Poor recall

It is now all but certain that there will be a recall election later in 2021 against California Governor Gavin Newsom. I oppose recall elections in principle, but this one is especially silly and likely counterproductive for its own promoters.

Recall elections only exacerbate the worst features of the presidential (including gubernatorial) form of government, in that they increase the already inevitably high personalization of the political process of such a system. As if all of what makes for (in)effective government and policy-making can be put on one individual.

In the particular case of Newsom, it is silly in that the number one issue the state (and all governments) have had to face over the past 15 months is the pandemic, and California actually has fared better than other large US states. Is that entirely due to Newsom? No, see my comment about the risks of personalizing government. But he probably deserves some credit.

Its promoters are, of course, Republicans. The Republican Party is so completely out of step with this state that it needs internal reform to make itself competitive again. One might think this would be the lesson it would learn from having won vote percentages in the low thirties in the last two presidential elections and having elected no statewide official since 2006. Newsom himself was elected with 61.9% of the vote in 2018. In recent cycles, the Republicans have struggled to win even a third of the seats in either house of the state legislature.

However, rather than learn the lessons of its irrelevance in this state, the California Republican Party has learned a different lesson. While it may not win state power the normal way, it can harness grievance, the possible low turnout of a special election, and a celebrity to pick off a Democratic governor now and then. But this isn’t the California of 2003, and neither Caitlyn Jenner nor Randy Quaid, nor any of the others in the “clown car” of candidates looks ready to be the next Governator.

As an institutional device, recalls sit poorly with the separate origin (and, normally, survival) of executive and legislative organizations that defines presidentialism. If you need a mechanism to enable early elections, logically you should have a fresh mandate for the legislature, too. Better yet, use parliamentary government (and if you also use proportional representation, you have the greater likelihood that the resulting coalition governments dissolve midterm when political conditions change, and early elections result). In a presidential/gubernatorial system, they just reinforce the worst aspect of the system–their personalization of the executive, and their potential for “populist” solutions. And I say that as someone who thought Arnold Schwarzenegger was a pretty good governor (although I voted against the recall of then-Governor Gray Davis, I voted for the new governor’s reelection in 2006). Or, rather, he was pretty good only after a rocky first year, which only buttresses my point about personalization and populism. He tried to govern by shear force of personality (and he has an unusual measure of that!) and through popular initiatives, including calling a special election for some of them. When it did not work, he eventually learned how to be a governor. The state can’t afford on-the-job training and exercises in populism as it emerges from the pandemic. This specific recall is an even worse idea than the institution of recall is generally.

It is nearly sure that it will fail, at great expense. And it likely will only push Newsom and the Democratic Party father to the left and into ever-greater embrace of unions and other constituent groups, while making the Republican brand even more toxic in the state. Not that I care too much about the latter. The California Republican Party can go hang itself. And if you’d rather replace that verb with another more pointed one, feel free.