Even before Monday’s dramatic developments, the recall process being unleashed in California against Gov. Gray Davis (D) was doubtless riddled with problems; the statute will deserve a good rewrite once the dust settles.
But the carnival it has spawned — with 135 certified candidates, including movie actors, porn stars, a sumo wrestler, artists and eccentrics of every stripe along with the regular businessmen and pols — fits the best American tradition. Californians have made excellent lemonade from this lemon, a festival of politics drawing wide public interest, a crop of fresh candidates, rousing public debate on serious issues, and potentially the largest voter turnout for a statewide contest in decades.
From a historian’s viewpoint, the raw ambition, showmanship, glitz, money and audacity on display are as American as cherry pie.
Our modern democracy bears the fruit of two centuries of such experiments. The federal constitution our Founding Fathers gave us in 1787 left small room for voters or voting. It excluded voters from choosing Senators until 1913, and even presidential electors were named by legislatures in most states through the 1840s. Women remained disenfranchised until 1920, slaves until after emancipation in the Civil War, most Southern blacks until the civil rights laws of the 1960s and draft-eligible 18-year-olds until 1971.
In fact, most state laws, which set voting qualifications in federal contests, originally excluded even many adult white men until the 1830s, limiting the franchise to wealthy property holders.
Each step to expand democracy has met with gasps and dismay from detractors of the time. Critics prophesized doom when President Andrew Jackson’s generation won votes for urban laborers and frontier ruffians, when Boss Tweed’s Tammany Hall gave unwashed New York Irish immigrants leading roles in the 1860s, and when post-Civil War reconstruction governments began registering freed black slaves. Women were ridiculed and patronized during their 50-year struggle for suffrage, and black civil rights marchers faced police dogs, billy clubs, intimidation and worse in fighting to reach the ballot box.
California’s recall has now provided a new opening. And given the chance, the state’s political culture has rushed in, embraced it and transformed it.
The recall has opened the door in two ways: First, candidates could get their names on the governor’s ballot with a mere $3,500 and 65 signatures — a virtual free pass compared to the normal process of winning nomination from entrenched party establishments. As a result, 50 Democrats and 43 Republicans are listed instead of one each, let alone four Green Party candidates, three from the National Independence Party and two from the Natural Law Party. Two immigrants — Schwarzenegger and columnist Arianna Huffington (I) — and Latino Cruz Bustamante (D), the state’s lieutenant governor, are among the leaders. Whether any of these three could have won traditional party nods is questionable; now, all could be important voices in state affairs for years to come.
Second, the recall has created an unprecedented forum to debate what are among the driest issues imaginable — the state’s budget and economic crises. Now these have become the stuff of celebrities and high drama.
Driving the process is a piece of fantastic political theater — complete with quirky personalities, glamour, flip-flopping polls, tactical puzzles and suspense galore. The fact is, good theater begets good government. Voters get hooked on the horse race and glitz and, by osmosis, soon learn the issues, the policy options and even the dreary budget numbers. A whole generation of young Californians today is finding itself fascinated by civics and politics — a healthy outcome by itself. And this too fits solidly in our tradition.
American politicos have been using showy carnivals to hook voters from the start. As early as 1840, the Whig Party shocked its era’s establishment by repackaging its lackluster presidential candidate, 67-year-old retired Gen. William Henry Harrison, as dashing “Tippicanoe,” hero of a military skirmish 29 years earlier, the “log cabin and hard cider” candidate. They held parades, songfests, picnics and bonfires while burying Democrat Martin Van Buren at the polls.
Starting in the mid-1800s, parties began staging national conventions that often blossomed into passionate brawls mesmerizing the public for days. In 1880, for instance, Republicans fought 36 ballots between two factions — “Stalwarts” and “Half-Breeds” — before stampeding to dark horse James Garfield, a noncandidate career Congressman from Ohio. The sheer drama fueled Garfield’s winning campaign, backed by brazen use of celebrities — in his case Gen. Ulysses Grant of Civil War fame. That year, 80 percent of eligible voters cast ballots, almost twice the level of presidential contests today.
Theodore Roosevelt, waging an insurgency in 1912 against incumbent President William Howard Taft, went further. Snubbed by Republican insiders, he appealed directly to the people using a new innovation, the primary. Rabble-rousing voters shocked party bosses by handing Roosevelt nine victories out of 10, including in Taft’s home state of Ohio. Roosevelt lost the nomination — insiders still controlled state conventions that chose most of the delegates — but he’d kick-started the modern presidential nominating system.
In the 1960s, it was a cause — opposition to the Vietnam War — that forced new openings in the political process. Anti-war campaigns by Sens. Eugene McCarthy (D-Minn.) in 1968 and George McGovern (D-S.D.) in 1972 exposed a generation of young volunteers to public life and forced party reforms making delegate choices more transparent and diverse. In 1978 another cause, opposition to high property taxes, prompted California’s last major dramatic innovation in democracy — Proposition 13.
Ironically, California’s latest experiment may produce a thoroughly old-fashioned result: a mature decision by well-informed voters. Californians considering the issues, keeping open minds, delving beyond first impressions, and hemming and hawing. Even the media have shown healthy skepticism — for instance, in pressing movie-star Schwarzenegger to show actual knowledge of complex policy issues.
If California’s recall fails because it descends into confusion, becomes obscenely expensive, or produces a new governor with no mandate or no substance beyond a pretty face, the fault will lie not with the voters or the political culture. They have given this process its best shot. And in a country where democracy is our life’s blood, we should enjoy the carnival to the hilt.
Kenneth D. Ackerman, counsel to the law firm Olsson, Frank and Weeda in D.C., has authored two books: “The Gold Ring: Jim Fisk, Jay Gould, and Black Friday 1869” and the recent “Dark Horse: The Surprise Election and Political Murder of James A. Garfield.”