Cowards, Bullies and Bluffs

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

Hiram Johnson, the famous early 20th century California governor who was elected as a Republican only to ditch the party less than two years later for a new Progressive Party, was fond of saying this: “You can’t make a man a coward by pointing a pistol at his head. You can only prove him a coward.”

Johnson was defending the concept of a recall of elected officials and judges. (President Taft had spoken out against the idea of adding a recall provision to the California constitution, and Johnson had to defend the recall in the successful 1911 campaign to add direct democracy to the state constitution.

I’ve been thinking about Hiram’s comment as California politics melts down into a lava sea of bitter threats. Labor types are threatening to recall or end the political careers of Democrats they don’t like—and demanding criminal investigation of Republican lawmakers engaged in the usual political horse-trading. The Republican party has countered with threats to excommunicate lawmakers who even contemplate voting for tactics. And some talk show hosts (several of whom face declining ratings and relevance in this era) are demanding “heads on sticks” for lawmakers who vote for taxes.

The threats don’t bother me. They’re a good sign—entrenched interests on left and right actually feel threatened. The threats are a sign of weakness. What’s maddening is the soft, weak, cowering public response of the lawmakers being threatened. That response reveals them as cowards. And as politically tone deaf.

These threats are a heaven-sent opportunity for those being threatened, if they screw up a little courage and fight back. Any Democrat targeted by labor would be wise to stand up and say something like, “While I believe very much in representing working people, I represent all the voters of my district, and I won’t be intimidated by them. And I won’t so much as take a call of any representative of a group threatening me until they issue an apology for their words. These kinds of threats aren’t worthy of a great state.”

On the other hand, Republicans being targeted should go hard back at the party and the talk show hosts. Denounce the threats as un-American and not worthy of Republicans. They might argue that it’s a strange sort of party that wants its members to back down at the slightest threat. (That wouldn’t seem to fit the Republican self-image). And above all, show no fear. The proper response, “If the Republican party wants to take action against me for voting for what I feel is best for the state – which is what my constituents elected me to do – go ahead and make my day.” Good to practice the steely, Eastwood-style glare when delivering that last line.

The bottom line is: Punch the labor and GOP bullies in the mouth. Voters will appreciate the toughness. And it says here that when the pistol is pointed back at those making the threats, we may discover that some of them will be proven cowards.

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