What started as a lark, then turned into an impossible dream – a conservative resurgence, starting in California – ended, like many past efforts, in electoral defeat. With his landslide victory in the recall election, California Governor Gavin Newsom and his supporters have consolidated their grip on the state for the foreseeable future.
One can quibble about the political wisdom of the recall ploy, especially since Newsom was running for re-election next year. But the main reason for the astonishing defeat lies in the state’s very bifurcated political economy, which could support a progressive mega-majority in the Golden State, but also alienates some voters and limits the national appeal of the governance model. progressive embodied by Newsom.
The sinking of the state’s once vibrant middle class is undermining the basis of two-party politics in California. The types of taxpayers who lived in the state in the 1980s and 1990s are leaving and few families are moving there. Many of the big companies that employed middle-class workers — McKesson, Hewlett Packard, the oil and aerospace industries — are fleeing at an accelerating rate.
California today works primarily for two key Newsom groups: unionized public employees and leaders in pop culture, tech and finance. The money from these groups has given Newsom a huge advantage in advertising and organizing. Newsom’s coffers exceeded those of the nearly bankrupt recall campaign and all potential candidates combined by nearly three to one. The combination of tech IPOs and federal money also funded massive relief funds for a third district of Newsom – the highest percentage of poor people in California – allowing the governor to act as a Boss Tweed of the modern times.
This electoral triangle remains too entrenched to be dislodged, at least for now. Massive spending ensured the voices of disengaged voters, even as the Chronicle of San Francisco warned of “an alarming enthusiasm gap” among Democrats. The effort to reach a sufficient number of these voters clearly worked.
The media played their assigned role. The predominantly progressive press never liked Newsom much, but the threat of a potential Republican governor in the person of Larry Elder, the leader among the challengers, drove them into a partisan distraction. Paul Krugman presented the recall as an attack on California’s “progressive success story”. The New York TimesEzra Klein called Newsom a leader of “substance” just months after observing that the state had deteriorated so badly that it was making the liberals “squirm.”
With the threat of recall having subsided, Sacramento insiders expect more progressive measures, such as attempts to tax the wealth, including unrealized gains, of the upper middle class. More pressure will be exerted to restrict the use of contract workers, particularly with the recent court overturning of Proposition 22. The state will accelerate its program of increasingly stringent restrictions on water use and Energy.
In this environment, California blue-collar workers face a bleak future unless they are employed by the state. Gradual success drives out the very businesses – manufacturing, suburban homebuilding, the once robust oil and gas industry – that historically employed middle-income workers. Indeed, the lack of stable jobs and reliance on low-paid service workers contribute to the state’s highest unemployment rate. One in three households, notes Centraide, find even basic security “elusive.”
Newsom’s victory is more of a reality check for the Republican Party than an endorsement of progressive policies. The dissatisfaction of voters, especially among minorities and young people, was not denied. Polls show that many Californians don’t see Newsom as effective in tackling issues like worsening income inequality, homelessness, rising crime, fires and the pandemic. Some longtime progressives have broken with the governor. But the state’s Republican Party has not been able to capitalize, a sign that it remains largely marginal, especially in densely populated coastal areas, where aversion to Donald Trump has tarnished its brand image.
To distract from Newsom’s failures, local and national media, the state political establishment, and academics have denounced the recall campaign as an operation led by Trumpian extremists. By the end of the election, the ongoing wildfires were not presented as an indictment against Newsom’s failed forest management policies, but as Republican inaction on climate change. Unrelated events, such as the Texas Republicans’ passage of a restrictive abortion bill, may have also helped Newsom.
The story may not be quite over, however. In 2020, voters defeated a tax hike backed by Mark Zuckerberg and other tech leaders and slaughtered an affirmative action measure backed by virtually every element of the state establishment. The reservoir of resentment and potential future unrest remains deep. Even before Covid, 53% of Californians were considering leaving; nearly two-thirds believed the state’s best days were behind him. The New York Times may consider California a multicultural example, but a 2019 University of California at Berkeley poll showed that 58% of African Americans, 44% of Asian Americans, and 43% of Latinos were considering leaving the state. A recent Sacramento Chamber of Commerce poll showed that about a quarter of the workforce planned to move within three years.
Californians feel the status quo is not working in their favor. In that sense, Elder’s securing of around 40 percent of the vote in the now-rejected replacement primary may be a first step in restoring bipartisan politics in the state. Elder’s at times extreme libertarianism eventually got him in trouble, but a self-taught African-American with a strong taste for political debate made an appealing contrast to John Cox, the weak candidate for GOP governor in 2018. Elder s He’s connected with Latinos and some young people, and he made a brilliant contrast to the haughty Newsom and his wealthy supporters. Maybe Elder isn’t the ideal candidate, but he has opened up a class political approach that could pay off with the right spokesperson.
When Elder spoke in favor of the agency and aspiration as opposed to victimization, he borrowed a Republican theme that worked well in 2020, especially among Asians and Latinos. As recently as July, before the media, publicity and voter turnout tsunamis formed, both of these demographics were in favor of the recall. Even the reliable progressive Los Angeles Times columnist Gustavo Arellano admitted that, among Hispanics, Newsom was about “as beloved as a stale Mexican coke.”
If they are to become relevant in the state again, however, Republicans need a constructive agenda. The next opportunity might come under more difficult circumstances for progressives. The expensive and unreliable power grid will continue to pose problems. The state is in such a situation that it has been forced to propose the construction of five “temporary” gas factories to keep the lights on. Meanwhile, the reluctance of environmentalists to stop discharging water into the ocean threatens to cut jobs for now politically marginalized domestic workers. Some 6,600 farmers in the central valley have already been ordered not to expect deliveries this year. The retirement debt will increase; schools are unlikely to improve with the state’s new ethnic studies curriculum. As the expansion of the welfare state competes with the demands of the public sector, the financial crush could lead to higher taxes, forcing California Democrats to choose between their richest backers and the heavyweight trade unions and social protection.
In the short term, Newsom’s recall victory could be seen as a boon to President Biden. Yet, barring a massive federal bailout, the bill will expire for governance failures in this remarkably gifted state. And if Biden’s schedule doesn’t survive the mid-term of next year, then neither will the wan hopes of expanding California’s schedule nationwide. Governor Newsom survived the recall, but that doesn’t mean the Golden State is destined to become the role model for the country – it might not even represent the inevitable future for most Californians.
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