Power of the people increased with recall

by Steven Snyder

The whirlwind California recall has come and gone, and now the national political community tries to pick up the pieces. We have time to move beyond the day-to-day debates concerning ex-Gov. Gray Davis, Gov.-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger and the assortment of other recall candidates, and instead turn our focus to measuring this recall’s place in the greater realm of history.

I think this recall was a tremendous day for American democracy. Yes, recalls have occurred before, but never to this degree. California is the country’s most important political state in terms of new social programs, its substantial economy and its electoral value. To change horses in midstream, as some would say, is a big step, but that is exactly what the politically-motivated citizens of California demanded.

Some have decried the recall, saying it erases the “legitimate” election of 2002. Others opposed it because it brought out Schwarzenegger, actor Gary Coleman, a stripper and the three-ring media circus.

But now, after the buzz has died down, we can take a moment to see this recall election for the extraordinary event it was.

Most importantly, citizens who never before felt they mattered to the political machine realized their voices carry weight. Voting turnout continues to be deplorable in this country, and the general consensus among younger generations is that one vote does not really affect anything. But in California on Tuesday, turnout was higher than for the 2000 presidential election. Two days ago, citizens felt as if every vote counted.

Maybe this involvement goes hand in hand with the nature of a recall. Unlike regular elections, which sometimes occur without people noticing, recalling someone first requires outrage and then the collection of signatures. Unlike the 2000 presidential race, which some cynically labeled as a choice between two evils, the California recall reflected citizens actively promoting a stance as to what they will and will not tolerate from their politicians.

It also disrupted, albeit slightly, the standard two-party system of this country. Every two or four years the same game is played: The political races begin, Republicans and Democrats choose a candidate, the slanderous television commercials are unveiled, and the public goes to the voting booths, looking for an “R” or “D” next to a candidate’s name. How delightful that in California, even though a Republican won and the race narrowed to two primary candidates near the end, people were open to other options and possibilities.

Even those who disagree with most of my arguments must agree with this: The California recall put the priorities of politicians back with the people. This statement might seem obvious, but allow me to explain.

When people run for governor, they begin with good intentions. They want to serve the people and desire to be in charge of the state. But then, once they get elected, the priorities become serving the interests of those who put them there and getting re-elected. Soon the media spin machine begins and, more often than not, very little of a candidate’s vision gets enacted because of compromises and deals.

In California, this sort of “career politician” mentality ultimately elicited disgust from citizens. They didn’t think Davis was doing a good job, didn’t like the influence special interests had in his policy and took to the streets and removed him.

As a result, this recall will make those in public service become better attuned to what their constituents expect and demand. It has been proven, in California no less, that the public will rise up when necessary to show those in power who really runs this country. No doubt governors around the country are already paying more attention to their phone calls.

And how can this shift away from politics-as-usual possibly be bad?

If anything, this country needs more recalls. They hold politicians accountable for their actions not just once every four years, but every single day. They give every citizen a meaningful voice in the political process. They open the election process to more than just two candidates. They give citizens a means to enact change and overcome the apathy that has overrun this nation’s electorate.

I never thought I’d say it, but an election involving Coleman and the kindergarten cop has made this country a better place.

Steve Snyder’s column appears alternate Thursdays. He welcomes comments at [email protected]