Opinion

In one-party states like California, recalls are the only way to keep pols accountable

It’s on. California will vote on whether to recall Gov. Gavin Newsom on Sept. 14.

I am deeply conflicted on the question. I am opposed to recalls on principle. In 2003, I was one of the few conservatives to oppose the recall of then-Gov. Gray Davis. The problem with recall efforts is that they often focus on individual personalities, not policies. They end up being about spite. As a result, they tend to let parties off the hook.

California’s problems — homelessness, crime, tax flight, etc. — are largely the result of years of one-party rule. The only way to cure one-party rule is to reform the opposing party — in this case, the GOP — to be competitive. Recalls put off that reckoning.

Davis was unpopular for a number of reasons, but the recall boiled down to a referendum on his personality (or lack of one) and the possibility of replacing him with Arnold Schwarzenegger, a celebrity with personality to spare.

Schwarzenegger didn’t revitalize the California GOP. He saw the party as nothing more than a tool of convenience for his own ambitions. (This seems to explain California gubernatorial candidate Caitlyn Jenner’s thinking as well.) His governorship accelerated the descent of his party into dysfunctional crankery, in part by making the state’s woes a superficially ­bipartisan affair.

I still don’t like recalls. But California may be an exception to the rule, precisely because the California GOP seems unsalvageable at this point. Republicans are outnumbered 2 to 1 statewide, but even that disparity masks the larger structural imbalance in how voters are distributed.

Gray Davis attends the 12th Annual Los Angeles Ballet Gala at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel on Saturday, Feb. 24, 2018, in Beverly Hills, Calif.
California Gov. Gray Davis was recalled in 2003.
Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP

Democrats have stable supermajorities in both houses of the California legislature. Given the power of incumbency, partisanship, liberal special interests and, again, the dumpster fire that is the state Republican Party, it’s unlikely voters will have meaningful alternatives any time soon.

So, what recourse do Californians rightly upset with the status quo have? They can vote with their feet — as many are in record numbers. Or, they can use the only means available to them: the direct democracy mechanisms instituted by Gov. Hiram Johnson, a progressive, in 1911. And that’s what they’ve been doing.

In 2020, a year when Joe Biden crushed Donald Trump in California by nearly 30 percentage points, California voters nonetheless rejected a number of progressive ballot measures.

Caitlyn Jenner is a Republican hopeful for California Governor.
Caitlyn Jenner is a Republican hopeful for California governor.
Richard Drew/AP

But the stunning failure of Proposition 16 — which would have repealed Proposition 209, the 1996 ballot measure that banned public agencies from considering race, gender or ethnicity for contracting, hiring and student admissions — was the most telling. Supported by every major Democratic official in the state with an estimated 15 to 1 funding advantage, it still failed by 14 percentage points.

In a state with a healthy, competitive two-party system — a state where calling valuable reforms a “Republican proposal” isn’t a fatal insult — the GOP would be able take advantage of the fact that Dems are out of step with their own voters. Since that’s impossible, having the voters themselves serve as a counterweight to one-party rule seems preferable.

That said, I still think the California recall effort is about spite. In the wake of the pandemic, voters are understandably cranky, and Newsom is almost a caricature of what people don’t like about unaccountable “do as I say, not as I do” progressive politicians. His disastrous dinner at French Laundry, in defiance of his own guidelines, ­almost seemed scripted by screenwriters to distill the arrogance of politicians.

Newsom’s style of governance seems to be about exactly that: style.

Arnold Schwarzenegger was the successor to Gray Davis and ran California for eight years.
Arnold Schwarzenegger was the successor to Gray Davis and ran California for eight years.
Lisa Leutner/AP

Hence my ambivalence. On the one hand, in an age when politics is driven by personalities, holding the personalities accountable is better than nothing. On the other hand, the recall will almost surely fail, and an emboldened Newsom (and Democratic Party) will take all the wrong lessons from that.

Direct democracy in California is a necessary bulwark against the ­excesses of one-party rule, but it’s insufficient in the long run. The only lasting fix for one-party rule is two-party competition. And that remains a pipe dream in California for the foreseeable future.

Twitter: @JonahDispatch




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