Recall Reinvigorates Politics
California is a magical place. It's creative, energetic, always on the cutting edge. In most things California is consistently ahead of its time; its people manage to be free-thinking yet grounded when it counts, beach bums on the weekend yet the country's most productive workers during the week. We're a different breed than the rest of the country. We're the world's fifth largest economy, America's most productive state, and home to many of the country's greatest universities. Yet the national media, anchored in the East, has cast the popular movement to recall California's elected governor as a civic clownshow. It is fortunate, then, that what the rest of the country thinks of California's recall doesn't really matter to us since we take it pretty seriously.
One year ago, Governor Gray Davis won reelection because of low voter turnout. Contrary to the assumption made by some national observers, Californians' recent aversion to the polls was not the result of apathy. Instead, the reason that all but the most dedicated (and partisan) Californians have shied away from the polls is the same reason that they have turned, instead, to the wildly popular referenda process over the past two decades and why, now, they are on the verge of removing their governor. Californians are disgusted by the state government's inability to manage its affairs and the taxpayers' dollars. They are livid that the government could tax, tax, tax, but couldn't even keep the lights on. The multibillion dollar budget deficit that now plagues the state is not Davis's creation; instead, it is the result of the high-tech bubble bursting and the state's simultaneous decision to ignore that event, lower taxes, and radically raise spending - all of which Davis has ignored. The result is wildly bipartisan public fury. That Davis was reelected last year even though 70 percent of the public disapproved of his performance in office was hardly an endorsement; instead, it was a statement about how little positive difference they figured replacing him with his ultra-conservative opponent would make. Only one-third of the voters even showed up.
But today, less than a week from the day that Californians will almost certainly remove Davis and replace him with Austrian immigrant and superstar bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger, Californians are showing - if only for their own benefit (but hopefully for yours) - that the recall is about much more than swapping Gray for Ahnold.
Fundamentally, the recall is a warning to California's - and America's -political class about the dangers of holding the citizens in contempt, of treating elected office as an entitlement, or of believing that they are ever the ones in control. And that's why it scares - scares to the point of mockery - so many political analysts. It's turned the game on its head; it's mob rule, except in this case the mob is well funded, well educated, and coming to the table with innovative ideas on how to solve the state's problems. While it is true that there are 135 candidates for governor - a fact which many reporters take as evidence of the recall's silliness - an article by in Sunday's New York Times Magazine shows this lazy and condescending view to be largely unfounded. Most of the candidates are ordinary citizens, educated, and generally working class. They are normal people with families and jobs, who are guilty of nothing more than thinking they can do a better job than Gray Davis. Even though there is no chance any will be elected, the recall has created within many of them, and thus within many ordinary Californians, optimism about the system which just a year ago most didn't even show up to support.
But these idealistic kitchen-run-campaigns aren't going to carry the day. And we need more than a policy-wonk problem solver in the governor's office. We're the home of showbiz, of L.A. Confidential, of smoke and mirrors. We need to solve the problems that a public which craves both few taxes and many services has caused. But more than that we need to show ourselves that we're back in control of the system, and we need a governor that will keep people interested in what's going on - that will keep them debating and coming to the polls to elect their government.
The recall has had other positive effects. In the same sense that national elites think of the country as being comprised of two coasts and a bunch of fly-over Red states, California's elites have long ignored the 85 percent of the state that isn't L.A., San Diego, or the Bay. The recall has changed that and has made the state's Central Valley and rural folks relevant again.
So, a few days ago I put my absentee ballot in the mail. I voted Yes on Recall and Yes on Schwarzenegger. He's probably not the best guy for the job, and he's certainly not the most experienced. But as a pro-choice, pro-gay rights - but sympathetic to his love-for-the-ladies -Republican, he seems to represent me pretty well. But more important, he will keep people interested, and in the land of Hollywood, in the home of breast implants and constant innovation - in the place we all think of as our own 73-degree Garden of Eden, we need a reason to care about the boring stuff. The recall has given us a reason to care again, and nothing could be better for the Golden State than a governor who reminds us that we're a special kind of people from a magical sort of place.