Well, I guess, to be completely accurate, the California recall election is rough, raucous and regrettable. An affront to accepted political science standards, by gosh.
And isn’t it, somehow — I don’t know — uplifting?
Whatever judicious reproaches the political scientists may level at this exercise in voter sovereignty, nothing in John Locke, Montesquieu or the New York Times op-ed page cancels out the reality that when the political class gets out of hand, a ruler must sometimes be taken to its posterior. The California recall, featuring the Terminator, Gray Davis, Arianna Huffington and a cast of, literally, hundreds, is that ruler.
Nowadays, the political class is out of hand just about all the time, making trouble for the infinitely larger non-political class. Outbursts such as the California recall are hard to calibrate or control. The healthiest thing to do about them, perhaps, is to let them run their course — while observing their causes and provenance.
Organized bursts of frustration with politicians are often called elections. They are held every two years, for the convenience of those — a steadily diminishing number — who bother to participate. Up to a point, the exercise works. Except when it fails to work. These latter occasions grow more numerous, for the following reasons:
1. Gerrymandering. Nowadays, given the vast, computer-aided skill with which congressional districts are drawn, very, very, very few districts are competitive.
2. The melancholy, long, withdrawing roar of the term-limits tide, which for a time in the early ’90s seemed to promise more rapid turnover in the officeholder fraternity. Officeholders were going to have to leave office after x-number of years. They hated the idea — which proved how good an idea it was. Terms limits got widely enacted; as soon as they decently could, politicians began backing away — including some who had pledged to step down after x-number of terms but, on reaching that point, discovered, goodness gracious, how much work there still was to be done, thus honor compelled them to run again, blah, blah.
3. The U.S. Supreme Court — consisting of unelected politicians — is subject to theoretical checks, such as impeachment, abridgement of appellate jurisdiction, and diminution of pay. Not one of these checks has ever worked, including impeachment, which hasn’t been attempted in 200 years. Yet the high court regularly, with hubris aforethought, expands federal rights so as to void the contrasting preferences of voters. Roe vs. Wade, which constitutionalized the right to abortion, is the most flagrant instance (not to say the deadliest). The most recent was Lawrence vs. Texas, which overturned Texas’ sodomy law.
4. The problems with big money are overrated as a cause of disaffection from politics. But, undoubtedly, big money elevates the stakes, what with varied big givers — business, labor and about 33 trillion interest groups — all but forcing Congress to assume and exercise more power over people’s lives and property.
None of the foregoing is strictly apposite to California, whose problems with a bumbling, deceptive governor are of another order. It is possible all the same to see uninhibited California as a volcano, like others, trembling ominously over the political fraternity’s bad deeds. It is probable that the Terminator’s very lack of political exposure boosts his prospects. A new CNN/USA poll has 52 percent saying he would do a better job than any career politician would.
You can’t tell. Maybe he would. Gray Davis is a career politician. The budgetary hole he dug the state into is a mere $38 billion deep. Could the Terminator do worse?
Alternatively, as Minnesota voters showed when they picked a professional wrestler for governor, there is psychic satisfaction in images: a guy in trunks mussing up the malefactors as impolitely as possible.
Cleaning up the town used to require — in image terms — a visit from the Lone Ranger. We’re moving to specialists in smash-’em-up-and-rub-their-faces-in-it. Call it progress or not, it shows where things could be going.