Recall of elected officials is both the essence of Populism, the “imperative mandate” and consistent with good business principles.
“You’re fired!, the voters’ version of “The Apprentice”: An analysis of local recall elections in California.” Rachel Weinstein, Southern California Interdisciplinary Law Journal, Vol , 15. 2005-2006.
The title of this 2005 article contains the delicious irony of referencing Resident Dump’s reality T.V. show, “The Apprentice.” As the title indicates, the article analyzes the characteristics of local recall elections in California, looking specifically at such elements as community size, property values, signature requirements, campaign spending, motivations of elected officials, interest groups and the ability of citizens to monitor government activity. There is a brief comment in passing on the notion of national recall elections:
At a national conference on direct legislation organized by the Populist Party in 1896, delegates affirmed their commitment to direct legislation at the municipal, state, and national levels of government, but after a prolonged debate they withdrew a motion to include the recall, which they termed the “imperative mandate” as part of direct legislation.
“Functions of the Initiative, Referendum, and Recall,” Jonathan Bourne, Jr. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences (September, 1912).
Jonathan Bourne, Jr. was the Republican U.S. Senator from Oregon when he wrote this article. The Republican Party did not nominate him to run for re-election in 1912 and ran instead under the Popular Government banner, coming in third. The preamble of this article, dealing with the initiative and referendum is a rousing denunciation of the extent to which popular sovereignty has been usurped by political manipulation and the commercialization of politics. Bourne argued that recall was a precautionary measure and that its existence “will prevent the necessity for its use.” “Adoption of the recall,” he wrote, “is nothing more than the application of good business principles to government affairs.”
Every wise employer reserves the right to discharge an employee whenever the service rendered is unsatisfactory. The right of the employer to discharge his employee rests upon exactly the same basis as the right of the employee to quit. The principle is recognized throughout the business world, and it is put in practice by every large and successful corporation. Consider the absurdity of the recognition of the right of a public officer to quit his position at any time and the denial of the right of his employers to discharge him. To assert the right in one instance and deny it in the other is to maintain a one-sided contract, the discrimination being against the whole people and in favor of the individual. If we can trust an individual to deal justly with the people when he considers tendering his resignation, we can also trust the people to deal justly with a public servant when they consider discharging him.
Bourne stopped short of prescribing the recall for national office, stating somewhat ambiguously, “I think no one proposes, at present, to extend the recall to any federal official except those elected by the people of the several states,” even though he had preceded that demurral with an explicit reference to the election of the President:
It is generally conceded that the American people have intelligence and honesty enough to be trusted with the power to select their public servants, even to choose a President of the United States. If it be granted that the people have intelligence enough to choose a President of the United States, no man can consistently contend that they have not the intelligence to act wisely upon the question of discharging a state, county, or municipal officer.
“Presidents, Impeachment, and Political Accountability.” MC Havens, DM McNeil – Presidential Studies Quarterly, 1978.
This article contains a brief historical note on recall and discussion of the implications of recall for the U.S. Presidency:
The idea of the recall election found its greatest popularity in the period between 1910 and 1920 when progressive politicians were interested in “cleaning up government.”24 At that time, the recall election was viewed as the most effective means available for insuring the accountability of public officials and particularly executives. The first proponents of the argument concentrated their efforts on local and state officials, but by extending the scope of the concept national recall elections might be used to remove a malfeasant or incapacitated President. The thrust of this argument is that this means of removal leaves the ultimate responsibility for the unseating of a President in the hands of his national constituency. This would, of course, mean that many of the people who voted to put the President into office would be required to reverse their position and vote to oust him. Theoretically, this would insure that the President’s crime, malfeasance, or incompentency would be of sufficient degree to erode not only his professional political support but his popular and party support as well. Such action could not be taken lightly. Second, it could be argued that the recall would decrease the trauma involved in the impeachment/removal process. Presumably by exercising their own political power through the vote, people would feel an increase in their sense of efficacy rather than a decreasing of their faith in government as the result of the ouster of a President.
The article follows the above by noting the principle defects of recall, which would include the prolonged time that would be required to effect a recall petition and election and the ability of the incumbent to manipulate national crisis in order to defeat the recall.
“The 2003 California gubernatorial recall.” Floyd Feeney, Creighton Law Review,Vol. 41, 2007.
In the America of the late 1800s, hard pressed farmers and workers, particularly in the Western states, viewed their legislatures as being under the thumb of special interests, especially the railroads. To cure this problem, Populists in the late 1890s and Progressives in the early 1900s advocated more direct control by the people themselves— through the initiative, the citizen-initiated referendum, and the recall. Although there were antecedents going back as far as ancient Rome, this agenda was clearly borrowed in major part from Switzerland, particularly Zurich where the Socialist Karl Buerkli was using the initiative and the citizen-initiated referendum to push reforms aimed at helping workers. Although the recall had existed in canton Schaffhausen, perhaps since the 1820s, even in Switzerland the recall was more novel and less developed than the citizen-initiated referendum and the initiative. The recall idea, however, had early American roots that helped to create a fertile climate. In 1776, Pennsylvania recalled its delegates to the Continental Congress when they refused to sign the Declaration of Independence. And in 1778, even before they had completed winning their independence, the thirteen American colonies included in the Articles of Confederation a provision specifically authorizing the recall of delegates. Because these home grown procedures relied primarily on local legislative bodies to trigger the recall, however, the Swiss idea of using citizen signatures was an important innovation.