Among the results of that fateful choice five years ago was the election of a man/party/tribe for whom democratic norms seem pretty dispensable. The great hue-and-cry of late 2020 and early 2021: “Stop the Steal” essentially argued that “If we don’t win, then the election was rigged” and is illegitimate. This attitude undermines a shared sense of participation and confidence in a process that is fundamental to any political community.
Which brings me to our recent Recall election in California.
Much can be said about the misshapen constitutional process which led to this expensive charade. Much more can be said about the (generally) pathetic group of “wanna-be’s” who sought the Governor’s seat, as well as their sponsors and the sorry remnant of the party of Earl Warren (and even of George Deukmejian). The former is a typical legacy of good intentions and legislative inertia. The latter… well, ‘nuff said. Neither was surprising or disappointing.
However, I am pretty disappointed in our (un-recalled) Governor and his party machine for their stance on how Democrats and other supporters (and other opponents of the recall) should vote on the contingent question of who should become Governor if Newsom was, in fact, recalled. (Some of my California friends have heard from me a bit on this issue, so I apologize to them for any redundancy).
Their party line was to sit it out, i.e., to take the risk that Newsom would not be recalled. This is, in the event, what happened; and, so, the whole thing appears academic. He wasn’t recalled, even though, for a while, the issue appeared to be in doubt. If he had stumbled (perhaps another dinner at the French Laundry or a COVID spike-plus-economic downturn), we could have had Caitlyn Jenner, or Larry Elder, or (could it be possible…) worse.
This “tactical” voting argument was arrogant and disdainful of our democratic process and a pretty close cousin of the “Stop the Steal” gang. As best I could figure, they were concerned that endorsing any plausible alternative would increase the chances of losing on the threshold recall question. They didn’t trust voters to vote “no” on the recall AND choose the least bad alternative if the recall were successful. They thought we’d be distracted by the possibility of a (non-horrible) Democrat on the list of replacements and decide to toss Gavin out. Perhaps, they were just pissed that they got caught in a lame-brained constitutional provision that was hi-jacked by right-wing crazies.
These might be nice arguments in the abstract, but “Don’t vote” doesn’t cut it in a democracy, particularly from a party that has championed voting rights and processes, particularly from a party that was (rightfully) upset with many non-voters in 2016. It would have been a cold comfort to have awakened on September 15 to a smiling Governor-elect Elder. The (current) Governor and his coterie would have to be counted among those who “could not complain” as “Governor Elder” ditched mask mandates, cut funds for environmental repairs and welfare benefits, and endorsed Texas-style abortion regulation. Nor could they have complained that the vote was “rigged” or that Governor Elder’s tenure was illegitimate. As it was, over 4 million people voted on the recall but abstained on the choice of a potential replacement.
Politics is, as they say, “the art of the possible.” It’s all about making choices from among competing ideals and principles. Democracy is about getting everyone in society to participate and to endorse/tolerate the results. The California Dems didn’t stand up for the process this time, to their shame. Gov. Newsom has a lot to be proud of; he showed some real political guts on the gay marriage issue, for example; but this time around, he was just another pol.
Last year, I wrote about the decayed state of US political parties. The implosion/kidnapping of the GOP has been the dramatic lead in that story; so much so that the not-quite-as-parlous state of the Democrats has pretty much gone unnoticed. It wouldn’t be such a bad thing if they both disintegrated. Regardless of your policy proclivities, however, we need political institutions—including parties—and leaders who support the democratic system, and not just on a tactical basis. This is why the Dems’ call for abstention on the 2d part of the Recall is so troubling. The more both parties pretend politics is war, that opponents are enemies, that electoral “victory” is the only thing that matters; the greater our social peril.