienation that sees itself not as the ordinary alienation of living in the world, but as an extraordinary circumstance that requires extraordinary measures, that requires setting aside the rules and norms that we want to govern ourselves with in ordinary times.

I don’t know. All times are extraordinary, of course, and all times are ordinary, and the rules and norms ought always to be in question and ought never to be put aside lightly. It’s always the millennium, isn’t it? And the world never ends. It feels like it should balance, and it feels out of balance.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


I'm thinking the recall elections are as close as we can get in this system to a vote of no confidence, which is really pretty ordinary; whereas riots are what happens when voting is not seen as an option, when the system, as you pointed out, is no longer holding to the social contract. Also sadly ordinary, from "Bread and circuses" times to today.

I do find it a bit puzzling that you celebrate democracy fervently but are against recall elections, which are a democratic practice. It's quite clear that right now ordinary citizens have too few tools at their disposal to keep elected officials functioning as public servants. Otherwise, we wouldn't be sitting here witnessing the spectacle of both parties colluding at the federal level to advance an agenda that clearly lacks popular support and that makes no discernible progress towards addressing any of the actual problems facing the nation. If you don't like recall elections, what are the alternatives?

Recall elections can lead to bad results (see Schwarzenegger, Arnold), but also to good ones, just as a regular election can, but I think they are useful at the present time as a reminder to elected officials that they must answer to the electorate as well as to their major donors. Riots signal more directly that rulers are subject to the will of the people, but their message is much less clear, if louder, than that of a recall election because it lacks the precision of democratic politics, and riots are horrible and destructive. I would say further that the credible threat of a recall election or a riot or (in more civil ways) a general strike or large-scale civil disobedience makes rallies much more powerful. The plutocrats have basically decided they can ignore peaceful mass demonstrations and can instruct their media outlets to ignore them also, because they are just rallies, just a display of discontent that doesn't offer any credible threat to the status quo. What do you think of general strikes or large-scale civil disobedience as alternatives to recall elections?

(I would also add that, although the Wisconsin Republicans were targeted for recall for voting with their party, the two who were actually unseated had additional strikes against them. They were not removed from office just for voting the party line. Hopper had huge personal/ethical problems and Kapanke was clearly not representing his district. The American electorate has generally not accepted "voting with the party" as an excuse for voting against the majority position of constituents. They expect you to break with the party line on occasion. That's what a "moderate" has historically meant in American politics. It still means that if you are a Democrat, but Republicans have rejected moderation categorically. Kapanke ran as a moderate to win his district, but voted as a hard line Republican in office. His constituents didn't want a hard-line Republican representing them, and he was defeated handily.)

I don’t see that a credible threat of a recall would keep an elected representative on his toes any more than a threat of the next election. The electorate always has the option of throwing the incumbent out, and incumbents know it. If incumbents are more afraid of being recalled, that isn’t clear to me at all. If it is the case, there are problems with that, too: most special elections are low-turnout and thus vulnerable to an impassioned minority turning out to triumph over an apathetic majority. That’s not always a bad thing, but the lower the turnout, the smaller that minority can be. In fact, I think recall elections are practically designed for a Tea Party kind of movement, and such a movement is (in the next decades) more likely to be a reactionary one than a progressive one.

Still, I suppose the general point, that recalls are democratic, is a good one. I’m not sure that they are more democratic than not having them, though—the electorate gets its chance to forge a representative relationship at election time, and lives with the consequence of its decisions. Growing up in Arizona, I fairly often came across a sense that we (the electorate) could use the recall almost to force a direct democracy, as if the choice of representative wasn’t terribly important, because we could always recall the sonofabitch if he voted the wrong way. In practical terms, of course, recalls almost always fail, so it was bad thinking on those lines, but it’s bad thinking even if recalling really is easy. It’s just the wrong relationship with the legislator, as I see it.

Now, there are certainly times when it’s the legislator (or other elected official) who has violated the relationship, and recall becomes the best of the bad options. In any given case, I am reluctant to conclude that, as I say, just as I would be reluctant to conclude that I should help throw a metal barricade through the town hall window—but I am also reluctant to condemn those who have come to different conclusions.


I continue to believe, and I know you disagree with my prescription, if not my premise, that term limits promote better policy. In the US Congress, for example, it is virtually impossible to make a vote for a policy that would benefit the nation if a significant proportion of a member's constituency would dislike it. If that only mattered once in a member's career, I think it would be a Better Thing.


Incumbents in general are surely less afraid, most of the time, of recall elections than of regular elections, since recall elections are unlikely to take place. As with many political acts, the key audience for the recall is not the politician who might be subject to one in some abstract sense, but the politicians who are in the vicinity when one of their colleagues actually is recalled. Recalls are not much of a deterrent in the abstract, any more than riots are, but when one segment of the electorate becomes engaged and enraged sufficiently to follow through on a recall election, and even win it, that's sets out a clear marker that current behavior has not been acceptable and can result in unpleasant consequences. To provide a related, concrete example, the graduate student union at Yale was unable to achieve significant changes in the working conditions and compensation for graduate students for a number of years. Then we did a serious strike. The strike was broken--we didn't "win." But, over the course of a few years following the strike, the university made changes that moved conditions and compensation very far in the direction of what the union had demanded before the strike. They wouldn't negotiate or recognize the union, but the credible threat of a major disruption as a result of grad student unrest pushed the university to alter its behavior.

Right now, the public's relationships with its legislators are mostly wrong. The line of analysis you are offering places blame for that with the electorate, which I suppose is not undeserved. My line of analysis places blame for that with the legislators and those who corrupt or own them. Obviously, there is plenty of blame to go around, but at present I think that the level of corruption is so high that it is simply not feasible even for reasonably engaged citizens to "get [their] chance to forge a representative relationship at election time," and therefore I don't see it is as reasonable to take the position that they should just live with the consequences of their decisions.

Re Term Limits: In the current climate, many legislators who are retiring use the fact that they are not running again to cast votes that will help ensure them a lucrative position after they are out of office without any concern for being held accountable by the electorate. I don't see how term limits would change that, except to mean that the corrupt legislators would have to feather their nests on a time-table not of their own choosing.

My view on term limits from over here in CA, where we have them for all state-level elected positions, is that legislators have one foot out the door from the minute they take office. The real incumbents are the various groups who got those legislators into office in the first place and will take care of them when they get out--if they behave.

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