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I’m undecided on whether to vote in California’s recall election. I find myself paralyzed by my own political cynicism. I’m not the least bit impressed by Gavin Newsom, who, aside from his alpha male looks, is about as bland as a conventionally liberal-ish establishment Democratic politician can get. On the other hand, the recall feels to me like the right-wing version of Defund the Police: a nihilistic exercise in rejectionist self-expression; a call to tear it all down without regard to the consequences.
By “consequences,” I’m not referring to the election of a right-wing governor in place of Newsom. California will survive a year of Governor Elder or whoever (let’s be real; anyone who replaces Newsom won’t win re-election). What’s more dire, in my opinion, is the prospect of the state being led by someone who has the support of something like 15 percent of the electorate. (According to the recall’s rules, all you have to win is a plurality among a field of almost fifty candidates.) That just seems plainly undemocratic to me. The recall rules are so imprudent that, in my opinion, it’s possible to have an outcome in which the winner is fairly and duly elected and yet, on a philosophical level, is illegitimate nonetheless. I don’t think I’ll be the only one to view it that way.
I sympathize with the frustrations that are animating the recall push. The image of Gavin Newsom at, of all places, the French Laundry, hobnobbing, indoors and unmasked, with healthcare lobbyists while regular Californians were, at the state’s request, cancelling their Thanksgiving plans, is about as good an impression of Marie Antoinette as a politician can get. It was such an utterly on-the-nose display of what so many Americans think of our political system: that it’s stagecraft, meant to divert our attention from the fact that there are in fact two sets of rules in this country, one for regular people and the other for America’s veritable aristocracy.
If that’s the “democratic” system we have, people start to figure, why participate in it at all? That sense of alienation used to be reflected in routinely abysmal voting rates. The age of hyper-polarization reversed that trend, though the increase in voter participation wasn’t a sign of our renewed trust in the system, but rather of our cultivated hatred and distrust for our political adversaries, and our sheer will to see them defeated.
But in California, we have another way to channel that anomie: through political arson. That’s what the recall is; it’s the electoral equivalent of a riot. And I get it: burning shit down feels good. But the problem I have with a political riot is the same one I have with a real riot: when the sun rises and the fever breaks, you have to live in the place you just burned to a cinder.
What happens in the aftermath of this recall, should it prevail? Last time we ended up with the Kindergarten Cop as governor, and we were actually lucky, since he turned out to be more-or-less as competent a politician as any other, and basically centrist, to boot. Plus, he won with a plurality that was nearly half the vote.
This time, we’re more likely to end up with someone with a plurality that constitutes a sliver of the electorate. Plus, we live in a more liberal California and a far more polarized one than we did in 2003. How likely is it that most people are just going to sigh, and accept Newsom’s Republican replacement as legitimate, even if only for a year? I wouldn’t be comfortable with that, and I don’t even like Newsom.
On a symbolic level, at least, Newsom’s little Let Them Eat Shit moment at the French Laundry made a mockery of our so-called democracy. But the recall could do much worse than that. There’s nothing symbolic about ending up with a governor whose total supporters barely outnumber the population of the San Fernando Valley, in a state of 40 million people. That would be more of a mockery of our democracy than Newsom could ever dream of achieving by himself.
On the other hand — and I mean this non-ironically — man, for a few hours at least, it would be fun to watch it all go up in flames.