Dead Republicans and living Democrats: Why California may be so hard to govern

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The recall was first advanced by the Republican governor Hiram Johnson in 1911, and it’s been used aggressively ever since by the GOP. Photo by Shutterstock.

Governor Gavin Newsom and his challengers in California’s recall election are pulling out all the stops to win voters. Newsom and his supporters say Republicans, who are in the political minority, are using the recall to try to seize control of California, so they can reverse Democratic policies. Newsom’s critics insist the governor and his party have ruined the state.  

Zocalo Public Square’s commentator Joe Mathews says both sides have it wrong. 

Op-ed column by Joe Mathews:

The big narratives around the recall campaign are wrong because the things we think we know about California governance are wrong.

The Republicans seeking to remove Gavin Newsom from office say the Democrats have ruined California. Democrats, under the slogan #KeepCaliforniaBlue, reply that Republicans are determined to steal control of California and turn it Trumpian.

But these pro and anti-recall messages ignore our peculiar reality: California governance is a thoroughly bipartisan affair with one caveat. Our state today is governed both by living Democrats and dead Republicans.

Those living Democrats occupy top state offices, elected and appointed. But they labor under a complicated and dysfunctional governing system constructed over a century of Republican rule. Significant features of the state government — from regulatory agencies to our budget and tax formulas — were created by Republican officials and voters who have shuffled off this mortal coil. 

From nearly the beginning, this state has been a Republican project. John C. Fremont was a key figure in the launch of both California and the GOP. The Republican Leland Stanford linked California to the country by railroad and established a private university that educates an outsized portion of our elites. Our complicated system of independent commissions was produced by progressive Republicans in the early 20th century as Governor Ronald Reagan, with a boost from President Richard Nixon, established our regime of environmental regulation. Those are just the things that dead Republicans might brag about, if they were around to brag.  

But there’s bad stuff, too. The housing policies that drive homelessness, the systems that can’t pay unemployment, our faltering and incendiary electricity system, and the Prop 13 tax system that distorts democracy and public investment in today’s California are all poorly constructed Republican inventions. They’re also currently being badly managed by Democrats. But, to be fair to the living, it’s not easy to run a system when you need to hold a séance to communicate with its creators.

The recall itself is a product of this bipartisan collaboration across the River Styx. It’s a tool of our system of direct democracy, which was first advanced by the Republican governor Hiram Johnson in 1911, and used aggressively ever since by the GOP. And Newsom’s use of California’s nearly dictatorial gubernatorial authority in emergencies, which has fueled the recall backlash, is the result of efforts by generations of Republican governors, most recently Pete Wilson and Arnold Schwarzenegger, to enhance the power of the office.

The resulting ironies run deep, all the way to the molten core of the recall. The Republican candidates are calling California a failure, even though the state is mostly of their own making. And Democrats are defending a California governing system as their progressive model even if it isn’t theirs or particularly progressive.  

If you internalize these ironies, you’ll understand that it may not matter much whether the recall succeeds or not. And that’s not just because any Republican who takes the governor’s office this fall is all but certain to be replaced by a Democrat in the fall 2022 elections. 

(The recall’s one great potential impact would come in Washington, D.C. If 88-year-old U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, whose outdated political positions often seem to occupy the netherworld between living and dead, should die during a short Republican governorship, her replacement would flip the 50-50 U.S. Senate to the GOP.)

The recall is a paradox: a contest to rule a state that no one person or party can rule. 

Whatever the result, living Democrats will still dominate public office in California. They hold three-quarters supermajorities in both houses of the legislature as well as every other significant arm of state power. And the dysfunctional governing system, willed to us by dead Republicans, will remain firmly in place.

What really needs to be recalled is not one politician, but that system. Perhaps this recall will finally inspire Democrats to stop accepting governance by ghosts and join with independents and some Republicans in creating what California desperately needs: a new, modern state constitution that gives democratic power to us, the living.

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.




Chery Glaser


Darrell Satzman