The recall: Bitter fruit of California’s "lesser-evilism"
The October 7 recall of California Governor Gray Davis should be an object lesson in the disastrous politics of "lesser-evilism." No one represented himself as a "lesser evil" better than Democrat Davis, who always managed to secure victories for his right-wing, money-grubbing, pro-corporate politics by invoking the disasters that would befall California if voters chose a Neanderthal Republican. Unfortunately for him, his luck ran out. Faced with a referendum on his dismal record on October 7, he received a well-deserved beating.
The main downside of the referendum was the choice of Republican action movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger to replace Davis. But it wasn't just Republicans or conservatives who revolted at the polls. After weeks of browbeating the Democratic "base" of trade unionists, minorities and liberals into retaining Davis or replacing him with the equally sleazy Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, the Democrats found that they were generals without an army.
As many as one-quarter of self-identified liberals and even one-quarter of registered Democrats voted to get rid of Davis, according to the Los Angeles Times exit polls. Almost one-half of trade unionists and about 45 percent of Latinos voted for the recall. And more than one-third of Democrats voted to replace Davis with Schwarzenegger or right-wing Republican State Senator Tom McClintock.
Davis was rightly despised for presiding over the state's fiscal meltdown-caused above all by the California energy crisis, when Davis chose to cave to the power bosses, rather than put up a fight. His solution to the huge budget deficit that resulted has been to make workers pay-with drastic cutbacks in education, health care and virtually every government program except the state prison system.
When he decided to raise taxes, Davis didn't take back the 1990s giveaways to corporations and the rich. Instead, he hiked taxes that disproportionately hurt working people-like the tripling of California's vehicle tax, something mentioned by almost every voter interviewed in exit polls.
Many people will regard Schwarzenegger's victory in the California recall as yet more evidence that the majority of Americans are more right wing than left wing, or at least apolitical enough to send the Terminator to the governor's mansion. After all, the woman-groping, Hitler-admiring Republican is roughly as intellectually challenged as the Reagan-admiring Republican in the White House.
This view must be challenged, however. For one thing, the same electorate that tossed out Davis for Schwarzenegger rejected the racist Proposition 54 by a margin of 2 to 1. Schwarzenegger ran largely as a "moderate" and confined his public statements to empty slogans culled from his movie scripts. So the election results clearly do not represent a resurgence of the right.
More than anything, the recall exposed the political bankruptcy of the two-party system. The opportunity to play a direct role in the political direction of their state energized Californians and provided an outlet for their anger and frustration. This is why voter turnout was so high-about 30 percent higher than in the last gubernatorial election. At the same time, (the 135 candidates on the ballot notwithstanding) they were left to choose, once again, between two corporate-backed parties that do not represent their class interests. Thus, their anger was expressed as "kick the bum out!"-by voting for the other main party.
This dynamic was documented perfectly in a recent article in the October 5 San Francisco Chronicle, "Voters direct rage at their leaders and recall itself." The article was a summation of interviews of ordinary Californians' opinions of the recall-and concluded that voters' anger was directed at both political parties. As one pro-recall voter explained before the vote,
"Part of the reason most people leave the Democratic Party and leave the Republican Party is because they feel disenfranchised by both of those parties. The bottom line is that people feel, whether it's a Democrat or a Republican, that (elected officials) are more interested in gaining power and far less interested in what people are worried about.
My guess is most people who will vote for the recall are not 100 percent in favor of the recall. However, they see no other alternative. This is the only way to get the attention of politicians-essentially, to fire them. Gray Davis is an at-will employee of the people of California, and the people have the right to fire him.
The fact that Arnold Schwarzenegger may still lead in the polls is not a function of people's admiration for Schwarzenegger, it's a function of the depth of disgust people have for the political system."
In a recall election that mostly presented a choice between two big business parties dedicated to upholding the status-quo, one candidate-Peter Camejo of the Green Party-represented a serious alternative. Camejo spoke out for universal health care and affordable housing, opposed George Bush's occupation of Iraq and called for solving California's budget deficit by taxing the rich. Camejo won 3 percent of the vote in the recall-the largest showing for any candidate independent of the Democrats and Republicans. The almost 250,000 people who opted for a serious alternative in California are a significant minority that can be organized into a force that can challenge the two-party duopoly.
In the final weeks of the campaign, Camejo came under pressure to fold his campaign and support a Democratic lesser evil, but he stood up to it. Camejo's firmness contrasted with liberal pundit Arianna Huffington, who ended her candidacy and urged Californians to vote "No" on the recall (i.e., vote for Davis). She even appeared with Davis to urge a "No" vote. In that one action, she may have won support among establishment Democrats. But she undercut every critique of Davis's money-grubbing and reactionary policies she had made in previous weeks.
Asked why he remained in the race to the end, Camejo told reporters: "I want to use this last week to convince the base of the Democratic Party of how they have suffered because of the dysfunctional nature of the Democratic Party and its subservience to the same interests that fund the Republican Party."
Camejo was right on target. And those who are tempted to vote for "anybody but Bush" in 2004 should take to heart what he said. In California-arguably the most liberal Democratic state in the country-the Democrats and their shills in the leaderships of the unions and liberal organizations mounted an unprincipled defense of the indefensible Davis. But millions of Democratic voters didn't buy what they were selling. California now has a real Republican governor as a result. And the same Democrats who were predicting doom if the state elected a sexist Hitler-lover were hailing Schwarzenegger as a "statesman" and pledging to work with him the day after the election. No wonder people are cynical about the two capitalist parties.
On October 7, Davis and Bustamante paid for their subservience to corporate interests. And soon it will become obvious that the same interests pull Schwarzenegger's strings as well. Governor Groper will face the same budget crisis that helped to sink Davis. And he'll offer up the same basic solution that Davis did-make ordinary Californians pay. Only by building a movement of working people from below will the left be able to push back continuing efforts to offload the state's crisis onto the working class. The sooner the broad left faces up to that admittedly difficult challenge, the better.
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