I’m a lifelong Democrat and a career educator. So I’m predictably appalled by Wisconsin’s Republican Gov. Scott Walker, who has cut spending for schools and stripped teachers — and most of the state’s public workers — of collective bargaining rights.
But I’m also appalled by the recall campaign against Walker by Wisconsin Democrats, who Tuesday chose Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett to run against Walker in a June 5 special election — a rematch of the 2010 contest. The recall epitomizes the petty, loser-take-all vindictiveness of contemporary American politics. And if you don’t agree, I’ve got two names for you: former California Gov. Gray Davis and U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein.
Remember Davis? In 2003, he became just the second governor to be recalled in U.S. history. A year earlier, voters had elected Davis to a second term. As budget and energy woes engulfed California, however, Republicans saw an opportunity to get rid of him.
To rally voters behind Davis, some Democrats correctly predicted that his recall would bring a far less qualified man into the governorship: actor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Other Democrats, including Feinstein, decried how the entire process made a mockery of democracy itself.
“This governor was elected just last November,” Feinstein said in a TV advertisement. “Within three months, this recall effort began. It was started by people who were unhappy with the results of a legitimate election, in which 8 million Californians voted.”
Feinstein herself had been the target of a recall campaign in 1983, when she was mayor of San Francisco. Angered by her support for a strict handgun control measure, a group called the White Panther Party launched a petition drive against her.
But if voters tried to remove everyone they disagreed with, Feinstein responded, no public official could effectively serve anyone. As she argued in the ballot pamphlet for the 1983 recall election: “Orderly government cannot prevail on the shifting sands of a recall brought, not because of any corruption or incompetence, but because of a difference of opinion on an issue.”
Here, Feinstein invoked the original spirit of the American recall movement, which was born during the Progressive era a century ago. Fearful that corporate interests were bribing state and local legislators, Progressives demanded a tool that would allow voters to remove elected officials who were on the take.
And for most of the 20th century, that’s how it was used. Los Angeles was the first major city to institute the recall, in 1903; six years later, it also became the first municipality to remove a sitting mayor, the notoriously corrupt A.C. Harper. In 1938, the city recalled another mayor, Frank Shaw, for the same reason: corruption.
Meanwhile, state legislatures were getting in on the act. Oregon passed the first statewide recall measure in 1908; California was next in 1911. But the recall was used sparingly, and usually against officials accused of bribery, embezzlement or some other kind of malfeasance.
In the 1970s, however, recall drives began to spike. Between 1971 and 2004, more state officials were removed than in the previous 63 years of the statewide recall’s existence. Departing from the Progressive tradition, voters started to recall state and local officials simply because of what the officials believed.
And as conservatives gained at the polls, liberals often paid the price. In 1979, Los Angeles voters recalled school board President Howard Miller because he backed busing for school desegregation. Four years after that, two Michigan state legislators were recalled for voting in favor of a tax hike.
As a liberal, I’m troubled by the prospect of voters unseating an elected official over taxes. Or abortion. Or gun control. If you can recall leaders for any political reason, sooner or later your own ox will be gored.
I’m also worried that the Wisconsin recall, which has drawn nationwide attention and money, will trigger a vicious cycle of partisan retribution. Your guy didn’t win in November? No problem. Start a recall drive now.
Most of all, though, I fear that the recall threat will make our elected officials even more timid and poll-tested than they already are. Sometimes, great leaders need to take unpopular positions. And politically motivated recalls make that less likely, as President Taft warned in 1913:
“Look back, my friends, through the history of the United States and recount the number of instances of men who filled important offices and whose greatness is conceded today, and tell me one who … if subjected to a recall at certain times in his official career when criticism had impaired his popularity, would not have been sent into private life with only part of his term completed. Washington is one who would have been recalled, Madison another, Lincoln another.”
I’m not comparing Walker to Washington or Madison or Lincoln. But Wisconsin voters should let him serve out his term, just as Feinstein did three decades ago. “She was guilty of neither crime nor incompetence,” the San Francisco Examiner wrote in 1983 after voters rejected the effort to recall Feinstein. “The people recognize the injustice of it, and the offense to the process of democracy.”
Let’s hope Wisconsinites come to the same wise conclusion, no matter what they think of their governor.
Jonathan Zimmerman is an historian with the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. He teaches history and education at New York University. He is the author of “Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory.”
This article previously appeared in the LA Times online.