How could Hollywood muscle-man Arnold Schwarzenegger win the California Governor recall election?

In the final weeks of the election, Schwarzenegger was forced to publicly “apologize” to over a dozen women for his past sexual harassment, and he still won. Does this Republican’s election indicate that voters in California and the U.S. in general are moving to the right?

Rather than a shift to the right, the election reflected voters’ anger toward Democratic Governor Gray Davis, specifically his balancing of the budget on the backs of working-class people and his failure to address California’s loss of decent-paying jobs. Exit polls, for example, found that voters made their decisions primarily on how they viewed Davis and his record, not Schwarzenegger’s.

Remember the blackouts in California in 2001? Rather than making the energy corporations like Enron financially responsible for the power shortages that they artificially created, Davis used $1 billion of public funds to bail out the private companies. He also signed long-term contracts with them worth $43 billion, to purchase power at rates they artificially inflated (San Diego Union-Tribune, 9/2/03). People saw this for the corruption that it was, as Davis had received $700,000 in political contributions from these same companies.

Davis’ support was also severely undermined by the sharp economic downturn, when the Internet technology companies collapsed and approximately 250,000 manufacturing jobs were eliminated, angering millions of workers. This economic recession, plus Davis’ caving in to the power companies, resulted in a massive $38 billion budget deficit.

In attempting to solve this severe budget crisis, Davis refused to reverse the 1990s tax breaks for corporations and the rich, or to cut back the expanding prison system, where a generation of young Black men are locked away. Instead, he raised taxes that disproportionately burden workers, such as tripling the vehicle tax – a frustrating issue brought up by almost everyone interviewed as they exited the polls.

Davis and the Democrat-controlled state legislature also slashed popular social services - for example, cutting the community colleges’ budget by $259 million. Other cuts forced the University of California system to raise tuition by at least 25% (Legislative Analyst’s Office).

Unsurprisingly, lower-income voters tended to support the recall. With the recall looming, Davis tried to portray himself as a progressive in a desperate attempt to win back the strong block of left-leaning workers and people of color. He also signed a bill to allow undocumented workers to obtain drivers’ licenses in a last ditch effort to attract Latino voters, but it was too little, too late. Approximately 45% of Latinos voted for the recall.

Davis couldn’t even count on union members, who were crucial for his victories in the last two elections. Despite the tremendous effort by union leaders to get out the vote for Davis – including donating more than $10 million to Davis and the Democrats - 50% of union households ignored labor’s call to vote for Davis.

Schwarzenegger won 48% of the vote, and Lieutenant-Governor Cruz Bustamante, the Democrats’ post-recall candidate, received 32% of the vote - not because voters were enthusiastic about Schwarzenegger, but because they wanted to register their opposition to Bustamente who had been second-in-command to Davis for five years. Bustamante didn’t help himself by tying his fate to the hated Davis by campaigning against Davis’s recall.

The fact that voter turnout was 20.2% higher than the regular election a year ago shows that voters saw a rare opportunity to make an actual impact on politics and send a message to the arrogant, out-of-touch corporate political establishment.

Two days before the election, Steve Bustin, a Novato, California resident, explained: “My guess is most people who will vote for the recall are not 100% in favor of the recall. However, they see no other alternative. This is the only way to get the attention of politicians – essentially, to fire them. The fact that Schwarzenegger may still lead in the polls is not a function of people’s admiration for Schwarzenegger. It’s a function of the depth of disgust people have for the political system" (San Francisco Chronicle, 5/10/03).

It was Davis’s (and Bustamente’s) attacks on working class people, especially with no credible working class alternative, that allowed the action movie star to step in from outside the hated political establishment - with his name recognition and media attention - and win.

The overwhelming vote (64%) against the racist Proposition 54 also disproves the idea that voters embraced the conservative agenda. Even Republican strategists acknowledged that voters would never elect a right-wing Republican - more evidence that voters do not support right-wing ideas. That’s why the Republican Party backed the moderate Schwarzenegger instead of the more extreme conservative Republican Tom McClintock.

Green Party candidate Peter Camejo came in fourth place with 225,000 votes (3%), despite the serious weaknesses in his program, showing that there are voters who were prepared to register a progressive protest vote against both corporate parties.

Above all, the recall shows how counter-productive it is to continuously support “the lesser of two evils.” Democratic politicians make promises to working people and the oppressed, but once elected, they are unwilling to stand up to big business and the market system. This forces them to break most of their promises and carry out unpopular policies like balancing budgets on the backs of the working class.

Supporting a “less evil” Democrat just results in voters getting angry at the Democrats’ attacks on workers’ living standards and electing a Republican. Then voters get angry with the Republican, and another Gray Davis is elected, and the cycle starts all over again.

The recall election shows how rapidly political events can unfold, particularly in these volatile times when the capitalist economy is stagnating, which can cause sudden huge budget deficits, layoffs, cuts in social services, and tax hikes for workers. Davis was first elected in 1998 with 58% of the vote. His support began to decline, and he was barely re-elected with 47% in 2002. Just three months later, his public support fell quite rapidly, and 55% of Californians voted to recall him.

If the California AFL-CIO labor federation and organizations representing women, civil rights, and the environment had not succumbed to the pressure to back Davis in November 2002, and instead used their powerful resources to build an independent workers’ party or run an independent workers’ candidate for Governor, they would have been poised to take advantage of the revulsion that developed towards Davis only one year later.

The rotten two-party system will experience more shocks like this election and the election of the wrestler and independent Jesse Ventura as Governor of Minnesota in 1998. Now is the time to harness the growing working class discontent to break out of the endless cycle of lesser-evilism and build a mass workers’ party.

From Justice, paper of Socialist Alternative, cwi in the US

Committee for a workers' International publications


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