The Oregon System At Work, by Richard Montague
This is one of those books, written in 1914 as part of a much larger collection of writings about municipal politics, that takes local pride a bit too far. Perhaps Oregon felt itself to be politically progressive in 1914 the way it feels a bit more than a century later, but while it is at least debatable that Progressive politics had at least some good in the early twentieth century, even if it had many of the same flaws and shortcomings it has now, it certainly is something to be embarrassed about rather than celebrated these days. Indeed, what makes the Oregon system seem so progressive is that it allowed for the ordinary people to have a high degree of authority and power in choosing what laws would be put on referendum, or what authorities needed to be recalled because they had exceeded their mandate. Indeed, progressive politics in this period did mean, on at least a formal level, a putting of the power in the hands of the people so that they could make sure that laws and authorities met their standards and could be changed or removed otherwise. It is important to remember that when we seek to compare what was progressive in the past with what is seen as progressive today in the refusal to submit various decisions to the vote of the people or to their elected representatives.
This short work of about 40 pages or so was written by an author who happens to be a lawyer who wanted to argue that making laws and regulations with the voice of the people and with their active involvement made for better laws. That is what Oregon was all about, once upon a time, seeking to encourage the participation of the ordinary people in the running of government, which helped to increase the legitimacy that the government had with those people because their input and their suggestions had been sought and their support had been enlisted. And by and large this is backed up with statistics about the way that Oregon voters declined a lot of requests for money on the part of government and became more involved because their input was sought rather than being coerced or manipulated. Sadly, things are not at such a level today, but this book reminds us that once upon a time Oregon did have pretty decent government. What happened? Can we really blame all the Californians?
As it happens, I have some personal experience with the mechanics of recall that are part of the workings of the Oregon system. When I was a college student at the University of Southern California, Gov. Grey Davis found himself, after having won a brutal campaign, being recalled for general incompetence, and replaced with an actor who may be the last Republican governor for quite a while in that accursed state. Based on their behavior this year, especially the tendency to abuse ideas about public health regulations to enact rules and regulations without the passage of legislatures (to say nothing of the assent of the people), there are plenty of governors who could stand to be recalled for the well-being of our republic. And so it may happen that the Oregon system may become relevant again, if only because Oregon’s politics and that of so many other areas is so riven with deep conflict and so filled with contradictions about what it means to be seeking the well-being of the people when one has only the slightest and usually the wrong ideas of what that means and how it can be attained or encouraged.