California’s Recall Is a Blow to Democratic Change

The challenge to Governor Gavin Newsom strains election norms and institutions that are already dangerously frayed.

By Nathan HellerAugust 29, 2021

Since 1911, when a recall amendment was voted into the California Constitution, there have been a hundred and seventy-nine attempted recalls of elected politicians, with eleven earning the signatures required to make it to the ballot. Of those eleven, six have successfully removed officials from office, and of the six just one removed a governor. That was in 2003, when Gray Davis was bounced from his seat in favor of Arnold Schwarzenegger—the first but not the last orange-colored strongman to rise on fulminant political winds, and a guy whose candidacy seemed a buff embodiment of the question Well, why not? In his acceptance speech, the Governator-elect was reverent. “Thank you very much to all the people of California for giving me their great trust,” he said. “It’s very important that we need to bring back trust in the government itself.”

Larry Elder tries to grab the California flag from the hands of Gavin Newsom
Illustration by João Fazenda

It was a nice thought while it lasted. September 14th brings the spectre of California’s second gubernatorial recall election, and the man in the barrel this time is Gavin Newsom, elected three short years (O.K., long years) ago, and now applying for the job he holds, with the reward of being able to apply again in 2022, when he’s up for reëlection. Being a governor hasn’t looked like much fun lately, and the stakes out West run high. Not only is California the most populous state in the Union, it has the fifth-largest economy in the world, ahead of the United Kingdom’s, and in recent years it has become the epicenter of what could be called the country’s intellectual mood, being home to such enduring points of interest as Facebook, epidemiology, Netflix, and the Kardashians. “As goes California, so goes the nation” runs the adage (invoked, it’s bittersweet to note, by Newsom, in 2008, when cheering on same-sex marriage as the mayor of San Francisco). The risk now is of that being true. The recall puts alarming strain on democratic norms that already, nationwide, are dangerously frayed.Published in the print edition of the September 6, 2021, issue, with the headline “Recall Fever.”

Nathan Heller began contributing to The New Yorker in 2011 and joined the magazine as a staff writer in 2013.More:GovernorsRecallsElectionsCalifornia

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