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Amid multiple crises, recall election tests California dream


California has always been on a fast track to the future. As other western states slowly come to fruition, the 31st arrived fully trained on the merits of gold and the thousands of immigrants who pursued it.

Their dream was simple, difficult and commonly shared. They wanted to discover the happiness that comes with economic security. Some have succeeded; many others did not. But the lessons of this commitment have endured.

When 1.6 million voters signed a petition to dismiss Gov. Gavin Newsom, they signaled their debt not only to century-old political reforms, but also to a restless spirit of reinvention that took root 170 years ago.

“Californians,” said historian HW Brands of the University of Texas at Austin, “have learned to be impatient with patience. The idea of ​​sticking to an unsatisfactory status quo does not hold water.

Taking risks was the quickest path to success, and proof of failure was a reason to go ahead and try again, an impulse that cut a deep channel in the California psyche. Evidence can be found in today’s recall election, said Brands, author of a Gold Rush story.

“If you don’t like this governor,” he said, “don’t wait until his term is over. Throw it out.

As voters vote, some may feel the reason for the recall effort has less to do with the governor’s performance than broader dissatisfaction with 10 years of Jerry Brown and Newsom administration.

With Democratic qualified majorities in Sacramento and a Democratic governor, these voters may have felt slightly removed from the partisan rancor dividing other states, but the past five months – with an expected spend of $ 276 million and 46 candidates arguing their cause – spoiled this illusion.

Filter the statics and a bipartisan picture emerges of an electorate struggling to solve the most difficult problems California has faced. Climate change and catastrophic forest fires, a housing crisis and homelessness crisis, income and racial inequalities have reached a point where any proposal that does not lead to a solution is a reason to mobilize .

“Much of everyday life seems in danger,” said cultural historian DJ Waldie, “and Californians are not used to being afraid of the future.”

It doesn’t matter how long the chances of a recall are – only one of the past attempts has been successful – or that problems that have been festering for decades often take longer to resolve. Desperation and resignation challenge the notion of Californian exceptionalism and another aged trope.

“Few states have the word ‘dream’ associated with them,” said Mark Baldassare, president and CEO of the Public Policy Institute of California. “We have the American dream, but there is something special about the California dream. We are better, we can do better and we are not. It is quite disappointing.

Never mind that the dream seldom corresponds to reality.

Once seen as a state of hardy and courageous individualists, California was built on federal grants that developed its water resources, power grid, and agri-food empires, and during its highest golden age, the boom years from the 1950s to the 1960s, economic and educational opportunities were limited by race and ethnicity.

Yet the dream endures. Like miners standing at a mill race, Californians are looking for quick fixes, so the idea that change takes time is “lost in translation,” Baldassare said. “We are less sensitive to markers of progress that we demand a conclusion.”

By overturning what Newsom has done – “to implement laws that are detrimental to the citizens of this state and our way of life,” according to the petition to be recalled – advocates believe his impeachment will solve the problems the state is facing. confronted. Their rallying cry is familiar; it sits at the intersection of race, political expediency and economics.

Firefighters wait for Republican gubernatorial candidate Larry Elder to speak at a press conference in Glendale.

(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

The petition specifically accuses the governor of having approved laws that “favor foreign nationals, in our country illegally, over those of our own citizens”; impose a “sanctuary state status” on California; and not enforce immigration laws.

Jessica Kim, a history professor at Cal State Northridge, recognizes the subtext. “There is a common tendency in California politics to think of limited resources, especially in terms of what those perceived as outsiders take from us,” she said.

In the 1870s, when an economic depression hit California, workers in San Francisco led by an Irish demagogue attacked Chinese and Asian immigrants living in the city.

In the 1930s, when drought and dust storms forced thousands of people to migrate to California in search of work, Los Angeles Police Chief James Davis cordoned off the border and in Sacramento, a bill has been introduced banning the “indigent”.

In 1994, facing a lingering recession and re-election, Governor Pete Wilson ran announcements of people crossing the San Ysidro border crossing with a voiceover: “They keep coming. “

Today, the COVID-19 pandemic with lockdowns and mandates for businesses and schools has become the face of the recall effort.

But, Kim said, it also became an “opening to express long-standing political frustration, economic resentment, feelings of loss on the part of conservative whites who have seen the state in their lifetimes shift further. towards the left”.

She cites demographic changes in the state over the past 30 years that have brought more Latino officials to power and led to a challenge of federal immigration agencies and an extension of benefits to immigrants to the country without permission, including in-state tuition fees for those attending Cal State universities.

Despite these rebuttals of old policies and political agendas, California’s emerging strength – its growing diversity – has become its greatest challenge.

“When you have a place that has become as ethically, racially, linguistically, and culturally diverse as California,” Waldie said, “you will find people who view all of this as a risk to their expectations of who they can become. or a risk to what their children may become.

The rapid change has left the electorate less politically divided – the state is still solidly blue – as it clashes over what it means to be blue.

Pete Peterson, dean of Pepperdine University School of Public Policy, sees the recall campaign not as “the last breath of a Trumpist GOP” but “our first glimpse of a political realignment that has developed in recent years. years “.

By favoring “wine and cheese” voters at the expense of its “beer and pretzel” voters, Peterson argues, Democrats have provided an opportunity for the Republican Party if it can “establish itself as the landing place for these disgruntled Democrats. and newly right. voters inclined and without party preference.

“I am not sure that will happen,” he added.

Former Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez sees a struggle unfolding in the consciousness of Democrats and Californians trying to figure out what it means to be “the most multiracial, diverse, and outspoken state.” to the future “.

“We welcome diversity, but we strive to make it real and equal,” he said, citing high death rates from COVID-19 in communities of color as “an example of how we always fight the tension around who we say we are and how we represent them.

Amid multiple crises, recall election tests California dream

LA city councilor Kevin de León urges Latinos at a rally to vote no on the recall.

(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Pérez believes the answers will require a different perspective: “The challenges of the political discourse to come will not align with the political discourses that have been expressed in the past. “

If so, then come Wednesday morning, Californians will find that the recall election brings little resolution, and maybe it will be good.

This year, researchers at UC San Diego published the results of a survey of 3,063 Californians, including 295 who responded in Spanish, intended to answer the question: tarnished?

At the time, the census reported a decline in the state’s population; a seat in Congress had been lost, and businesses and residents moved elsewhere.

The figures confirmed that while people in middle-income groups were the least optimistic, said Thad Kousser, a professor of political science at the university and co-author of the study, only 23% of those polled said they were considering seriously to leave the state.

Perhaps the loudest voices in the room are not in the majority. Perhaps a new Californian identity is also being forged.

“Maybe some people in 2021, maybe those who are unable to reason about the risks and crises that we are going through, are not cut out to be Californians,” Waldie said.

To be a resident of the state is to adapt and realize that California is not the land of the popular. “California is a tough place to live,” he said. “We have to transform, and people don’t transform easily.”

Looking back on the experiences of gold miners, historian Brands noted that their agitation was rooted in the belief “that things can get better.”

Such optimism, he said, does not belong only “to those who have gone to western California, but to every immigrant who has gone from one place to another.”

Fatalism, he added, concerns “those who tend to stay at home.”