California on the Edge

The Nation, October 27, 2003 | Go to article overview

California on the Edge


"Change is the order of the day," Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown declared after California voters recalled Governor Gray Davis and replaced him with film star Arnold Schwarzenegger. Brown is right. Conservative commentators were spinning like crazy to make the election of the socially liberal Schwarzenegger--by voters who also rejected the affirmative action-baiting Proposition 54--a win for their brand of Republicanism. But this was no traditional Democrat-versus-Republican fight. Most California voters told exit pollsters they think Schwarzenegger did not fully address the issues, but they figured he was an outsider and a moderate and they were mad enough about the economy to roll the dice on a self-proclaimed reformer.

Most Californians thought they were engaging in the classic political act of throwing the bums out. Gray Davis was a limp bureaucrat who secured the governorship of the nation's most populous state by grabbing special-interest money and running campaigns so crudely negative that even Democrats balked. He governed accordingly, sacrificing principle and the public interest in favor of pay-to-play politics and self-serving pragmatism. It is a measure of California's discomfort with the abuse of the recall option that millions of voters who opposed Davis voted to keep him as governor. But Davis was always a poor vehicle for progressive aspirations and susceptible to defeat by a political newcomer who promised something akin to reform.

Schwarzenegger's election was not the product of direct democracy, driven by grassroots organizing and a real program for reform. It turned on the faux populism of celebrity. It was frothy, shallow, media-driven and featured politics as entertainment. …

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