Arthur I. Cyr
The author lives in Wisconsin.
Editor’s note: Arthur I. Cyr is a Clausen distinguished professor at Carthage College in Wisconsin and author of “After the Cold War” (Palgrave/Macmillan).
The survival of Gov. Gavin Newsom is not primarily a victory for him.
Collecting enough voter signatures for a recall is solid evidence of intense dissatisfaction with government leadership. The real winner is the system that allows the people to express their collective will between elections.
California politics places a premium on citizen participation, building on a rich, at times radical and raw, history linked to the Progressive Movement of the early 20th century. The successful recall of unpopular Gov. Gray Davis in 2003, witnessed a large and bizarre collection of candidates, many of whom made victor Arnold Schwarzenegger look mainstream by comparison. The latest California recall election had a similar “inclusive” collection of contenders.
During the Great Depression, California was a hotbed of religious as well as political extremists. Dr. Francis Townsend’s crackpot movement to pay a generous pension to everyone over 60 who would swear not to work, and to spend the money immediately, started in Long Beach. Sinclair Lewis’ fictional evangelist Elmer Gantry was based on real-life Bible beaters and bamboozlers found in startlingly large numbers in Southern California.
Depression-era desperation — fear itself — fueled not only fringe phenomena but also powerful populism.
Upton Sinclair, who exposed shocking meatpacking industry practices in “The Jungle,” was nearly elected governor in 1934. He promised any means necessary to end poverty, won the Democratic nomination in a landslide and was finally defeated only by a terrified alliance of big agribusiness, big studios and the Los Angeles Times.
Republicans led by Earl Warren and Goodwin Knight brought relative stability to California politics in the years that followed, but a radical unpredictable undercurrent remained. Populism proved powerful in California, which never had Eastern-style class politics, dominant-organized industrial interests or traditional party machines.
Ronald Reagan shrewdly exploited this. After Reagan’s smashing 1966 gubernatorial election victory, Harvard political scientist James Q. Wilson explained the appeal. In the boom after World War II, prosperous California working people could buy their own homes, a luxury that remained a dream elsewhere. President Reagan’s charismatic emphasis on patriotism and tradition drew voters no longer in economic need.
President Reagan went on to build relatively broad coalitions, while Gov. Newsom undeniably has failed to do the same. Gov. Newsom’s conciliatory victory speech does signal a desire to do better, driven by necessity.
First, however, Gov. Newsom must demonstrate success in addressing California’s serious problems, including growing crime and homelessness, very high home prices and taxes, and declining education and other public services.
For now, the system is working, thanks to the safety valve of the recall.
Arthur I. Cyr is author of “After the Cold War” (Palgrave/Macmillan). Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.