Recall Fever

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In this week’s dead-tree issue I have a short piece on the surge in mayoral recall attempts across the country. You can read it here. I mention a couple of reasons for the rise in recalls: cratering confidence in government, the sluggish economy, a strong Tea Party presence that has harnessed the power of blogs and social media, and so on. It’s also a microcosm of a bigger trend, which space constraints prevented me from fleshing out. There’s been a shift, at least among a large swath of the country, in citizens’ conception of the role of public officials. There is often an expectation that office-holders be a cipher, a vessel to advance constituents’ wishes–rather than a representative elected because his/her views best reflect the public’s concerns. We are moving, despite valid concerns about the outsize influence of this lobby or that, to a hyper-responsive system of democracy that often hamstrings public officials from doing their jobs.

At the National Press Club on Tuesday, the U.S. Conference of Mayors screened a new documentary called Recall Fever: Stop the Madness. It was an attempt to highlight how many of these recall attempts, which are mostly unsuccessful, are driven by partisanship or wealthy individuals nurturing a grudge. One of the protagonists of the film, Chattanooga, Tenn., Mayor Ron Littlefield, said the U.S. needs to embrace a vision of “democracy with limits.” That sounds right to me. Recalls are a good example of how a worthy concept — as engaged citizens, you should hold your government accountable — can veer into counterproductive territory when we try to accelerate the metabolism of democracy.