Do you even recall the recall?
Ten years ago this week, it was big news. California’s voters approved the yanking of Governor Gray Davis by big majorities. We made history. No statewide elected official had ever been recalled in California before, and none has since. Indeed, Davis was only the second governor in U.S. history ever to be recalled.
The recall was sexy. In one poll, 99 percent of state residents said they were following news of it. The recall made headlines across the country and around the world. It wasn’t just political. It was cultural; it was entertaining; it was literary. It made The New Yorker and the National Enquirer, Oprah and Howard Stern, NPR and Fox. Most elections offer voters a choice of a half-dozen dull candidates. The recall offered 135 choices, including a porn star, Gary Coleman (God rest his soul), a sumo wrestler, and a couple of dudes promoting beer.
Here in California, the recall was probably the greatest force for civic engagement I’ve ever seen. While most elections run for years, the recall campaign was short and dramatic, just 60 days, the length of a great summer fling, the amount of time a big-hit movie sticks around in the theaters. Whether you lived in the shadow of the Coronado Bridge in San Diego or the newly constructed Sundial Bridge up in Redding, people were having the same conversations, all about you-know-what. Every bait and tackle shop in the state carried the petition to put the recall on the ballot. When surfers in Huntington Beach had one of their little riots that summer, they lost their minds not over some surf competition or some bar fight but, yes, over the recall.
Critics of the recall said it was a crazy idea, a partisan Republican power grab, a perversion of America’s tradition of representative government. Supporters said it was the epitome of popular revolt and the first step toward the remaking of California. Love it or hate it, everyone agreed—the recall was titanic in impact.
No one thinks that today. Ten years later, the recall rarely comes up in political conversation. One of its strongest supporters, the California Republican Party, will hold no commemorations of it at a party convention this weekend. Even the man installed into office back then, that Austrian with large biceps, is getting less attention for having played a part in the recall than for recently being photographed with a new girlfriend who—and I am trying not to judge here—is 28 years his junior.
So what happened to the recall? Politicians and pundits who once hyped it will now tell you that it was overhyped. They’ll point out that California has very few people or interest groups who understand how our complicated state government works, and even an election as spectacular as the recall election of 2003 couldn’t change that. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s administration was at first staffed by retreads from Pete Wilson’s term, and later by people who had worked for Gray Davis. Virtually all the same people who ran California 10 years ago are running things today. Jerry Brown is back, and the recall is gone. No wonder some of the recall’s earliest proponents—like former Republican legislator Ray Haynes—have said they regret having gone to all the trouble.
The other problem for the recall was that subsequent events—wars, financial crises, the iPhone—made a far bigger impact on life in California.
But in less obvious ways the influence of the recall persists. It helped spawn a political reform movement that, for all its failures, remains a credible force. (It has convinced voters to adopt some changes to our elections.) Some of Governor Schwarzenegger’s more progressive policies on non-budgetary items like climate change are likely to endure. The man who provided the funds to get the recall on the ballot, Darrell Issa, heads a crucial House of Representatives committee and may be the most important Californian in Congress. And the recall gave a big boost to the fame of Arianna Huffington, who would use that notoriety to launch The Huffington Post in 2005. (I’d argue that she—not Schwarzenegger, who was sentenced to govern this ungovernable state—was the real winner of the recall.)
Among the darkest legacies of the recall has been a hardening of the mindset that produced it in the first place. Californians maintain a deep contempt for politicians and politics, combined with a deep and misplaced faith in elections as the way to change things. These impulses are in conflict: We put all kinds of constraints on the ability of politicians to act, and then we get frustrated when those constraints prevent them from doing what we want. Then we routinely look to the ballot to add even more constraints, often via ballot initiative.
We have yet to realize that real change requires a different mindset. If California wants to create healthy communities and connections among its diverse and far-flung residents, it needs a new story for itself. This can’t be done in one big temporary campaign. It takes years, even decades, for large groups of people to coalesce around shared narratives. And you need a common memory—a memory that civic institutions and the diminishing state media must make more of an effort to build. That way, Californians won’t be able to casually forget the consequences of their most momentous decisions, like removing a governor from office.
To put it bluntly, we need better recall.
Cross-posted in Zocalo Public Square.