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The California Recall Election Could Wreck the Country

Gavin Newsom’s wayward political career is not the biggest thing at stake.

A close-up of Gavin Newsom standing in shadows as he speaks at a press conference.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Early voting is already underway in the recall election of California Governor Gavin Newsom. If you haven’t seen a lot of media coverage of the embattled Democrat’s recent struggles, that’s not your fault. As TNR’s Matt Ford wrote last week, public ignorance about Newsom’s travails is the natural result of the mainstream press’s East Coast media bias—which also plays a big role in why the Golden State’s perennial wildfires, and by extension, the climate crisis at their root, aren’t covered nearly as well as they should be.

What happens in California often has a tidal effect on the rest of the nation. Its gross state product tops out around $3.2 trillion, making it the world’s fifth-largest economy; its peers among sovereign nations would be Germany and India. And with 40 million people to govern, the policies that get enacted by California lawmakers often influence the national policy debate. California is, in many ways, a laboratory of democracy. But the recall election—a product of the state’s less well-considered experiments in direct democracy—threatens to leak something very destructive from that lab.

Newsom’s mess is largely of his own making. As James Pogue wrote for TNR back in February, the Covid pandemic, and Newsom’s questionable actions during the crisis, tipped the scales against him. As governor, he presided over some chaotic off-again, on-again restrictions that shuttered businesses and enjoined people to quarantine at home. He then failed the simple test of leading by example: In November, Newsom was spotted dining out maskless at French Laundry, the Bay Area’s most hoity-toity eatery, with the CEO of the California Medical Association, at a time when most Californians were forgoing such pleasures in the name of public health. His poll numbers promptly tanked.

In normal circumstances, Newsom might simply be facing a tough reelection fight or a rigorous primary. But California allows for the recall of the governor, and Republicans have decided to attempt an end run around a normal election cycle—which they’d likely lose—and instead exploit a set of favorable rules that, like the entrance to Brigadoon, only occasionally open up.

According to the terms of the recall, California voters will make two choices at the polls. The first is a straight up-or-down vote on the recall itself, in which a simple majority carries the day. Should the recall get triggered, the second choice voters will make is to pick Newsom’s replacement from a list of contenders who, to put it charitably, aren’t in sync with the state’s dominant Democratic leanings. (Larry Elder, thought to be the leading contender, is a Trump-aligned Covid crackpot.)

Newsom’s name is not permitted to appear on the ballots. Moreover, voters won’t get to pick from among the state’s credible Democratic alternatives because none had the incentive to run: Anyone who might be a like-minded replacement for Newsom opposes the recall in the first place. All of this creates a situation in which a small number of Californians could throw over an elected governor in favor of a replacement who could never command the support of a majority of California voters in a normal election.

How did the state come to have this wild scheme? As Los Angeles Times columnist Michael Hiltzik explained, California’s experiment in direct democracy began over a century ago, at a time when railroad robber barons had effectively bought off both parties. Placing the tiller of democracy directly in the hands of voters seemed, at the time, to be a good idea—even a necessary one—and so reformers gave voters the power to recall their governor and to enact laws via ballot initiative. There were many who resisted these ideas, but supporters believed the reforms would inspire people to get better informed about politics. What they failed to anticipate was that voters’ main source of information might be well-funded political grifters.

If the polls are any guide, the recall election is too close for comfort. And if you think the election’s impact on your life will be remote, consider this: Should California Senator Dianne Feinstein, 88 years old and in declining health, take leave of her post for any reason, the recall’s victor may get to appoint her replacement and end the Democrats’ narrow Senate majority. What catches fire in California may soon burn everyone.

This article first appeared in Power Mad, a weekly TNR newsletter authored by deputy editor Jason Linkins. Sign up here.