Twenty years ago, the Los Angeles Times sent me to Sacramento to interview an anti-tax activist named Ted Costa, who had filed a petition that would lead to the recall of California’s governor
“The recall is about freedom,” said Costa, who described himself gleefully as “president of the Banana Republic of California.”
“Here, the people are showing the world that they can kick the rulers out anytime they like.”
I thought of the recall while watching Gov. Gavin Newsom give his inaugural speech this month. Newsom and Costa occupy opposite ends of the political spectrum. But Newsom, like recall supporters once did, couldn’t stop talking about California as an alternative American republic demonstrating what real freedom might look like.
“More than any people, in any place, California has bridged the historic expanse between freedom for some, and freedom for all,” Newsom said, adding: “California will continue to lead out loud, by advancing a far-reaching freedom agenda.”
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Outside the Golden State, such messianic thinking is mocked. Inside California, political cognoscenti dismiss Newsom’s rhetoric as advancing national political ambitions. And they recall 2003 as a bizarre sideshow.
These cynics are wrong. Yes, this state has been hyping itself since the Gold Rush. But our pretensions have been repeated so long that they have acquired real weight.
In retrospect, the 2003 recall looks less like a strange one-off and more like the beginning of an era. The recall was an international event that elected a world-famous movie star, Arnold Schwarzenegger, as governor. Since then, state leaders have acted as global agenda-setters, as if they were United Nations diplomats or cardinals in the Vatican.
While Schwarzenegger, Jerry Brown and Newsom are different characters, they increased the power of an office that functions as a second American presidency. And they have talked in world-historical terms of California as a place apart, a model for America and other countries.
Schwarzenegger pursued internationally minded policies, especially on climate change and political reform, at odds with those of the U.S. “We are the modern equivalent of the ancient city-states of Athens and Sparta,” Schwarzenegger said in his fourth State of the State address. “Not only can we lead California into the future … we can show the nation and the world how to get there.”
Brown was less messianic but still ambitious. He approved protections for immigrants — in the face of an anti-immigrant wave in Washington — that constituted a new, California form of American citizenship. And he traveled the world like a president to build a “network of the willing” of governments eager to prevent climate apocalypse and nuclear holocaust.
Newsom portrays California as a free nation, providing protection against an America descending into fascism, hatred, violence, book-banning and restrictions on the rights of immigrants, women and LGTBQ people. His second inaugural connected his family history to the idea of California as a global bastion of freedom that is both “giving shape to the future” and “molding the character of the nation.”
“Whether your family came here for work or for safety, California offered freedom to access it, not contingent on you looking a certain way, talking a certain way, thinking a certain way,” he said.
“California lights the territory for the rest,” he concluded.
There is an enormous problem with this sort of rhetoric, one that Newsom openly confronted. The state itself has enormous problems, and the lives of its people are defined by local struggles — especially the struggle to be housed — not by global ambitions.
The question for California now is whether the state can do more than enact progressive policies and ambitious goals. It must make major improvements in the lives of its people.
With recession looming and the state budget suffering, the limitations of California’s outdated governing system — designed in the 19th century — are evident. Newsom and other leaders know the system has to change to make it possible for action to match ambitions.
I’ve long been a dark-hearted cynic about the state’s willingness to change. But there are some green shoots. Civic groups have been quietly talking about making revisions to, or even rewriting, the state Constitution, which dates to 1879.
And last week, a new organization, the ProRep Coalition, announced an effort to remake California’s election system. Its proposal, endorsed by smaller political parties on the right and left, is for a multiparty system of proportional representation — allocating power and representation by the percentage of the vote to allow more diversity and more expertise in government, as most advanced democracies do.
Such efforts seek to transform the rhetoric of the past 20 years into reality. If they succeed, it would spark a new era for California, where we become not just a state but the next American republic.
Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.
Joe Mathews is Connecting California columnist and California editor at Zócalo Public Square, an Ideas Exchange that is a project of New America and Arizona State University.