IF THEY WILL NOT JUMP, CAN THEY BE PUSHED?
O.T. FORD, 2003 OCTOBER 8
California is the most important province in the world, so far ahead of whatever could be next that it is almost ridiculous to make the comparison. In fact, the appropriate comparison, on economic and cultural matters, is with sovereign states, and this comparison is often made, noting that California’s economy is the world’s fifth largest. Culturally California is probably more important than any sovereign state other than the United States itself ― and what, culturally, is the United States without California? I have no scruples about taking the occasional cheap shot, and certainly none about the casual misuse of clinical psychiatric terminology; but the truth is that I like California, and I do not think that Californians are, to use the technical term, loony.
Even the clinically sane, however, can occasionally do things which do not stand the strict test of reason. And any mass of individuals above the carrying capacity of an elevator is sure to be less sensible than its average member. So Californians do not have to be stupid or silly or surf-addled to have done something foolish, like electing B-caliber actor Arnold Schwarzenegger as their governor, which is what they have just done.
The California recall procedure is in one key sense undemocratic. In theory, the plurality mandate for the winner in a successful recall effort can be much smaller than the original mandate for the recalled governor, or than the vote against the recall. That was my expectation entering this election ― in fact, I expected both to be true. On both counts, I was wrong. And therefore my general pre-election prediction, that the vote would be undemocratic, was also wrong. In the last election, Gray Davis won 3,469,025 votes, 47.4% of the total. Gray Davis and Peter Camejo (the Green candidate) together won 3,850,725, 52.7% of the total. In this election, 4,976,193 voters, 55.4% of the total, voted to recall Gray Davis, with 4,007,753, 44.6%, opposed. Arnold Schwarzenegger by himself received 4,206,217 votes, 48.6% of the total. Schwarzenegger and Tom McClintock (another Republican) together received 5,367,481 votes, 62.1% of the total.*
So the unfortunate facts are these: A majority of the voters yesterday wanted Davis to be recalled; more voters supported Davis’s recall than elected him in the first place a year ago, or even than chose him and his more-progressive rival. Arnold Schwarzenegger received more votes on the second question than Davis received on the first question, or than Davis received last year. And Schwarzenegger and his more-conservative rival together received a strong majority of the votes on the second question.
We should also admit that what is happening with redistricting in Texas is not undemocratic. The party in power makes all of the discretionary decisions. In parliamentary systems, the government sets an election date to maximize its chances of reelection. In our system, the governing party draws the district lines to maximize its chances of reelection. Texas is a conservative Republican state; this is not a secret. It is to be expected that the Congressional districts would be gerrymandered by the Republicans to their advantage. The only novelty is that they have now decided to do it between elections, rather than once a decade following the federal census.
The presidential election of 2000 was not democratic, because the electoral college is inherently undemocratic and it has the ability to override the democratic results of the popular vote, which is what happened. But the impeachment of Bill Clinton was democratic. He was himself a plurality president. The charge against him, perjury, was indeed at least a high misdemeanor in the state’s highest law-enforcement officer, and while it was the result of dredging, it is hard to defend Clinton with the argument that he was such a consistent liar that we were bound to catch him eventually. His conviction, according to the constitution, would have required two thirds of the duly-elected Senate, and he would have been replaced with someone who was also elected by the public at large. And, most importantly, it did not happen. The trial was an expensive show, but given the possibility of serious malfeasance (think Nixon) in office, the power of impeachment and removal by Congress is an important one, and in this case, Congress chose not to remove. Clinton remains popular and influential today, and if his reputation has been damaged, it is not because the House impeached him, but because he showed himself to be a liar.
Those who are attempting to establish a pattern in Republican action with these four cases are getting it wrong. Three of these cases do not show the Republicans thwarting democracy. They only show the Republicans attempting to interject democracy more often than has been done in the past. There is no longer a term of office, or a stable set of constituencies. The length of service and the division of the country into constituencies will be determined frequently by the voters or their chosen representatives, whenever it should please them. If the pattern is followed (I do not expect this, but my predictive powers are exposed as weak), each state will be redistricted every time the balance of power shifts in a state legislature, each governor will be recalled or each president impeached as soon as this person’s poll numbers drop far enough, provided in the latter case that the opposing party controls Congress. This will give power to elected politicians, but it will give even more power to the electorate, a more-clearly-defined power to those who choose to vote. Only if you are prepared to join me in faulting the electorate can this be called a bad thing; but it is not undemocratic in any sense of the word.
As for Schwarzenegger, he has no experience. He has no qualifications, unless we concede that ‘leadership’ is a genuine qualification and Schwarzenegger has it; personally, I never had the slightest idea what he was talking about. He does not even share Hitler’s ‘leadership’ abilities, the ones that by the most generous interpretation (and probably the correct one) he was inclined to disinterestedly admire ― public-speaking ability, for example. As for the other ‘leadership’ qualities that I assume are usually intended by the term, he lacks those conspicuously. He is behind the public of California, not ahead of it, let alone boldly ahead of it. His tax position is carefully crafted to pander to California’s self-imposed idiocy on taxes. His social position is carefully crafted to appeal to the milder side of California’s progressive culture. These may be genuine as well; he is, after all, a rich libertine, and it follows that he would be an anti-tax social-libertarian.
The recent accusations about groping, all of which he cagily denies, serve mostly to remind us of earlier stories which he could not deny, as his admissions were recorded on film. More disturbing at the time than his history of orgies (if they were voluntary, and it is difficult right now to know how far Arnold’s wild side will take him before he gets the hint) and drug use (in California, this is more to be expected) was his excuse for them: that he had not known then that he would be running for governor now. This does not suggest that he believes them to be wrong, supposing that we do; it suggests that he believes them to be potentially embarrassing, which is the most he could have believed at the time, and at the time he was beyond embarrassment. Now that he is more interested in impressing ordinary voters than the fan base for the bodybuilding circuit, he has modified his behavior. As if to say: “I only became a politician three weeks ago; nothing before then counts, because movie stars have a different set of rules.”
This is, in any case, fairly hard to credit, since if there is one trait that Schwarzenegger seems to have without question, it is ambition. Given his apparent lifelong ambition to rule a significant part of the world, how did he expect to come to power, if behaving himself, as a politician, was not necessary? What was Plan A?
I have recently been fortunate to make a friendship with a civil-society professional from Venezuela, which began with our mutual loathing for president Hugo Chávez. Chávez, a soldier, once attempted to take power in Venezuela through a coup. In my mind, and my friend’s, that disqualified him permanently. But he managed to emerge a genuine populist hero, first winning election, then passing an autocratic constitution by referendum, and then winning reelection, all by large democratic margins. To no surprise, his behavior in office has been autocratic. He has flaunted his mandate to oppress the opposition, and to concentrate power in his own hands. All of this he originally did with strong majority support.
And so, to continue the theme of the last few months, democracy is the solution that contains its own problems, and the existence of those problems does not prove its absence. The recall of Gray Davis, the installation of Arnold Schwarzenegger, and the various other setbacks suffered by the pathetic, unreliable defenders of tepid stewardship (I mean the Democrats, of course), do not result from a subversion of democracy. If we say so, we are demagoguing the issue just as our opponents. The Republicans are certainly not above cheating. But the correct analysis of the results is not that they are cheating; it is that they are winning. We are not going to change that through self-pity, and delusional self-pity even less.
* Originally published with provisional numbers. The final numbers shown here were certified by the California secretary of state on 2003 November 14.