From the Roman Republic to California, recall is a political tool as old as democracy itself

The recall – the tool used to attempt to impeach Gavin Newsom as governor of California before his term ends – may sound strange or new. It’s neither. The reminder is almost as old as democracy itself.

This is older than Montesquieu, the famous 18th century French nobleman and philosopher, who argued that elected officials “should be accountable to those who appointed them”. The reminder also predates Montesquieu’s contemporary, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who in “Le Contrat social” wrote: “The holders of executive office are not the masters of the people but their officers (and) the people can appoint and revoke as it pleases. “

Indeed, the recall first appeared in the Roman Republic where, in 133 BC, the tribune Octavian – according to Plutarch’s account – was recalled after vetoing a Senate bill. In the Middle Ages, the eminent philosopher Marsilio de Padua (1275-1342) recognized the right of citizens to “dismiss rulers who have betrayed their trust”. And, a few hundred years later, the radical levelers of 17th century England adopted the device; some even thought members of the House of Commons should be removed from office, citing the power to “remove and hold magistrates to account” in the People’s Accord of 1647. (This reminder never came into effect.)

When America seceded from Britain in 1776, the idea of ​​recall – perhaps inspired by Montesquieu – found its place in the forerunner of the American Constitution, the Articles of Confederation. These provided for the “recall and replacement of delegates even during their one-year term”. The mechanism was even included in the first draft of the US Constitution by James Madison. The so-called Virginia Plan unequivocally stipulated that “members of the national legislature” should be “subject to recall.” When this bill was rejected, the absence of a revocation provision in the US Constitution was one of the main objections raised by anti-federalists. ‘Brutus’, the pseudonym used by one of the main opponents of the document, wrote:’ It seems obvious that reason dictates that when one person allows another to do a deal for him, he must retain the power to do so. to replace. “

Likewise, during the heated debates over the New York Ratification Convention, New York delegate Melancton Smith – considered Brutus’ alter ego – again defended the recall, noting that it would be used sparingly. “The revocation power would not be exercised as often as it should. It is highly unlikely that a man the state has confided in and who has established influence will be recalled, unless his conduct has been noticeably bad, ”Smith said. Despite these arguments, his recall proposal was rejected as too radical.

Discussions about the recall were only revived after the civil war. In the 1880s, owing to what was seen as a corruption of the political system, the so-called populists defended the use of referendums, initiatives, direct elections of senators, primary elections and dismissal. The movement for these reforms had a distinct leftist tenor, with social labor parties joining populists.

In Europe, the recall was associated not only with left wingers, but revolutionaries: Rosa Luxemburg and Antonio Gramsci were both defenders. Karl Marx pleaded in favor of recalling elected officials in his pamphlet “The Civil War in France”. Marx wrote in approving the system according to which all the mandates of the elect were “at any time revocable”. Inspired by Marx, Vladimir Lenin argued for a “more complete democracy” in which all public officials should be “fully elective and revocable. “This was the only way to overcome the problem of parliamentarism, namely” to decide once every three or six years which member of the ruling class should represent the people in parliament. “

That the recall was a central element, perhaps even the linchpin, of Lenin’s representation theory is also demonstrated by a short essay he wrote weeks after the Revolution.

“Democratic representation exists and is accepted in all parliamentary systems, but this right of representation is limited by the fact that the people have the right to vote once every two years, and while it often turns out that their votes have installed those who oppress them, they are deprived of the democratic right to put an end to them by removing these men, ”he wrote.

The reminder remained a part of the formal institutions of the Soviet Union, but it was not used until the last decade of the Communist regime, when citizens were allowed to use the provisions during the period of Glasnost under Mikhail Gorbachev, when two deputies were recalled to Sverdlovsk.

Established US politicians, meanwhile, have harshly criticized the recall. One of his most vocal critics, President William Taft, was keen to veto the proposed Arizona constitution in 1911 (the year before the territory became the 48th state) because of the provision reminder of the document. Arizona responded by removing the recall from the project – and immediately reinstating it once state status was granted.

This is a measure of the importance attached – and the dangers associated with it – to the reminder that Taft continued his crusade against the device after leaving the White House. In a series of lectures at Yale University, the former president criticized the recall, which he said would create a “nervous condition of resolve as to whether he (the representative) should do what he think it should be done in the public interest.

Of course, this potential for controlling politicians, preventing legislative activism, was the main reason the populists joined the system. “The recall,” noted William A. White, Pulitzer Prize winner, editor of the Emporia (Kansas) Gazette and advocate for populist causes, “should make … statesmen nervous.”

In America, supporters of the recall won out, and it has been implemented in many states at the behest of leftist politicians and activists.

But overall, the callback is used sparingly at the state level; North Dakota Republican Governor Lynn Frazier was recalled in 1921, and California Democratic Governor Gray Davis in 2003.

Newsom, if removed from office, would only be the third governor recalled, in more than a century of recall use in America.

Matt Qvortrup is professor of political science at Coventry University in England and author of
“Democracy on demand: holding power to account”,
from which this essay is adapted. This piece was written for the public square of Zócalo.

David C. Barham