The state’s democracy is fundamentally broken, and desperate times call for desperate measures
California is in the midst of recall fever. The most visible effort to date, the campaign to recall Governor Gavin Newsom, was also the one that kicked off the current wave of similar efforts at every level of government around the state. If you had asked me even four or five years ago my answer would have been that recalls are a waste of time and taxpayer money, that elections have consequences, and that the best option is to be more engaged with your chosen candidates the next time around. After all, with the sheer plethora of elected positions in California, from the bicameral state legislature to county boards of supervisors, city councils, education boards, equalization boards, environmental boards, and neighborhood councils (to name but a few of the most prominent positions) there’s no shortage of opportunities for voters to make their voices heard, no shortage of chances for engaged people to engage.
At least, in theory. In reality, California is a one-party state in which the vast majority of elections have not been truly competitive in decades. To take but one local example, Los Angeles City Councilman Mike Bonin was subject to a recall campaign that was all but certain to succeed despite a preliminary rejection of signatures by a suspect City Clerk’s office. Of the eight candidates who qualified to replace the consummate political insider, five are consummate political insiders, including two of Mr. Bonin’s political allies. There is but one Republican and he has about as much chance of winning the election as I do of flapping my wings and flying to New York City. In California, even when a grassroots recall effort is successful (Mr. Bonin resigned less than a week after the clerk’s determination) the empire strikes back. Particularly galling is that none of the Establishment candidates so much as lifted a finger to help the recall effort, in fact none even signed the petition, and now they expect to walk through the door that average citizens built with their own hands, dollars, and hours.
The arrogance of California’s political establishment is as noxious as it is frightening to anyone who cares about small-d democracy. Even when the people win, the establishment does everything in its power to shore the breach. It has reached the point that elected officials hardly pretend to pay attention to their constituents at all. For that matter, the insular nature of their power leaves them increasingly disconnected from reality itself: In the summer of 2020, as the COVID pandemic was reaching the first of many frenzied apexes, a senior state senator told a grassroots group that when it comes to housing, transportation, and infrastructure, “COVID hasn’t changed anything.” This despite the pandemic’s dramatic impacts, exhaustively documented by media, on people’s transportation, living, educational, and other decisions.
California is not just a single party state these days, but a single ideology state. As far as the establishment is concerned you’re either a progressive left wing Democratic Socialist or you’re a racist, homophobic, transphobic, fatphobic, Islamophobic, arachnophobic subhuman who probably hates puppies and kittens and to boot. It matters not a whit what political letter is after your name, deviate from the program and you’ll be destroyed. To so much as speak one’s mind in reasonable opposition to the Party’s (scare caps intended) ideological crusades is to be marked for personal attacks and harassment. If you’re among the lucky few who still have has a stable, well-paying job in the state your career very likely will be on the line as well.
Just how bad is the political oppression in the Golden State? As the all aspect report has detailed in the past, even Democrats in secure elections and seats persist in illegal campaign activities, slandering grassroots groups who dare speak against their agendas, and personally attacking their own constituents. Those three stories are not outliers, they increasingly are, excuse the pun, representative. When the all aspect report exposed illegal campaign activities by George Gascon, the campaign sicced lawyers on us and threatened to sue.
Ponder that: The man running to be Los Angeles County’s top law enforcement official used his own lawyers to attempt to intimidate a journalist and stifle First Amendment rights (to be sure, this particular journalist took great pleasure in informing said lawyers that they were more than welcome to personally serve us at home, as it would have made a hell of a photo op and given us ample grounds to tear the campaign to pieces — suffice it to say, Gascon’s camp quickly folded up their tents and went away).
To be elected to public office these days is to never again have to answer to one’s constituents, much less the law. Again, ponder that a moment.
No wonder, then, that even many liberal and moderate Democrats have begun pushing back, using recalls as one of their primary weapons. The hugely successful campaign to recall Mr. Bonin was spearheaded by his fellow Democrats, one of whom is now running for state assembly. The successful recall of three radical San Francisco school board members likewise was an internecine warm among Democrats, led primarily by Asian American parents in the city’s Sunset and Richmond neighborhoods who were tired of being marginalized and dismissed.
If you’re much under the age of 50 in California you likely have never witnessed a truly competitive election in your lifetime. Sure, there was the circus clown car of the Gray Davis recall sometime back in the mid-15th century that resulted in a Republican governor, but in reality all it accomplished was to replace an uninspiring lifelong political hack with a self-aggrandizing lifelong court jester (and to anyone who believes Aaahhh-naald was ever truly a Republican, I have a bullet train in Bakersfield to sell you).
In that same half-century the Golden State has fallen off the proverbial cliff. It turns out that, even if you agree with the Party, a one party state is a very bad thing for everyone but the Party. Fifty years of Democrat rule have given us some of the worst schools in the world, the nation’s worst poverty rate and largest homeless population, crumbling infrastructure, and a social safety net that doesn’t so much keep vulnerable people safe as provide patronage jobs to Party loyalists. The elite enjoy
dachas vacation houses in Tahoe and Mammoth while trying to force everyone else into small multifamily shoeboxes. If you think California in 2022 starts to sound a lot like Russia in 1972 you’re not alone.
The primary difference between the Leonid Brezhnev era in the Soviet Union and the Gavin Newsom era in California is that Californians still retain the fundamental constitutional power to throw the bums out. At least for now.
To be sure, the state Republican Party bears plenty of blame. In California of all places, it doubled down on support for Donald Trump while ignoring the myriad issues the state confronts here at home. As the establishment began its frontal assault on California’s working and middle class neighborhoods, all too often the state GOP did little more than parrot the national party and air grievances about this or that mistreatment of Trump. In the last gubernatorial election they ran the feckless, self-absorbed John Cox against an eminently beatable Gavin Newsom. Even after the recall effort galvanized the state’s conservatives the party failed to capitalize, to the point that they’re barely bothering to put up anyone against him this year. It’s political malpractice.
Unless and until a legitimate, unifying third option comes along the recall will remain the most potent weapon average Californians retain to check their government. It must continue to be used, and used wisely.
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