Elected office used to be a fairly secure job. Sure, it might take years of relationship-building and fundraising even to get to the point where one can think about running for office. But once an official was in, it had generally been pretty hard to oust him or her, given the structural and financial advantages of incumbency.
That is no longer the case. We have seen veteran lawmakers defeated in elections. We have even seen longtime public servants ousted in primaries – a stunning development that also reflects the declining power of political parties and their leadership. Some of this is healthy, since ideally, democracy is about what the people want, not what some party apparatchiks think is best.
But there are times when democracy runs amok to the point where it distorts its intended purpose. There are the lawmakers who will do something with dangerous fiscal implications – such as refusing to pay the bills that the U.S. government, rightly or wrongly, has already rung up – because their constituents think it's best. The problem is, constituents don't always know what is best, or aren't willing to or capable of seeing the fallout from the decision. If Congress operated only according to what constituents wanted on a case-by-case basis, we'd have no taxes and miraculously, universally safe bridges and roads and secure retirements. Being in office means making those tough choices, and it means, also, having to make compromises to reflect the broad ideological and demographic diversity of the country.
The worst development in the area of hyper-democracy is the recall. Recall elections have a place in extreme circumstances. They allow voters to fire an elected official who is breaking the law or otherwise committing acts so egregious he or she should not be allowed to stay on until the next election. But as has happened with the Senate filibuster, recall elections have been terribly abused.
Scott Walker, the conservative governor of Wisconsin, triumphed over an effort to recall him, exposing the process as the massive waste of time that it often is. Walker was democratically elected in a free and fair contest and then proceeded to mount an anti-union agenda that horrified his opponents. Fair enough. If the state's residents didn't like it, they could lobby their state legislators to overrule the governor, or start mounting a campaign to defeat him in the next election. Instead, they began a recall effort – winning by getting enough signatures to have a recall election, then losing by failing to recall him. Polls at the time showed that some residents simply didn't like the idea of a recall – and they have a strong point.
More recently, two Democratic Colorado state legislators were recalled in Tuesday elections because of their support for gun control measures. These recalls are equally, if not more, disturbing, since the campaigns went well beyond the local districts and involved national gun control and gun rights lobbies. Nationalizing local races has a detrimental impact on democracy, since it takes power away from the voters and constituents who actually have to live with the decisions made by the state lawmakers. And it's bad for democracy, too, since it puts elected officials all over the country on notice: vote our way or you may not survive another week. Such a constant threat prevents lawmakers of any ideological stripe from making reasoned, responsible decisions. It used to be that lawmakers went into campaign mode a few months before the election. Then, elected officials went into almost constant campaign mode, always aware of the effect their votes would have on their next elections. Overused recall efforts make it impossible for elected officials to work and vote without worrying they may be out long before their terms are up.
This isn't democracy. This is the dynamic of a third-world, unstable government. It leads to unstable decision-making and undermines our very way of government.