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Know the West

Gov. Schwarzenegger is the nation's newest Progressive


Heeee’s back. Only this time, Arnold Schwarzenegger hasn’t come from the future as the Terminator. He’s come from the past, a time when some politicians took contentious issues straight to the people.

Schwarzenegger has announced that he’s fed up with the Democratic-majority state Legislature and will appeal directly to voters to impose a cap on state spending. He also wants to change how teachers are paid, how state workers’ pensions are managed, and how voting districts get drawn.

The current governor of California is fashioning himself as the reincarnation of Hiram Johnson, the California governor who took on railroads and big business after winning election in 1910. Johnson campaigned to take issues directly to the voters through ballot measures and recall elections.

"Special interests in those days ran over people," Gov. Schwarzenegger has declared during his modern-day campaign rallies. "Hiram Johnson stopped them."

The governor is right in saying that he’s got some things in common with his early 20th century predecessor. Johnson was a celebrity of his time, a crusading prosecutor. He and Schwarzenegger both won office by building on a core group of dissident Republican supporters who were frustrated and contemptuous of what they perceived as a corrupt California government. Both pledged to return the government to the people and both jumped on a bandwagon.

But Johnson was a latecomer to a movement that had been sweeping the West since the 1880s. Direct democracy was a perfect fit for the anti-monopoly sentiment and interest-group politics of Western states at the turn of the last century. In 1897, Nebraska became the first state to allow local ballot measures, and South Dakota the first to allow statewide initiatives and referenda. Utah followed in 1900. Then, Oregonians approved statewide direct democracy in 1902, and the state rapidly rose to the forefront of the movement, instituting a range of measures from the direct primary to allowing counties to ban the sale of alcohol.

By 1912, 20 states — most of them west of the Mississippi — allowed citizens to vote directly on initiatives and referenda. So the curtain wasn’t rising on a new act when Hiram Johnson got elected in California; in fact, it was about to come down. In the 1912 presidential election, Teddy Roosevelt picked Hiram Johnson as his vice-presidential candidate. Their Progressive Party ticket fractured the Republican vote and helped to elect Democrat Woodrow Wilson president in a landslide.

It wasn’t until 1978, and the passage of Proposition 13, California’s fateful tax relief measure, that direct democracy began its current revival.

In California and other Western states since then, tax cuts and other fiscal matters have made up a huge portion of ballot measures, with social and environmental issues mixed in. There are some important differences between the Progressive past and the present, in which "progressive" has lost some of its original connotations and picked up others. In Johnson’s day, popular initiatives and recall votes were a way to wrestle control from railroads and financial institutions that had a lock on state government.

In Schwarzenegger’s day, the special interests include teachers and state workers, both with powerful grassroots lobbies. And many now worry that the money it takes to gather signatures and run an advertising campaign ensures that powerful interests will play an essential role in a form of governance that was intended to reduce the power of corporations and big money.

There’s another important difference. Johnson had the state Legislature on his side, filled with people who supported his reform agenda. But Schwarzenegger is trying to go over the heads of a popularly elected Legislature.

The governor is a master at grabbing the spotlight in a populist style; he’ll even motor to a suburban restaurant in his Humvee to gather signatures on petitions. But as Schwarzenegger campaigns, voters should be mindful of another parallel with Johnson and other fathers of the initiative and the recall: They weren’t all that democratic. While Progressive reformers used the support of labor unions and other groups with large political bases to bring initiatives and referenda to Western ballots, this was hardly a grassroots movement.

Still, taking a page from the Progressives’ script, Gov. Schwarzenegger is shaking up California politics again. But as in the first time around, the rest of the West will play an important role in determining whether this revival has legs.

Margaret O’Mara and Jon Christensen are contributors to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She is deputy director of the new Bill Lane Center for the Study of the North American West at Stanford University; he is a research fellow at Stanford in the Center for Environmental Science and Policy.