Like a lot of good intentions, direct democracy is a mixed bag at best. In the limited space of this column, we’ll focus on a particular harebrained scheme: recall elections.
Did some great scandal erupt — something too urgent to be handled by an impeachment in the state legislature or by the voters next year?
No. According to polls, Newsom is facing an extra election partly because his covid-19 policies (like everyone’s covid-19 policies) are controversial, and — crucially — because he attended an unmasked gathering with other wealthy progressives at one of the toniest of wine-country restaurants, while simultaneously requiring the “little people” of California to stay home and mask up.
As a matter of cosmic justice, this is wonderful. Hypocrisy was pandemic among the California elite long before covid-19. Weirdly, for such a large, dynamic and diverse state, politics in California is dominated by an oily fiefdom of entangled family dynasties whose members have the maitre d’ of the French Laundry on speed dial. The Newsom family has been neck-deep in it for 80 years or more. Some sort of humbling is past due.
But in matters of state, common sense outranks schadenfreude. By that measure, the recall is ridiculous. Newsom won office in a free and fair election, and the voters will have another crack at him soon. Periodic elections hold leaders to account, and impeachment punishes gross malfeasance. Adding an extra election at the whim of a miffed minority adds nothing but chaos.
Meanwhile, Newsom’s opponents aren’t required to offer an alternative, which means they aren’t saddled with their own candidate who may have dined at the wrong restaurant or retweeted the wrong meme. They need only persuade 50 percent plus one more voter that Gov. Lord Fauntleroy should be bounced from office for the high crime of smug entitlement.
Given the irritable public mood, that’s not a high lift. Even in deep-blue California, polls suggest Newsom is on thin ice.
If Newsom is recalled — tossed from office — question two comes into play. More than 40 candidates have qualified to be listed on the ballot as possible replacements. Forty! With so many names, 10 percent of the vote will be an impressive show of strength. Twenty percent will be massive. No candidate is likely to come close to a majority, but the top vote-getter will be headed to Sacramento.
California Trumpists appear to be galvanizing behind the radio talk-show host Larry Elder. His politics — against abortion rights, against the minimum wage, against aggressive environmental regulations — mean he could never be elected statewide in a normal race. But in a recall election, a disciplined faction of voters can outmaneuver a splintered majority.
The progressives will never become conservatives in the radical, barn-burning sense of the word. But there’s a more venerable conservative tradition that acknowledges the difficulty and danger of pell-mell “progress.” Yes, things can get better, but they can also get worse. Prudence, the most conservative of virtues, teaches that sometimes the best change is no change.
And not every whim of the people requires immediate expression. Good government occasionally requires a deep breath. Perhaps if the Progressives of 1910 had reflected longer on the possibility of plans going awry, they would not have created such an easy mechanism for undoing elections.
If ever a state needed a bit of prudence, California is it. A miracle of energy and creativity, it is also prone to excess. If Golden State liberals wake up next month to a Trumpist in the governor’s office, they might see the value of a little caution, and claim the true conservatism that is currently orphaned.