A Cautionary Tale From California
by Steven Rosenfeld
August 9, 2003
Well, at least everybody -- and I mean everybody -- is finally talking politics.
"Is he experienced?" asked a woman, waiting for her morning coffee.
"Well, he’s married to a Kennedy," replied a man. "That’s good enough."
"The whole country is laughing at us," said another man, shaking his head.
"It’s a circus," agreed another woman, adding she might have to move.
We can thank Arnold Schwarzenegger for all this political talk -- at seven in the morning! Not Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who bowed out of the recall race on August 6. Not Larry Flynt, the porn publisher who at least floated some revenue-raising ideas when he announced his candidacy. Not liberal pundit Arianna Huffington, who announced her bid in a community center that will be hurt by state budget cuts. And not labor unions, which in a 24-hour period threatened to exact revenge against any Dem who entered the recall race, and then saw Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante and state Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi announce they, too, were running.
The oddly Californian fact that it takes a Terminator to politicize ordinary folks will no doubt be noted by the nation’s opinion pages. And there may be a twisted hope in this spontaneous awakening, because Californians are quite aware that their government-as-usual -- and this means their elected legislators, not just their governor -- has failed to face and fix the pressing problems in their state. So perhaps it’s okay that for now, or for the next several media cycles, it will be all Arnold, all the time.
“I speak directly to the people,” the big man told a press crush after the Tonight Show. “They want to have someone who will represent them.”
There’s no doubt that other wannabe governors and populists-in-waiting will join the 511 people who already have taken out petitions to join the race (as of 5 p.m. on August 6) before the August 9 filing deadline. Lots of big names have yet to weigh in. But even as the mayhem continues, let’s hope the public, pols and press focus on what's really happened to California government -- because it is really a cautionary tale for the nation.
Lost in the fun are some truly serious matters.
Perhaps the most fundamental issue is constitutional accountability. As many Californians delight in shaking up their system, they ought to recognize why their legislature and governor has failed so miserably to manage state finances, schools and efforts like energy deregulation.
In short, California’s legislature has failed to lead because Californians have not demanded it. Voters have punished pols with term limits. They’ve let privately funded ballot initiatives -- like the recall -- run rampant. What’s resulted is the special interests and lobbyists are the people with the institutional memory and clout in Sacramento, a fact duly noted by Arnold, Arianna and everyone else in between.
This is really a crisis for constitutional governance, which was intended to stifle popular passions by holding regular elections, not ‘buyer’s remorse’ recalls. California’s elected leaders in both parties have created a climate and political culture where ‘direct democracy’ -- a nice way to say mob rule -- is now running the show.
The country may be laughing at California and enjoying the spectacle, but these underlying political dynamics are not unique to the Pacific coast. Stay tuned and don’t laugh too much. Your state could be next.
Steven Rosenfeld is a commentary editor and audio producer for TomPaine.com, where this article first appeared (www.tompaine.com)