The very idea of a recall vote seemed absurd at first in California, this bluest of US states.
Yet Californians’ surprisingly strong support for the removal of Democratic governor Gavin Newsom has resulted in precisely that, with the vote scheduled for 14 September.
This reflects a stunning rejection of modern progressivism in a state thought to epitomize its promise.
Some, like the University of California’s Laura Tyson and former Newsom adviser Lenny Mendonca, may see California as creating ‘the way forward’ for a more enlightened ‘market capitalism,’ but that reality is hard to see on the ground.
Even before the pandemic, California already had the highest poverty rate and the widest gap between middle and upper-middle-income earners of any state in the US. It now suffers from the second-highest unemployment rate in the US after Nevada.
Today, class drives Californian politics, and Newsom is peculiarly ill-suited to deal with it. He is financed by what the Los Angeles Times describes as ‘a coterie of San Francisco’s wealthiest families.’
Newsom’s backers have aided his business ventures and helped him live in luxury – first in his native Marin, where he just sold his estate for over $6 million, and now in Sacramento.
California’s well-connected rich are predictably rallying to Newsom’s side. At least 19 billionaires, mainly from the tech sector, have contributed to his extraordinarily well-funded recall campaign, which is outspending the opposition by roughly nine to one.
There is little hiding the elitism that Newsom epitomizes. In the midst of a severe lockdown, he was caught violating his own pandemic orders at the ultra-expensive, ultra-chic French Laundry restaurant in Napa.
Newsom insists California is ‘doing pretty damn well’, citing record profits in Silicon Valley from both the major tech firms and a host of IPOs.
He seems to be unaware that California’s middle- and working-class incomes have been heading downwards for a decade, while only the top five percent of taxpayers have done well.
As one progressive Democratic activist put it in Salon, the recall reflects a rebellion against ‘corporate-friendly elitism and tone-deaf egotism at the top of the California Democratic Party.’
Much of this can be traced back to regulatory policies tied to climate change (along with high taxes). These policies have driven out major companies – in energy, home construction, manufacturing, and civil engineering – that traditionally employed middle-skilled workers.
Instead, job growth has been concentrated in generally low-pay sectors, like hospitality. Over the past decade, 80 percent of Californian jobs, notes one academic, have paid under the median wage. Half of these paid less than $40,000.
The argument for a progressive government has been further undermined by extraordinarily poor governance.
In 1971, John Kenneth Galbraith described California’s state government as run by ‘a proud, competent civil service’, enjoying among ‘the best school systems in the country.’
Half a century later, few would say that about a state that has so grossly mishandled unemployment claims. It dished out $11.4 billion in fraudulent benefits claims during the pandemic while failing to pay or freezing the claims of over a million eligible Californians.
Other government disasters can be traced back to efforts to present California as the global policymaking model for reversing climate change.
Newsom predictably blamed the recent fires on climate change and pledged to switch to all-electric power over the next decade and eliminate gas-powered cars by 2035.
Yet, as Pro Publica notes, the fires were made far worse by green policies, including constant lawsuits against local efforts to clean up dead vegetation. In fact, thanks to these largely preventable fires, California’s carbon emissions are now increasing.
Much the same can be said about the recent drought. Under Pat Brown, who served as governor during the 1960s, California constructed an enormous system of aqueducts and reservoirs.
But, in recent years, the state stopped building new storage, and began siphoning water supplies into the river system, even in years of severe drought. Once California could withstand several dry years – now just one jeopardizes the entire system, and threatens the state’s agriculture industry. …snip…
Newsom’s backers from the media, business, and the powerful public unions see the recall as a ‘nightmare’ for the progressive agenda. The Nation even calls the recall ‘a national disaster’.
Yet despite the media spin, ordinary Californians are plainly uneasy with the state’s direction, particularly as crime rates rise.
Perhaps the best illustration of discontent has been the massive domestic outmigration. Since 2000, the state has lost nearly 2.7 million net domestic migrants, a population larger than that of the cities of San Francisco, San Diego, and Anaheim combined.
Even before the pandemic, according to the Edelman survey, roughly half of Californians were considering an exit.
Some conservatives see the recall as the leading edge of their battle with progressives. There are certainly signs of rightward movement.
Last year voters defeated new tax proposals – which were heartily endorsed by Newsom’s public union and tech-industry allies – and an affirmative-action measure. Republicans even picked up four Congressional seats.
Future Republican gains rest largely on the change in attitude of Latino voters. Gustavo Arellano, a reliably progressive columnist at the LA Times, suggests that Latinos’ long-standing antipathy to the GOP is now shifting towards the progressive gentry.
Hence recent polling shows that roughly half of Latinos have embraced the recall, despite voting overwhelmingly for Newsom back in 2018.
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