The California Recall: The Politics of Scale Inversion

by Bill Lasarow

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Digital collage with Artemesia Gentileschi, “Judith Slaying Holofernes,” 1614-1620. Uffizi Gallery, Florence.

In a perverse but very impactful way the principle of scale inversion applies to one side of our present day politics: it’s about winning elections with voter minorities. Look through a telescope the wrong way, but declare the image to be magnified. In art scale inversion has been used for centuries for varied purposes: to drive visual rhetoric, to cloak worldly power in spiritual modesty, simply to entertain and titillate the eye. Our politics, at least in America, has grown susceptible to it because we regarded ourselves as immune from it. Wrong.

 

California’s recent recall election served as a kind of poster child for this tactic. The recent “survival” of Gavin Newsom surprised a lot of people not because it failed, but because the margin was even larger than his landslide election in 2018 (about 64% voted “No,” which in this case meant, well, “Yes” we want to keep him as Governor). The meaning of this recall election has been utterly misread by some otherwise smart East Coast columnists, to be a point of concern for Democrats nationally. The fact of the recall is not a cause for Democrats to be concerned that the same might happen in other states. But they are correct in the another sense. This is part of a tune-up for the next two (or more) election cycles, just not California’s. That was obvious when the recall petitions were still being circulated, as events in Texas, Florida, Georgia, Arizona, etc. bear out. In California the real concern is that Newsom could have out performed his closest competitor by a 2 to 1 margin. And lost. 

 

Chew on that for more than 280 characters.

I do not care what your party loyalty is, or your political ideology. In what democracy do you get to become Governor (or President; or dog catcher) by attracting half as many votes as your opponent?

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MC Escher, “Ascending and

Descending,” 1960, lithograph

There are real and valid reasons why the California recall rules are what they currently are. As Machiavellian as Mitch McConnell, California Republicans were sly to attempt to take full advantage of them. That they lost badly was not what they were aiming for, and they will now surely have that tool confiscated. They were not aiming for 58% voter turnout. Back in the day it would have run 15 to 20%, and it’s no secret that the GOP plan nationally is to lower, not increase turnout. But California provided them with a key test on that very road: Routinely win elections because voter turnout percentages go down, the more and faster the better. But let’s take a deeper dive into the raw numbers to see if this is confirmed, and if there are greater insights.

 

As reported by the California Secretary of State, Newsom has received over 6.7 million votes. Coming in second was Larry Elder, a right wing talk show host, with just over 2.8 million votes. That’s not even close to a 2 to 1 margin (there remain over 2 million votes to be counted, so there could be a slight change in the final margin). To lose his seat Newsom would have needed to receive no more than 5.3 million votes out of the slightly more than 10.6 million votes thus far tabulated. OK, not quite double Mr. Elder’s 2.8 million. Being a self-declared American patriot, perhaps Mr. Elder would have hesitated to accept such a pyrrhic victory. At least, after pre-announcing the election to have been rigged the day prior to September 14th, he graciously conceded the following evening. Expect candidates around the country to also echo the former President’s claim of election fraud — in advance.

Breaking down the scale of the margin further, let’s start with the 10.6 million votes that have been counted as a “No” or a “Yes.” A whole lot of the “No” voters, about 40% passed on the second question, with its 46 choices, not because of the bewildering number but because the Governor made it clear that if you voted to retain him you need not bother with part two. This enormous field is an organic feature of the contemporary recall, framed as it is by a 1911 statute that made a lot more sense 110 years ago. The obvious and simple reform is that for a Gubernatorial recall, the Lt. Governor assumes the office if the Governor is removed (there are other reasonable and effective proposed reforms being considered, but for heaven sake, legislature, at least enact that one). 

It is fair to wonder, what if instead of 46 self-declared candidates vying to replace Mr. Newsom it was just Mr. Elder (or perhaps Mayor Falconer)? Adding up the totals for all 24 Republicans came to just over 4 million votes, still well short of Governor Newsom’s 6.7 million. While major Democratic Party leaders demurred, there were still nine Democrats and two Green Party candidates who drew about 1.7 million votes; add that to Newsom’s 6.7 million (though most of those votes likely chose “No” on question one); still more than double the collective Republican 4 million. About 164,000 votes went to non-affiliated candidates, just to round out the complete picture.

 

The use of the recall has, at least for now, been at the initiative of Republicans. Its use has grown in popularity down the political food chain to suburban County Supervisors such as Linda Parks in Ventura County (the recall effort in that case failed to gather enough signatures). There are several reasons that it has failed, most directly Democratic voter turnout. Those voters do understand the urgency of the threat goes beyond normal politics. And California does not just allow mail-in voting, the state government encourages it. The countervailing appetite for the recall is also the product of multiple factors, not least of which is, at the urging of the former President and complicit Republican leaders, the Big Lie that Democrats/Liberals routinely steal elections through voter fraud.

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A “Straw Man” cartoon by W.A. Rogers, “SMASHED!”,

Harper’s Weekly, September 22, 1900

Chillingly, this is now accepted as a given by a significant core of Republican activists and voters. This in spite of there being no evidence whatever (even the bogus Arizona “audit” reported no fraud, but a slight uptick in President Biden’s margin of victory). Mr. Trump is, as always, obsessed with his personal wants and needs, and has additionally found that a good deal of money flows in his direction by perpetuating this singular lie. 

 

The wider stream of Republican thinking accepts that there are no legitimately elected Democrats at all — how could there be? This illusion has now been cultivated for decades; but not like this. Beyond the lie itself, the tactic displays no willingness to understand the liberal ethos these folks regularly vilify with the help of an army of straw men. Mischaracterization is used by the overtly partisan right wing media to portray opponents as guilty of the very transgressions that they themselves engage in. This produces the pool of motivated volunteers who are only too happy to solicit signatures in grocery store parking lots to recall Democrats starting the day after they have been elected. It is also from this pool that the text and email threats flow and from which is drawn the red-faced citizens who attend local school board meetings to condemn classroom mask mandates as tyranny. They amplify their presence to suggest large numbers as well as to intimidate elected and appointed officials. Reasoned discussion and persuasion has not disappeared, but tends to be drowned out.

The reason for such authentic emotion originates from a narrow range of fixed policy disagreements that resonate culturally and morally: abortion, immigration, guns, and the exacerbating matter of Covid related mandates regarded not as necessary to protect public health, but as a means of social control. It is a familiar litany, and there is a reason. Liberals are not viewed as the loyal opposition, but as having already seized control of all levels and agencies of government. This control has been seized for the central purpose of exerting social control over, well, YOU, via the naked power of the state. “We the people” has been shriveled, shrunken into near extinction by the takers who have seized control. It may already be too late to take back that control, and therefore you must be … strong.

 

Despite the recall’s resounding margin of defeat, the tactic of a special election made perfect sense as offering a shred of hope that power might be unexpectedly taken based on one variable, voter turnout. A recall election is inherently designed to reduce voter turnout: it occurs at an odd time, and there are just the two questions on the ballot. And, as I wrote at the top of this column, Republican Elder could have been elected Governor of California with less than half the number of votes as the sitting Governor.

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Hugo van der Goes, “Portinari Altarpiece” (open), from Sant’Egidio, Florence, Italy, ca. 1476, tempera and oil on wood. Courtesy of the Uffizi Gallery, Florence. The patrons are depicted miniaturized, kneeling in the foreground on either side panel.

So our electoral system, even beyond just the California recall, flawed and rickety as it is at this time, offers opportunities to win power without necessarily enjoying the support of anywhere near a majority of voters. It’s like the trick perspective room at the Discovery Center, where what appears closer is actually further away. The broad strokes of gerrymandering, restrictive voter registration, harassment by partisan so-called poll watchers, removal of ballot drop boxes, denial of bottles of drinking water, etc. go to the voting rights issues focused on in our August first edition (and which are very much live issues before Congress as we enter the Fall). Overall, Republicans are currently able to win Congressional majorities with about 47-48% support; Democrats with about 52-53%. New state laws, to whatever degree they withstand court challenges, may widen this minority rule level another 2-3 percent. Republicans do NOT wish to invoke any law pertaining to certification, but are passing them with good reason. They want to win close elections in which turnout is not sufficiently repressed. Secure majorities that they already enjoy in strategically potent states that are gradually trending against them, such as Texas and Florda, is equally important. The matter of certification amounts to an “emergency break glass” escape valve, an option not to be used unless really needed. Oh yes, and as a sop that displays fealty.

 

The California recall is now a small thing in a total national picture in which most Americans (especially his political allies seduced by the temptation of unilateral power) continue to underestimate the lengths that Mr. Trump is willing to go to regain and retain power. Violence has thus far arrived in halting rivulets, but it is now abundantly clear that a far larger wave is being prepared. California’s importance to accomplishing this has been reduced by the recall’s blunt margin, which puts the state out of play for awhile. That means something; perhaps it will mean a lot. 

 

With the preparations being made now in a number of other states for 2024, California does loom large in terms of how the national strategic picture is being composed by Democrats. It would be incorrect and unwise to paint liberal leaders such as Newsom as detached from the politics, or somehow as being helpless to prevent the obvious from happening. The recall election proves otherwise. And it has also proven that good governance performed by leaders who take their job seriously will be a major element of that electoral strategy.

 

What is truly consequential will be the lessons other Democrats take back home from California for the 2022 midterms as well as 2024. That is a subject that deserves and will receive separate treatment, and is already the topic of a number of recent columns around the country. It all starts with their ability to turn the telescope back around, to use the politics of the inversion of scale against the proponents who would use its sharp end to be driven through the heart of the constitutional republic.

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