OCTOBER 9, 2003

By Christopher Kenton

A Modest Proposal for California

Why bother with traditional means of reviving the state's economy when we can just have an election every few months? Democracy, it's our only growth industry

In case you might have missed it, we had an election here in California this week, a special election -- and I can't think of a better word for it. It was very special. It was so special that many pundits are saying it marks a dramatic change in the history of American democracy, because it's only the second time a governor has been recalled. If a large asteroid hit the Yucatan tomorrow it would also be historic, because it's only the second time that has happened. But I think the pundits are missing something.

An asteroid might as well have hit California because the climate has just changed so cataclysmically that the dinosaurs of traditional politics and their advocates are facing immediate extinction. Now, in place of slow-moving, cold-blooded relics, we have an entirely new species moving in to a brand-new ecosystem. If we're lucky, this new climate will not only save California from financial ruin, it might forge the best features of the American way of life into a previously unimagined alloy of economics, politics, and entertainment. Well, to be fair, it may have been previously imagined by the producers of TV's "mockumentary" series K Street, but everyone else has missed it so far.

THREE NEW RULES. In the last 9 weeks, we compressed the standard 11 months of gubernatorial campaigning into a frenzy better than anything yet seen on reality TV: sex and betrayal, plot twists, back-stabbing -- and best of all, money. Lots of money. California is reported to have spent $66 million dollars to organize the recall election, while the candidates are said to have come up with more than $75 million. Not a bad haul for nine weeks -- and those sums don't include the millions of dollars spent by special interests. But it gets better.

Somewhere in the vicinity of 10 million Californians voted. The numbers aren't all in yet, but analysts are saying turnout could reach 70% -- this in a state where most statewide elections only draw in the 40% range. Huge numbers of new voters registered, and 2 million absentee ballots were cast. Why? Because politics finally became entertaining, and everyone wanted to play.

The formula for this wild success in attracting voters was simple: (1) Compress the endless campaign season into the length of a good TV talent contest. (2) Get rid of the party primaries with their focus on grinding policy debates -- they only succeed in weeding out the colorful candidates. (3) Recruit celebrities with deep pockets and lots of skeletons in their walk-in closets. If you combine all those elements with a do-or-die run for the highest office in the state, the feathers are guaranteed to fly, and everyone will want a front-row seat.

But wait a minute, you say. Won't we get an unqualified candidate leading the state? That's the best part. It's doesn't matter, because we're a democracy! The people choose, and if an unqualified candidate is what they want, how can they be wrong? Besides -- if they don't like it, they can just launch another recall. Which is, as you'll see in a moment, exactly what we want. This is where we get to the money line.

VOTE OFTEN. Now that we've discovered that a recall effort can be kicked off with nothing more than a little seed capital and a good theme, we have the makings of a sustainable industry. In a properly polarized state, it shouldn't take much to launch an endless spin cycle, with one recall following another. Think of it as a perpetual-motion machine lubricated with campaign cash. Now, anyone can start a recall for any reason at all. Maybe we can launch a venture coalition of political consulting firms, ad agencies, and market-research outfits to front the cash needed to collect signatures and get the ball rolling. They know how to spin just the right message for the electorate to buy in, and the media is sure to follow. Once it's underway, it's a guaranteed job-generator.

Over the past 9 weeks, I've come in contact with dozens of campaign workers from all walks of life. I've met unemployed workers making a decent wage collecting petition signatures. I've met countless pollsters and researchers genuinely interested in my personal opinion. On Election Day, I saw people at my polling station happy to be working the precincts in what's usually the political off season. Then there are the legions working behind the scenes to create and deliver those stacks of glossy position brochures that kept arriving in my mailbox every day, or the telemarketers who called at least three times a day on both my home phone and business line. Even Al Gore and Bill Clinton clocked some temp hours on the phone. Their recorded voices called me, as did those of Sybil Shepherd and Barbra Striesand, to try and sway my vote.

Didn't Congress just pass a bill that upheld the do-not-call registry? The politicians carved themselves a loophole, though. The law doesn't apply to political campaigns -- which means their operatives can continue to call me six times a day for the three weeks leading up to the vote, just like they did for this recall. I guess they did foresee the revolution coming after all. Judging from the efforts of Senator Orin Hatch (R.-Utah) to change the Constitution so that foreign-born citizens can run for President, the political classes must be planning to take it national pretty soon. See, the building blocks of a new industry are all falling into place.

BUY THAT FRANCHISE. Well, it only makes sense. Who needs a service economy when you can have a campaign economy? Let those manufacturing jobs go overseas, and white-collar jobs depart with them. Who needs them! We can create an economy powered by entertainment and political polarization -- an economy to attract consumers of all political stripes. For liberals, we have a rapid redistribution of wealth, as rich candidates fork over millions of dollars from their own bank accounts to fund everything from television ads to hourly workers collecting signatures. For conservatives, we have the potential for a supply-side bonanza, as special-interest groups front their own hand-picked candidates. It's a grand unifying theory for the capitalist democracy. Everybody wins.

What's the worst that can happen? Any governor can be recalled within months of being elected -- and while their leashes are being yanked, we get a whole new business cycle going. Now, if we can only change the Constitution to collect a voting fee....