The Labyrinth of Democracy: A Look at California's Progressive Reform 100 Years Later

Hiram Johnson - Utopian Revenge
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In 1911 -- propelled by 60 years of rampant political corruption, environmental degradation, and crony capitalism -- Californians gave themselves the entire Progressive agenda: the referendum and recall, direct election of United States Senators (which previously had been selected by the state Legislature), cross-registration of political candidates, and the requirement that nearly all public offices be officially non-partisan.

And on October 10, 1911, California voters approved the nation's most liberal initiative measure and 22 other reforms, including the authority to place utilities under public ownership. (California's all-male electorate also gave women the right to vote -- nine years before the U.S. Constitution was amended to extend voting rights to women.)

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The scope of reform in California was breathtaking. But not everyone was sure it would work, particularly the initiative process. As Juliet Williams of the Associated Press recently noted, the New York Times was eerily prescient in responding to California's experiment in direct democracy:


"Inattention and indifference" are the factors that still empower the machine which voters let loose in 1911. The machine's signature reapers now camp at grocery stores in every election season, clipboard in hand.

The premise on which reform was based a hundred years ago seems fatally one-sided now.

"Nearly every governmental problem involving the health, the happiness or the prosperity of the state has arisen because some private interest has intervened or has sought for its own gain to exploit either the resources or the politics of the state," Governor Hiram Johnson (photo above) wrote in his inaugural address in 1911. "The first duty that is mine to perform is to eliminate every private interest from the government, and to make the public service of the state solely responsible to the people."

Johnson's democratic idealism -- and desire for revenge -- couldn't make room for the balancing of interests, both public and private. The initiative process (and other regulatory changes) eventually nuked the vile Southern Pacific railroad, but left the power of popular reform unrestrained . . . and ready to be used by corporations and political splinter groups to bamboozle inattentive and indifferent voters.

The flaw in the Progressive triumph was its assumption that reform needed no reforming, even after it produced perverse outcomes. And by ascribing unlimited virtue to the "public interest," the reforms of 1911 encouraged private interests to subvert reform under the cover of reform's idealism.

Many Progressives in 1911 saw their agenda as the start of a natural evolution toward socialism. That utopian goal -- not the unintended consequences of reform -- was their focus. Had Progressives balanced "public" and "private" interests better, checking each before either became all-powerful, California and Californians would be better for it.

D. J. Waldie, author, historian, and as the New York Times said in 2007, "a gorgeous distiller of architectural and social history," writes about Los Angeles on KCET's SoCal Focus blog.

The image on this page is from the collection of The California Museum.

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