Wednesday, September 15, 2021

California Dreamin'

California has long been the bellwether of some of the best and much of the worst in American history, culture, and politics. A century ago, as part of the Progressive reform movement's assault against representative democracy, the initiative, referendum, and recall were added to California State Constitution, with catastrophic consequences evident every time California's voters are confronted with one of their lengthy, proposition-laden ballots. Since then, there have been 179 recall attempts directed at state elected officials in California. Eleven of those efforts collected enough signatures to qualify for the ballot. Of those, the elected official was recalled in six instances, the most famous having been Governor Gray Davis, removed from office in 2003 only a few months into his second term. Why, one might ask, bother to have a system of representative government by elected officials only to try to remove them precipitously or circumvent them by ballot initiatives?

Rousseau famously believed that legitimate sovereignty was exclusively attributable only to the entire political community's volonté générale. Historically, the early 20th-century Progressive movement and contemporary "populism" have been the vehicles for perpetuating this pernicious denigration of representative government, most recently on display in California's recall election.

Thankfully - for the institution of representative democracy, not to mention some sense of political stability and sanity - California's embattled Governor Newsom has safely survived this latest recall threat. Of course, if he were less an exemplar of the overly rich, overly entitled, out of touch, rules-are-for-little-people mentality so characteristic of so many contemporary elites and their moneyed world of hypocritical, clueless entitlement, perhaps the recall campaign would have simply been just another silly (and expensive) nuisance rather than the source of so much existential anxiety that it briefly became for many Californians (one more source of existential anxiety to add to covid, drought, wildfires, increasing inequality, and the suburban sprawl and urban blight brought on by the state's widespread lack of affordable housing). That said, this otherwise ridiculous recall effort inevitably has become one more illustration of the unsettled character of contemporary American politics, in which one political party - increasingly unable to win elections by persuading people other than its small angry "base" - seeks power by delegitimizing democracy and undermining the voters' confidence in the electoral process itself.

Of course, covid was a factor as well. Unlike homelessness and income inequality, one of the few areas where the state seems to be functioning rather well has been in responding to the pandemic, and so it was reasonable to fear that replacing Newsom with some mini-Trump Republican would make California more like Florida or Tennessee in terms of those states' catastrophic covid outcomes. 

Californians can and clearly should fix their state's constitution and eliminate recalls and other ballot initiatives. Perhaps mustering the political capacity to do that might encourage and empower them to address some of the state's many other, even more serious problems and become the model of modern governance it once seemed to be. 

But the delegitimizing of the democratic process seems certain to continue.

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