My first reaction to the results of the California recall election was one of utter dismay and outrage. How could the most Democratic state in the United States with an electorate that voted solidly against Bush, has two Democratic senators and a large Democratic congressional delegation remove a legally-elected governor in a campaign initially sponsored and financed by an ultra-conservative Republican?
How could this heterogeneous voting body, with a large Latino component, elect Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose supporters are among the most rabid anti-immigrant politicians in the state?
How could a second-rate actor with no political experience or special knowledge, no specific programmes to solve the many problems besetting California (except clichés from his movies), a suspicious history of sexual harassment, and offensive views about Hitler be elected?
Are there lessons to be learned here? Or is it time for Californians to move elsewhere, to some sensible place where rational politics can be practiced (if there is such a place)? Is this a tragedy or, in line with the limited thespian abilities of the states newly-elected governor, a really bad comedy?
No one to vote for?
The political reality of the California recall election, whether comic or tragic, is a far more complex process than the story of a successful and popular movie actor being elected in America. There are lessons to be learned. And although most of the lessons are depressing, some show signs of hope.
The first lesson is that incumbent Governor Gray Davis and Lieutenant Governor Cruz Bustamante proved to be colourless and unattractive politicians. It does not matter that many of Californias problems today from budget deficits to draconian cuts in social services and education also affect other states, nor that they come in the wake of Bushs failed economic policies and abandonment of the states. Californians, living in the fifth largest economy in the world, cannot fail to see the failure of their leaders in handling the crisis and in providing leadership. It was a vote against those in power, rather than a vote for Schwarzenegger.
One could argue that if a competent and attractive politician such as Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein would have run as a Democrat in the recall election, the results would have been very different. The electoral campaign was marked precisely by the incompetence of the Democratic candidates. Schwarzenegger had only to smile and dispense some well-worn lines, and already he was doing better than his Democratic opponents. Bright and articulate candidates such as Arianna Huffington, Peter Camejo or even the conservative Republican, Tom McClintock, lacked either the financial support or the party organisation to withstand Arnolds campaign.
No right turn
The second lesson is that this was not a turn to the right. It was a protest vote against a governor perceived to be incompetent and against politics as usual. This offers some hope to those who seek change in the presidential election in 2004. The voters sentiment was to get rid of those in power who had, in reality or in the perception of most Californians, let the state down.
In advance of the presidential campaign, there is hope that Bushs growing difficulties in Iraq, its anti-environmental policies, the stumbling economy and other catastrophes visited upon the nation by this Republican administration may carry a major electoral cost in 2004.
There are indications that voters sentiments are changing nationwide and that negative views of George W. Bush are gaining ground after the highpoint of his popularity in the aftermath of the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks. Californians still voted overwhelmingly to defeat a rather nasty proposal, Proposition 54 which represented a direct attack to the well-being of minorities in the state. Although the proposal was deceiving and confusing and intended to mislead voters, it was defeated by an overwhelming 62% to 38%. In a sense, those who voted for the recall and even voted for Schwarzenegger still turned to the back page of a cumbersome ballot and defeated a racist proposal.
This, then, is no turn to the right. Moreover, Schwarzenegger represented himself as a moderate, and that his views on abortion, civil rights, and other liberal issues would have been anathema to most conservative Republicans in the state. And he has, even if only by association via his wifes family, a connection with the former president John F. Kennedy, which makes him more palatable to a good number of voters.
The third lesson is that the recall election reiterated the insidious power of money and easy recognition in the shaping of American politics. The nefarious role of money in the US political process is most evident in the manner in which a candidate could overturn the established order by deploying a few million dollars. The special interests in this particular case, pro-business interests involved in the Schwarzenegger campaign serve as a reminder of the contradictions of the American political process. Raising money and projecting ones image has become far more important than advancing a cogent political programme or speaking intelligently about the issues.
Political discourse is still important but it has little chance of prospering and succeeding without a substantial recognition factor. Movie actors, in California or elsewhere in the country, can make great strides in the political process by their mere public presence and by their ability to tap significant financial backing. Image has become more important than substance. This marks, in a tragic sense, the death of a democratic ideal.
Live by the sword
In many respects, the recall election opens up a destabilising, albeit democratic, can of worms. The recall falls within a long Californian tradition of running the state through petitions and public referenda. This tradition ties the hands of state officials by dictating by how much taxes can be raised, how much is allocated to specific areas, and even, as in this case, how elected officials can be recalled.
Recall politics may in fact become the politics of the future: a kind of hyper-democracy coexisting with plutocracy and bearing oligarchical underpinnings. Thus, if Mr Schwarzenegger fails to remedy the fiscal crisis of California (overwhelmingly likely in the face of limited options and a Democratic-controlled state legislation) or if he fails to make the gestures necessary to inspire confidence from disgruntled voters, it may be hasta la vista baby for Arnold as well.