That sweet sound you hear out west on those late summer nights might be a sigh of relief from voters in the California governors’ recall election, who after days of closeness (not the kind Summer of Love) last week granted Governor Gavin Newsom the right to retain his seat until the natural end of his term in January 2023. The out of date election, called to the polls by 1.7 million signatures, was seen as both a Geiger counter for Trumpism’s afterglow – Larry Elder, the front runner among candidates seeking to replace Newsom, was a far-right favorite and a measure of exasperation with The Way Things Are. As I noted in a recent comment for this magazine, democratic institutions have been strained and, although the vote ended with sunny news, it is not clear how long this fine weather will last. . It is not uncommon, after all, for glorious late summer days to appear in California. They bring with them the possibility of a fire.
A few days after the winds of the recall calmed down, what do we know? For starters, the cost: roughly two hundred and seventy-six million dollars on the backs of California taxpayers, who have returned to where they started, with a mostly flawless governor (as the recall elections approach, the odds Newsom’s approval rating rose fifty-two percent to fifty-seven) and, quite possibly, the low-key self-hatred of someone who blew up their bonus on a misguided, hard-to-remember night. This figure does not take into account the time spent on recall – neither yours nor mine, but certainly that of the governor and his staff – which, given the fact that political leaders are already seen as spending too much time doing campaign and fund-raising, is a curious dog hair cure for the complaint. To his credit, Newsom emerged looking prepared and ready to make up for lost time, immediately signing the first of a few long and controversial Senate bills that allow the rezoning of certain areas for greater housing density (a change that sounds boring but a watershed moment in the eyes of those who argue that re-regulation of density is the key to overcoming California’s housing shortage).
Optimists argue that the scent of reform could spread to the recall procedures themselves. “Many promise to make it harder for them” – remember the efforts – “to qualify for the ballot, or to change the rules on how a successor is chosen”, the Times wrote. This would indeed be a groovy new set of wishes, given how much California has been attached to its culture of direct democratic voting, so its voting metrics tend to be narrow, specific, confusing, and beset by interests. hidden. (Like Timothy Noah, from The New Republic, Put the last week, “California’s initiative and referendum system simply gave businesses a new theater in which to operate. “. More likely, our elected leaders will continue to watch their backs, mindful of the power of the signing crowds.
The real good news of the election can be felt, in the true California form, more in the vibration level. Reason has withstood a tide of bad juju and chaos. Browsing through the official ballot literature, in which candidates showcased their rigs, was a bit like getting bombarded with AirDrop by nutcases on the train. (A competitor’s pitch to lead the nation’s most populous state? “Love U.”) And yet, common sense, or something close enough, prevailed. Not only have Californians preserved the governor’s normal tenure, avoiding a nightmarish future in which everyone tries to interrupt everyone’s political terms every year; they seemed largely indistractable by decoys in other spheres. Caitlyn Jenner, wealthy, famous and heroine of self-realization, won just one percent of the vote; Kevin Paffrath, a twenty-nine-year-old real estate agent described as an “owner influencer” and yet the top performing Democrat and runner-up as a replacement, was behind Elder by nearly forty points.
What remains to be seen is whether such enlightened preferences continue into the next year, when Newsom is expected to run for a second term. As I and many others have noted, part of what made the recall election democratically questionable was the asymmetry of its terms: since an approved recall sidelines the governor from the race, Newsom could have been kicked out of his seat with, say, forty-nine percent support in the recall vote, while Elder could have been installed with only twenty percent (or less). Basically the voting card in last week’s election, partisan lines were broken, with the Blue Coast voting against the recall and the more red interior regions backing it, but some of those who voted no, it is reasonable to think, voted more for the recall. democratic stability than for Newsom in particular. The odds will be fair next year – whoever has the most support wins – and some might feel more free to vote for their point of view.
This month, there had been only four governor recalls on the ballot in U.S. history, only one of which – now two – were rejected, so it’s impossible to talk about role models. But the other governor to pull off a recall election, Scott Walker of Wisconsin, was later re-elected at the end of his term on the spur of his success and then ran for president, suggesting that a visit to the recall doghouse is not where you die politically. (In Walker’s case, this resting place seems to be The Young America’s Foundation, a conservative youth organization founded by William F. Buckley, Jr.) Nothing seems to matter in this rule-breaking political era, especially at a time made exceptional by COVID-19, weather disasters and other picnic spoilers, but in California this week a disturbing outcome was avoided, and it’s something to be thankful for. Hopefully the pattern holds.