The California Recall Election - A Dialog
Concerning Political Theory, Arnold Shwarzenegger and Alexander Hamilton
It is, of course, obligatory, since Just Above Sunset
is published in California, and this last Tuesday I went out and voted along with so many other Californians in the recall
election, that this column would be about the election in which the current governor, Gray Davis, was recalled and Arnold
Shwarzenegger was elected to replace him.
Just Above Sunset is published weekly,
but over the last few years I have created and monitored a daily discussion group where about a dozen of us trade emails about
what's going on in the world. This is a daily thing - as I find interesting things in the worldwide press, or in opinion
journals and general interest magazines, and on web logs (blogs) I send them around. I make a comment or two and solicit
comments from those on the distribution list - and the list includes two friends in different parts of Canada, two in
Atlanta, three in Paris, five in various places in New York, and a friend in Boston. We have come to call ourselves
"the listers." On the list are two lawyers, two other website publishers, a teacher or two, and a friend who for years
was deep in the heart of the cable news business.
One item I sent around a few days after the election was an essay - more a rant - from
the web log (blog) of John Scalzi. The prose style was lively. And underneath the rant Scalzi makes a few points.
John Scalzi was unhappy and opened with this:
Californians, boy, did you ever get played, you dumb-ass losers. This was, at its root, one
of the most flagrantly un-democratic (small "d") elections in the history of the United States, and you followed the script
as if you were giggling, squealing paid extras.
The recall was bought and paid for by one guy and orchestrated by a few zealots with an extremely
narrow agenda, and both these parties were more than happy to push your emotional buttons to get you to do what they wanted
you to do, which was boot the current and conventionally-elected office-holder for a chance to install someone more amenable
to their own interests. Florida 2000 paranoids aside, this is the closest thing to a coup we've had in the country, and you
swallowed it like it was a tasty treat. It's sickening, really.... From my point of view this isn't about political
positions, per se, it's about an unwillingness to respect the election process.
Scalzi goes on for a bit and adds:
... This recall election is a kissing cousin to a poll tax: Both ostensibly legal (in their time and place), but both
designed to skew and corrupt the election process for a select group over others. Yes, you say, but what about the voting
percentages? More Californians voted in this special election than in the regular election! My response to this, of course,
is: This is supposed to make me feel better? Californians are too damn apathetic to vote when they're supposed to
and should have, but are more than happy to get off the friggin' couch for a stage-managed monkey show? I want to be clear,
so there is no misunderstanding here: Every single person who voted in this election who did not vote in the actual gubernatorial
election in 2002 is a complete and total fucking tool.
... Yes, Gray Davis was unpopular. That's what you get when you don't vote, people. You want your leaders to reflect
your interests, haul your whiny asses to the polls on a regular basis.
But Scalzi's main point was that something is terribly wrong with how Califonia has come to be run:
The very worst thing about this recall election is that it solidifies the concept of the permanent political
campaign, with the focus on running for a position rather than the running of the government. Every vote for the recall was
a vote for office-holders needing even more money to run their political organizations, money which will inevitably come from
special interests and corporations, making the political process even more opaque to the needs of citizens than it already
Every vote for the recall is a vote that signals that politicians can't vote their consciences, on the rare occasion
they have one, for fear of some excitable group deciding that it just can't wait for the normal election cycle to boot their
asses out. Every vote for the recall is a vote for short-attention-span government, one that inevitably trends towards the
"bread-and-circuses" aspect of the political discourse, rather than the aspect that deals with long-term issues in a serious
... You were really voting to let small, inherently undemocratic groups run your state all the time, forever.
now we get to see what comes next -- whether the Schwarzenegger administration can get things done, or whether there
is long, deep, sustained damage to the democratic process in California. I genuinely hope for the former and rather darkly
suspect the latter. ...
I will say this, California: If you get the former, boy, did you get lucky. If you get the latter, well, you
got what you asked for.
Scalzi as a non-Californian and, so he claims, a nonpartisan, says Shwarzenegger might not be too bad, even interesting,
and that maybe things will work for the best with a Republican governor and a Democratic legislature out here to balance each
The reaction from Rick Brown, my college friend who grew up out here and ended up in the news business, and
in Atlanta, was quick.
Actually, I find myself agreeing with the rant, by and large, (although I'd be loathe to call my California friends
and relatives "morons," at least not to their collective face).
In fact, I think that I, too, would still object to the recall even if it were a Republican
being impeached. But I also tend to think that modern Democrats would be less constitutionally inclined than Republicans to
pull this trick - just as there are no real Democratic counterparts to the radical Clinton-haters, ready to impeach Bush for
whatever they can dig up on him.
As I've said before during this whole silliness, California reminds me of the man who gets
tired of tripping over his untied shoelaces, so he pulls out a gun and shoots himself in the foot.
I'm still annoyed that everyone, on all sides and in the middle, made this whole campaign about
Gray Davis and Arnold Schwarzenegger and that whole flying circus of candidates, instead of about the whole idea of recalls
and referenda and initiatives and whether Californians might be well advised to scrap that whole cockamamie system, for their
Although I do have some doubts about Scalzi's parting "points" - like the one that Arnold as
governor could be "interesting" (as if that even matters), or the one that says chief executives and legislators should be
from different parties (as if that's generally proved to be a good thing) - I totally agree
with his ranting about the process. I've not heard any of the candidates out there, major or minor, say what California needs
is to go back to holding the people's representatives responsible, not only for making the laws but also making sure the money
is there to fund them.
As it is, whatever is really wrong with California is not the fault of Gray Davis, it's the
fault of the people of California, and this recall fiasco didn't solve that situation one bit.
My response to Rick and the group ran on for a bit.
Although I have a bit of a problem with the concept of a "collective face" you mention, yep,
it seems to me folks out here have this idea California is pretty much just like New Hampshire, except for the weather.
Over in "Live Free or Die" New Hampshire the old fashioned (and not "neo") conservatives work a system of what they like to
think of as "direct democracy" - where everyone votes on everything in their little town meetings. They don't believe
in "representative democracy" - and that would be the idea of a republic as opposed to a pure, direct democracy, as you have
said a few times (June 1, 2003 Mail) - a "republic" where you elect a representative, a legislator, and expect him or her to do all the homework and
make decisions and explain what he or she decided - and then have you decide to reelect him or her, or not.
In the "Granite State" it is a given that citizens should make the decisions, not politicians.
In fact, New Hampshire is filled with libertarians who have a whole lot of problem with the idea of government doing
much of anything at all. Trusting an elected legislature to make decisions for us all just plain horrifies them.
Same here in the "Golden State." Here we don't have the New Hampshire "town meetings" - we have "initiatives."
I've been out here in California for well over twenty years and have seen ballots with twenty or thirty initiatives on
which I can vote yes or no - bond issues for schools or prisons or to approve building an individual bridge in some place
up north. Sometimes there's one amending the law to do one thing or another about, say, farm laborers - or about taxes
- like the famous Proposition 13 that altered the tax structure out here to lower property taxes and made us the only state
that has to finance just about everything from the quite volatile sales tax revenues. Proposition 54 just got voted
down - that one would have amended the state constitution to make it illegal to collect any racial data at all about anything.
Folks who voted for it did so to show we were becoming a color-blind society where race didn't matter. Folks who voted
against it figured it was a way to hide any data that might show the cops were beating up the dusky folks for the fun of it,
that might show some schools were short-changing minorities, and would make some medical research into diseases that seem
to hit only certain minorities quite illegal.
Proposition 54 was defeated, but why was it on the ballot? The state lawmakers, the legislature, are the ones
charged with creating the state laws, in our name. That's why we elected them. That's what they're supposed
So what does the California state legislature actually do up in Sacramento? Not much. Any hot issue
is talked through, then they all throw up their hands and put the issue on the ballot as an "initiative." They
don't want to get in trouble for voting one way or the other. Let the people decide - let them vote directly on the
item, up or down. What has developed here in the last three decades is a system where anything remotely difficult is
passed on to "the people."
But folks don't much care about all these issues, only a few hot ones, and they certainly don't "do their homework."
Nothing was decided in Sacramento and you find yourself on election day in a booth looking at the seventeenth of thirty initiatives
deciding, well, do I want to fund better retirement benefits for state workers in the Bakersfield area, or a bond issue for
repairs to certain aqueducts in the East Bay tidal basin? Hey, what are the long-term implications of bond issues given
the history of the credit ratings for California with specific underwriters that the state is using? Will paying off
these bonds cost so much over fifty-five years that my taxes might go up? Perhaps most of the voters are smarter than I
am and know all this stuff and have thought all through. Somehow I doubt it.
I remember living in upstate New York and voting every cycle for my congressman, a fellow named Barbar Conable, because
I trusted that he would make some good decisions. Yep, he was a conservative Republican, but he was smart and, it seemed
to me, honest. I trusted him to do his homework, make the best decision he could, and let us all know what
he did any why. He later went on to run some international things; in fact, in 1985 President Reagan appointed him the
new US representative to the World Bank to look to "remake the bank into the lead agency coping with the Third Worlds debt
crisis." He was sharp.
But my point is that the people in his congressional district trusted him to do his homework, make hard decisions,
and explain what he had done and why. He was good at that and we kept reelecting him.
There's no one like that in the world of California politicians. In fact, we passed an initiative a few years
ago on "term limits." Now no one can hold a state political office for more than two terms. The idea was
the keep out the dreaded "career politicians." What that did was assure than if any of these folks finally figured out
how things work theyd have to leave. Great.
So it's a mess. New Hampshire seems to have this working. A similar system works in Switzerland.
It is certainly not working well here.
I don't see that things will improve, as we've got the "concept" of government all screwed up. We don't want
to be governed.
The state motto of New Hampshire is "Live Free or Die" - and we out here see to be exploring those two options.
The state motto of California is "Eureka" ("I have found it!") - and there's no small irony in that.
But back to the top. The concept of a "collective face" may be useful in explaining the epidemic of
obesity in America. Most folks have one of those.
Rick in Atlanta shot this back:
...I myself might have included those helpful details about the initiatives, had I only the brain for them.
Okay, a "collective face" may have too much of a Stalinist ring to it, but I had in mind all
those California friends and family members I ran into ... a few weeks back (including two cousins I couldn't tell apart
if one weren't wearing a cast on her arm), the company of whom I enjoyed immensely, even as I tried so studiously to avoid
touching on politics lest it lead to a fistfight....
While out there, I found myself tempted to remind all these conservatives in favor of it that
this recall thing, especially coming so soon after the normal election, is a good example of what conservatives DON'T like
to see -- i.e., "too much democracy." Still, no one I spoke with seemed to see a problem in just throwing out a governor on
the slim grounds that they don't like the way he handled the energy crisis a year or two before.
Yet you bring up an interesting ideological paradox about New Hampshire. I think of a political
conservative (which generally means a Libertarian as well) as one who distrusts "too much democracy," an anti-motor-voter-bill-type
who is quick to point out that the founding fathers themselves despised and feared "democracy." *
Furthermore, Libertarians, the likes of radio host Neal Boortz and my own uncle Byron, like
to point out that we aren't a "democracy" at all, that we're actually a "republic," a form of governance they much prefer
because it tends to take the big decisions out of the hands of the not-too-bright masses.
So the question is, how is it that Republican New Hampshire can be identified so closely with
anything so "directly democratic" as the New England town meeting?
You suggest maybe it's because the town meeting involves "less government," a concept conservatives
also have the hots for. Or maybe it has to do with size, and the fact that New Hampshire's population is roughly equal to
that of Sacramento County, whereas California's is slightly larger than that of Canada.
Or maybe the town meeting form is not so prevalent in New Hampshire as we all presume? (Note
to self: Someday, look that up.)
Is a puzzlement. I don't know the answer.
* PS: As an aside, it should be noted that the founders were not as shy of democracy as
is now so often claimed. They certainly were conscious of founding a "self-ruling" government, which is one of the working
definitions of democracy today. And even Alexander Hamilton, the founding father most often cited as favoring a plutocracy,
went out of his way to argue in the "Federalist" that even though the new republic would be more "representative" and not
as "direct" as the town meetings colonists were used to, it would be "democratic" nonetheless.
And my reply from Hollywood was this:
Well, we have written before about Hamilton and the Federalist Papers and how they inform a
whole lot of current conservative thought so I won't rehash that here. Newer listers may have missed all that, but no
one cares that much. You and I and one or two others like the history of American democratic theory, but others may
not. It's not a sexy topic.
You write, "I think of a political conservative (which generally means a Libertarian as
well) as one who...." Hey, wait! Over the last few weeks the libertarians over at the Cato Institute have
had the "long knives" out for Bush. Big time, as Dick Cheney would say. I've seen many articles, and now there
is a website "Libertarians Against Bush" - http://libertariansagainstbush.blogspot.com/2003_09_01_libertariansagainstbush_archive.html - that pulls it all together. They're pissed at Bush and particularly at Ashcroft and the Patriot Act (and its new,
improved version being pushed now). And "Conservatives Against Bush" was "founded to propound the conservative principles
that this administration has forsaken. This President has expanded the welfare state, saddled future generations with debt,
eroded some of our basic freedoms, and waged a spurious war in Iraq that in the end did not make the U.S. any safer. We seek
to reenergize conservatives, so they will press for change in this administration."
The Republican strategists have always assumed the libertarians were a part of their base that
would never give them a worry in the world. Not so. The libertarians are now calling themselves the "real conservatives."
The problem? The current Republican neoconservatives in power seem to want central control
and moral legislation - mostly about all abortions being made illegal, and about gays blades being stopped from ruining our
children and our marriages, and about making sure Tommy Chong serves a long prison term for selling bongs. I suppose
Gore Vidal would call them all neo-Fascists.
But the libertarian the-least-government-is-the-best crowd is getting pretty fed up
with all that, and they're making it known, publicly. And they really, really hate this make-over-the-whole-world-through-preemptive-war
thing. They want Bush to fire Rumsfeld.
This is a problem for the Bush-Rove-Rumsfeld-Cheney-Wolfowitz powers in office. A core
part of their base is getting mighty grumpy. CNN and the rest of the press do not cover such things, but this is a very
hot issue in its limited circle. It could cost Bush his reelection. In fact, I read an article a few days ago
by one of the libertarian dudes at the Cato Institute who said any libertarian who had his head screwed on right could only
support one guy in the next election - Howard Dean. Wow.
Not much in the press? Well, the mainstream press has Kobe Bryant and Scott Peterson
to cover, and Arnold. And the Pope seems to be dying. And Israel seems to want to take care of Syria for us.
Rush is still on drugs. That white tiger in Las Vegas did a very bad thing. You can't cover everything.
You give your audience what it thinks is newsworthy. That's how it works.
As for how things really work in New Hampshire, I will have to do some research, but as I understand
it there are hundreds of town meetings all the time, up to six hundred or so folks at a time, who decide most local issues
and advise the state legislature. It's a bottom to top system, closer to a "direct democracy" than to a "representative
And yes, a small homogeneous population makes it possible. But out here in California?
Heck, there are eighteen million folks in the three-county Los Angeles metropolitan area - with seven major languages and
one hundred and twenty-six other languages and dialects spoken here. The New Hampshire model doesn't seem very practical
for this mad city, much less for the whole state. And I did mention Switzerland. In a parallel to New Hampshire,
little harmless Switzerland may not have "town meetings" but much governance is accomplished cooperatively at the Canton level
in just the same way. Hey, would that be a style of democracy one could call Cantonese? Well, forgive a bad joke.
Again, they have a relatively homogeneous population, and as for languages they only have to deal with their version of German,
with French, and with a bit of Italian. One Germanic language and two Romance languages, and all Indo-European.
Much more manageable.
You and I are comfortable with the "representative republic" model of government. Well,
it seems to us to be more efficient for California and Georgia - and for most large, heterogeneous, chaotic places filled
with madmen speaking in odd tongues.
What happened out here this week as Shwarzenegger became governor - and where almost anyone
who wanted to run for governor could, and then did - was an exercise close to "direct democracy." It wasn't pretty.
But you hit on another real issue for those to the right at this moment - the neoconservative
fascists who want rule the world politically, economically and morally, are calling themselves conservatives. The libertarians,
who often seem to think total anarchy without even any laws at all is just fine and dandy (they love "personal responsibility"),
are also calling themselves conservatives. And both sides are staring daggers at each other and mad as hell.
Let 'em fight it out. The liberal Democrats will still come in a distant third.
... from Why I Voted for Schwarzenegger
Kaus Tuesday, October 7, 2003, SLATE.COM
... The difficult problems with Schwarzenegger have to do
with his character - not even his credentials or abilities. He's certainly smart enough - if you interview enough politicians,
you realize that a) they're not so brilliant (Willie Brown is an exception) and b) you can be a good leader even if you're
Schwarzenegger is also, by all accounts, genuinely funny,
with an instinct for honesty. (Can you imagine Bill Clinton saying "Where there's smoke, there's fire" when confronted with
sexual harassment allegations?)
But Schwarzenegger has two really troubling characterological
a) He's a crude serotonin victim who enjoys bullying men
and women alike. Everyone knew there were stories like the Los Angeles Times presented last week. I've heard more.
He's not a groper the way Clinton was a groper - Schwarzenegger seems to actually have a cruel streak. He enjoys humiliating
others. With women, there's a sexual component - but there are plenty of stories of him humiliating men. (And at least one
of the groping incidents seems designed to humiliate the woman's husband more than the woman.)
b) He may not even be a social egalitiarian. This is one
way to reconcile the accounts from famous actresses of "Arnold the Gentlemen" and the repulsive stories told by "below the
line" film personnel. Of course Schwarzenegger's charming to the people he needs to be charming too - such as fellow movie
stars. But he lords it over people he can lord it over when he can get away with it. Let's just say this hierarchical behavior
is not un-Germanic. But it is un-American. You'd think it would be especially troubling to someone, like me, who proclaims
social equality the distinguishing goal of liberal politics.
Okay. It is troubling! Schwarzenegger puts to voters, in
a particularly sharp way, the same question Clinton put to voters: Can you separate personal failings from performance in
NOTE: The editorial staff of Just
Above Sunset (me) did not vote for the man, for exactly these reasons.