Facing a recall election sparked partly by his heavy-handed pandemic restrictions on what Californians can do in their beloved outdoors, Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom in March chose a symbolically appropriate if politically tone-deaf venue for his annual State of the State address: an empty Dodger Stadium.
Like the beaches Newsom ordered closed the previous Fourth of July—months after researchers had become confident that outdoor settings were contributing little to the spread of COVID-19—the place Angelenos call Chavez Ravine looked unnatural without the hum of humanity. The plasticine preening from an ostensibly humbled governor didn't help either.
"Instead of fans in stands, we see nurses in [personal protective equipment], saving lives one injection at a time," Newsom said, bragging about the "most robust vaccination program in America," which nonetheless ranked in the bottom 10 based on per-capita doses administered at the time. "And look, we've made mistakes," he added. "I've made mistakes. But we own them, learn from them, and never stop trying."
One of Newsom's most damaging edicts was padlocking playgrounds—not just in the pandemic's scary early weeks, when scientists didn't understand much about how the virus was spread, but for six excruciating months. Kids in sunny California were prohibited by law from attending school or playing organized sports, long after the world's leading epidemiologists and pediatricians began preaching the benefits of outdoor play and the comparative safety of schools and day care centers.
Even after reopening the playgrounds, Newsom mandated masking there for 2-year-olds, 6 feet of separation between families, a 30-minute time limit, and no eating or drinking. Then, when COVID-19 cases started surging in December, the governor shuttered the sandboxes again, only to reverse himself after an outcry from exhausted parents.
With a brazenness only a politician or actor could summon, Newsom is defending his anti-scientific record on scientific grounds. "From the earliest days of the pandemic," he said in his Dodger Stadium speech, eyes shining with pride, "California trusted in science and data."
Sacramento placed so little trust in neutral analysis that the governor refused to share his formula for determining when counties could emerge from lockdown orders after cases spiked last Thanksgiving. (It had something to do with the state's guesstimate of future intensive care unit capacity.) "These fluid, on-the-ground conditions cannot be boiled down to a single data point," California Health and Human Services Agency spokeswoman Kate Folmar told the Associated Press in January, "and to do so would mislead and create greater uncertainty for Californians."
The Golden State has been home to some of the pandemic's most jarring visuals: the Malibu surfer pulled out of the water by cops, the Venice Beach skatepark buried in preventive sand, the furious restaurateur's video tour of a bustling film-production dining tent next door to her forcibly shuttered business. And of course there was Newsom's indoor meal at the schmancy restaurant The French Laundry, where he violated his own masking and social distancing rules. It's no wonder that Californians, who suffered an employment decline of 8.3 percent from February 2020 through the end of the year, are hopping mad.
Did all those restrictions work? Newsom sure seems to think so. "People are alive today because of the public health decisions we made," he said in his State of the State. But that is an article of faith, not science.
California as of mid-March had a cumulative COVID death rate of 144 per 100,000 residents, which is in the middle of the pack for the United States—substantially better than neighboring Nevada (167) and Arizona (228) but considerably worse than Oregon (56). The state's best comparison in terms of mild year-round climate is its polar opposite in terms of policy: Florida. The Sunshine State has a similar death rate (153 per 100,000) despite adopting a far more permissive pandemic strategy—and despite having an older and therefore more vulnerable population. As an Associated Press headline put it in March, "Despite California and Florida governors' drastically different approaches, the states saw almost identical outcomes in COVID-19 case rates."
So the wonder is not that Gavin Newsom faces a recall election. It's that New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo does not.
Cuomo, a Democrat who in a neck-snappingly short period went from the national media's "Love Gov" to its latest #MeToo whipping boy, had as of press time been urged to resign by basically every Democrat not named Joe Biden or Nancy Pelosi. Unfortunately, the primary motivation for these appeals was not Cuomo's disastrous handling of nursing homes during the first few months of the pandemic, nor his subsequent cover-up of the resulting death count, but rather his allegedly gross, sexualized interactions with multiple women, including some of his employees.
Cuomo, who at press time was still insisting he would not step down, can be removed from office only via impeachment, which would require elected officials to be brave, take on responsibility, and conduct a thorough and convincing investigation of all the relevant claims. As we saw from the two convictionless impeachments of Donald Trump, modern legislatures generally are not skilled at such tasks.
Which is why the recall is such an appropriate instrument for our times. New York is one of 31 states that do not allow voters to fire statewide officials at the ballot box. That is a shame. As the country accelerates its ideological sorting by geography, more and more people live in essentially one-party states, which is a recipe for political corruption, self-dealing, and incompetence.
As former CIA analyst Martin Gurri persuasively argues in The Revolt of the Public (Stripe Press), we are in the middle of an era in which citizens around the globe are taking a sledgehammer to elite institutions without much of an idea about what to build atop the rubble. The resulting populism is often no friend to liberal values. But the recall mechanism, which traces its roots to the Progressive Era, is a rare example of populism done right, without many of the messy side effects.
As citizens, we should be able to extraordinarily punish elected officials who have done an extraordinarily bad job, rather than counting on elected legislators to do the heavy lifting. "The nature of these things, the up-or-down question, the zero-sum nature of the question, is challenging, and it's vexing," Newsom said in mid-March on The View. Quite.
As a Californian transplanted to New York, I look on the Newsom recall campaign with envy. There is no vote I cherish more than the one I cast in 2003 to remove the odious Democratic Gov. Gray Davis, and I only wish I could do the same with Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, for starters.
In 30 of the 50 states, the same party that received the 2020 presidential vote also currently controls the governorship, the legislature, and the U.S. Senate delegation. Without effective political competition to keep the mono-party honest, both governance and its defenses will be increasingly hackish.
Newsom's political action committee characterized the 2 million Californians who signed his recall petition as "a partisan, Republican coalition of national Republicans, anti-vaxxers, Q-Anon conspiracy theorists, and anti-immigrant Trump supporters." To which we can hope to add the phrase who fired you.