THE ELECTION for governor of California is an earthily democratic affair. The front-runner to replace the grey incumbent, Gray Davis, has run into what they call "character issues".
It was well known that Arnold Schwarzenegger, the body-building film star, had a dubious attitude to women; it is better known now. Less well known - possibly even to himself - was Mr Schwarzenegger's personal take on the American Dream (or in his case the Austrian Dream): that Adolf Hitler was admirable because he was a little guy who made it big.
These are, of course, matters for the Californian people. But the mechanism of the election raises eternal dilemmas of democracy.
The provision for recall elections was written into California's constitution after heated debate in the state legislature in 1910. The historic quality of the discussion was hardly in the league of Washington, Franklin and Madison in Philadelphia more than a century before, but the principles that were debated are still pressing today. Compare, for example, the priestly conclave that starts to draw up the constitution of the European Union today. Direct democracy? We the people? There will be none of that in Rome.
The impetus for the reforms in turn-of-the-century California came from the populist and progressive movements which sprang up in response to the corruption of state politics by big money, especially the Pacific Railroad company. Once the hold of the company over the state was broken, the question posed by Hiram Johnson, the Republican governor elected in 1910, in his inaugural speech was: "How best can we arm the people to protect themselves hereafter?"
The answer was direct democracy: referendums, citizens' ballots and recall elections. Across America the same movement extended the vote to women and broke the power of the corrupt party machines by introducing primary elections so that the voters themselves would choose each party's candidate. …