by Steven Rosenfeld
October 9, 2003
How could Californians be smart enough to defeat a deceptive 'Racial Privacy Initiative,' which would abolish the state's tools to enforce civil rights laws, yet in the very same election be dumb enough to elect an action-figure movie star as their new governor who has no plan other than to cut, cut, cut already cut-to-the-bone state agencies?
Actually, voter intelligence had little do with the outcome of the Oct. 7 recall election. Fear, frustration and yes, anger—ugly and easy anger—is what ties the two seemingly disparate votes together. It's not a pretty picture and it doesn't bode well for the state, its governance, and Californian and national politics.
While there will be much parsing of the election results and their wider impact, the vote wasn't a right-wing victory sweep. Understanding how Proposition 54, a conservative anti-civil rights proposal, could be rejected by an even bigger margin (64 to 36 percent) than the margin that recalled the governor (55 to 45 percent) is important.
The Racial Privacy Initiative was the latest effort by the controversial Ward Connerly to achieve a 'color-blind' society. When announced three years ago at a Federalist Society meeting, the state's civil rights community began an unprecedented effort to track and defeat it. Early polls identified its impact on personal health care as the wedge issue—because different races have different health and disease patterns. If it passed, the state could no longer assist in identifying those trends.
Fast-forward to the recall election. The initiative was placed on the Oct. 7 ballot. Fund-raising was helped by a lieutenant governor who channeled massive campaign contributions into a 'No on 54' committee, where he could star in its TV ads. The campaign to save the job of Gov. Gray Davis discovered the 'No on 54' campaign—which was better organized than Davis'—and reached out, thus raising its profile. There was a unified message, no infighting and the main message wasn't about race: it was about health care—the prospect of not being able to get quality care if race-based data could not be collected and studied.
"It was about health care. It was not about race," said a No-on-54 steering committee member who asked not to be named. "People heard that getting the 'black and while' out of politics was going to hurt them."
So, was it a great liberal victory over conservatives? Perhaps, but it was also a victory for politics of personal fears. And that's just what the Prop. 54 message had in common with the recall and the election of actor Arnold Schwarzenegger as governor.
California has rarely seen a candidate with as little political substance and as much public charisma as Schwarzenegger. To be sure, the short campaign season helped him. He refused to debate. The state press didn't hold the Hollywood celebrity to the same standards they hold traditional candidates. And so, his speeches and campaign Web site lightly touched on the hot-button issues that polls found people were angry about.
Meanwhile, there was real fear and frustration in the electorate. The state's economy is terrible. The governor and legislature didn't solve the energy crisis before the public lost billions. The federal government didn't help with a $38 billion state deficit. Taxes are too high. To top it off, the governor was an aloof technocrat who put his finger in the political winds before ever taking a stand.
In contrast, here was an action-figure movie star who sounded like a Democrat early on—pro-choice, pro-gay. He promised to kick ass, intimidate lobbyists, shake-up the system—all while saving the state. Empty as these poses may seem to people who care about the content of politics, it's undeniable there is real frustration, if not anger, in the California electorate and it was easily tapped.
It's facile for skeptics and cynics to snidely observe that when you live in an entertainment state, you're more drawn to 'political leaders' who look heroic and can act the part. But underneath the recall's success, Schwarzenegger's appeal—and the rejection of Prop. 54—is an electorate acting out of visceral, personal fear.
Already, pundits are predicting Schwarzenegger will have a terrible time governing. It's true he will soon confront the reality that you can't be the 'People's governor' and cut the jobs of teachers, policemen, firemen and many programs that keep people going, like the state's version of Medicare.
The Oct. 7 election shows just how vulnerable and volatile the times have become. Soon Californians will see there are no easy answers—on racial privacy or governing the state.
Steven Rosenfeld is a commentary editor and audio producer for TomPaine.com, where this article first appeared (www.tompaine.com)