This week, Californians celebrated – or at least acknowledged – the 100th anniversary of the establishment of direct democracy: the initiative, referendum and recall. And in so doing, Californians also honored a bit of political spin that has survived a century – even though it was mostly bunk.
What was that spin? That Gov. Hiram Johnson and the other Californians who brought direct democracy to the state 100 years ago did so because they were fighting corruption in the railroads and other corruption. This narrative has been repeated so many times – in virtually every story about the initiative process – that correcting it may be impossible.
But the spin is about as true as Arnold Schwarzenegger’s claim that he was fighting special interests. Schwarzenegger fought some interests – and was funded by other interests. His talk about fighting the interests was a way to remain vague but position himself as anti-politician.
The same was true of Johnson.
When Johnson ran for governor in 1910, it was his first race for elected office. And he simplified his message down to an argument that he was opposing the power of the railroad and corporations.
The railroad was a brilliant target. Its influence was on the wane in 1910, but it was still widely reviled. So reviled that all of Johnson’s Republican foes in the primary went after the railroad as well. Johnson was simply better at it than they were (and also better at it than the Democrats who had run against the railroad for years).
This was an effective strategy not because Johnson was opposing business – he wasn’t – but precisely because business interests backed his campaign. In fact, the diversity of the business interests that backed Johnson – oil, agriculture, grocery stores, banking, real estate, and manufacturers of all varieties – was the secret of his political success. What those business interests all had in common was that they were unhappy customers of the Southern Pacific Railroad. To get their goods to market, they had to use the railroad, and the railroad used its monopoly power to charge unfair rates.
Johnson was thus a far cry from the anti-business warrior that today’s media and progressives imagine. He talked often – and vaguely – of making government run more like a business.
Johnson was no man of the people. He was wealthy, from the practice of law. He supported women’s suffrage publicly – but spoke against it in private, his papers show. Both his private writings and public statements betrayed bigotry – against blacks, Jews and Asians. (He supported the legal efforts to strip Californians of Asian origin of the right to own land). He praised the racist “Birth of a Nation” with such fervor that his comments were included in national publicity.
But Johnson’s main message was that he would fight the railroad. This was classical spin, a method of unifying a diverse state by picking an enemy that a broad sector of the public resented. And in 1911, most of the state’s newspapers knew it (The LA Times wrote of him: “Hiram Johnson as an exponent of reform in politics rivals Barnum’s best performer”) — though they allowed that Johnson made such spin highly entertaining in his speeches.
But it is enduring spin – that is still taking in people a century later. If they were still alive, even the cynical journalists who advised Johnson (many of his campaign strategists were newspapermen) might be suprised to hear their century-old spin repeated so thoughtlessly.