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Total Recall

Total Recall

California’s September election offers a path forward from identity politics

As the mainstream press fawned over a group of superspreader Texas Democrat legislators who fled the state to stand up against a racist election integrity bill, California Governor Gavin Newsom’s administration almost succeeded in keeping an African-American off the ballot. Shortly after conservative radio host Larry Elder announced his candidacy for September’s gubernatorial recall, California’s Secretary of State blocked his entry into the race. Elder had somehow both under and over redacted his tax forms, a curious allegation since his campaign submitted multiple copies to ensure full compliance. A judge swiftly overturned the decision, but the incident largely escaped the attention of major news outlets who remained focused on the New Jim Crow threatening democracy in Texas and Georgia. While the embattled Newsom had no clear hand in the suppression, Elder’s ascension to top-tier candidate as he leapfrogged over fellow Republican Caitlyn Jenner may in part explain the state bureaucracy’s half-baked attempt at containment. In most contexts, a gubernatorial race that pits both an African-American insurgent and a transgender celebrity against a Condé-Nast cover-ready white man would lead to obsessive coverage. Yet, when said contest shows the fissures in Democratic policy and undermines myopic constructions of diversity, its lack of coverage may indicate the breaking point in our current woke moment.

A year ago, Newsom’s overthrow by a ragtag coalition of MAGA groups had the same likelihood as far-fetched conspiracy theories about Wuhan labs. However, in the past month, the Left’s pandemic-hero coalition has disintegrated. Among Andrew Cuomo’s resignation over sexual misconduct to evade inquiry into his role in eldercide, Gretchen Whitmer’s stripped emergency powers at the hands of Michigan’s state legislature, and Dr. Anthony Fauci’s funding of gain-of-function experiments, Newsom’s fall seems the most fueled by hubris. While resistance mounted against California’s perpetual lockdown measures, a photo of the maskless governor attending a birthday party at chef Thomas Keller’s renowned The French Laundry in November leaked a month after his office decreed that diners put their masks back on between bites. Though smaller scandals such as the $5 million Newsom’s hospitality company PlumpJack took in federal coronavirus relief garnered pushback, his party attendance became the symbol of his disconnect from the realities of the pandemic he exploited for months to bolster his national reputation.

Until early this summer, Democrats believed the governor’s swanky indiscretion had done all the damage it could. But as the recall petition was certified and California’s proposed June 15 lockdown ending fizzled, the state’s dominant political party began to panic. In only the second election of its kind in California’s history, voters who support the recall also select the sitting governor’s replacement from the 46 candidates on the ballot. If a majority of voters opt to recall the governor, the candidate with the most votes immediately fills the seat, a structure that favors popular longshots like Elder who would otherwise not receive majority support. As Newsom’s numbers further hemorrhaged, his colleagues undertook a series of last-ditch efforts from curtailing Elder’s candidacy to moving up the recall election’s date to September 14–giving his opponents a month less for messaging.

While the mantra of “rules for thee, but not for me” has extended well beyond Nancy Pelosi’s maskless salon appointment and Barack Obama’s birthday jamboree to the point of cliché, no other politico has endured the same level of fallout from his hypocrisy as Newsom. Given the soul-sapping nature of most COVID restrictions, politicians violating their own rules for the simple pleasures of a haircut or birthday party (John Legend’s appearance notwithstanding) boils down to human error. In contrast, Newsom sitting pretty at The French Laundry with its $350 per person minimum serves as a stark reminder for conservatives and liberals alike that an elite of Newsom’s caliber is not like us and, thus, likely has no comprehension of his policies’ repercussions. Moreover, his PR disaster implies that for all its rhetoric on diversity and the working class, the Democratic party increasingly consists of the American oligarchy and those who aspire to it. Fifty years ago, the Watts riots shaped a Democratic politics that would culminate with the Obama coalition. Now, as senior-citizen Obama dances into the Martha’s Vineyard night, the community organization The Women of Watts stoked the “recall Newsom” fires with its admonitions against the governor’s indifference to in-person learning and violence in black neighborhoods—two of Elder’s pet issues.

For much of the last decade, stories and memes about Republican whiteness and maleness became a staple of Facebook feeds. But after Donald Trump fended off the allure of electing the first woman president in what CNN’s Van Jones erroneously referred to as whitelash, the party organically transformed amid the alleged racism and misogyny. As Candace Owens perfected her Oprah-meets-Ann-Coulter approach to become a conservative media superstar, congressional candidates like Kimberly Klacik, Carlos Gimenez, Young Kim, Marjorie Taylor Greene, Elvia Salizar, John James, Joe Collins, Nicole Malliotakis, and Elise Stefanik challenged perceptions—engaging identity politics only to dismantle it. By 2020, Trump made impressive gains with Hispanic and African-American voters with only Atlanta, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Milwaukee, and Detroit curiously serving as outliers—leaving shocked outlets like Vox to do some retconning. By contrast, the Democratic party and the left, in general, have gotten whiter and richer since the last election cycle. Even as identity politics consumed the nation after George Floyd’s death, the vast majority of “peaceful protestors” were young, college-educated, whites at the top of the middle class and, in some cases, far beyond it.

What results from these contradictions is a politics of minority representation formed from positions of elite white privilege (and woke-industry entrepreneurs with professorships at elite colleges) alienated from the lives for which it claims to speak. The early days of Newsom’s campaign blamed the recall on the callous racism of the MAGA movement, a tactic it quickly abandoned upon Elder’s announcement. In the pathos-ridden world of firsts-based politics where coverage of the first gay “nominated” Cabinet member hides its asterisk to take away another Trump milestone, Elder and Jenner speaking their truths threatens to neutralize the left’s most deployed weapon. Though both currently trail YouTube personality Kevin Paffrath, the sole Democrat running against Newsom, their combined percentage makes for an impressive Republican showing in the conservative’s heart of darkness and a fervent rebuke to the detached minority advocacy Newsom exudes on his way to live the good life with Thomas Keller only available to his aspirational base on the shelves of their local Williams Sonoma.