You couldn’t walk 10 yards in any direction during last month’s Democratic State Convention in Sacramento without crashing into another clump of young volunteer groupies in campaign T-shirts chanting their lungs out. “Phil! Phil! Phil!” shouted the team in the blue-and-gold “Angelides for Governor” shirts, frenetically waving posters. “Steve! Steve! Steve!” went the refrain from the pro-Westly band, decked out in their carrot-orange colors, who were also, yes, frenetically waving their own posters. These chanters were everywhere in and around the convention center: the hallways, the exhibit areas, the ballrooms.
After a half-dozen encounters with these cheerleaders, you longed to walk out to the corner of 12th and J streets, to the propaganda table staffed by the LaRouchies, so you could elevate the discourse, maybe by having a civil colloquy about how the Queen of England is really a crack dealer.
You have to wonder what motivates any of these folks to put on one shirt or another and actually work up a case of sore feet and hoarse throat after days of chanting. I understand voting for either Phil Angelides or Steve Westly in next week’s Democratic gubernatorial primary, maybe even liking one or the other — but what does it mean to actually believe in one of them enough to stand around and chant their names for two days straight?
Far be it from me to explain these mysteries of life. Suffice it to say that the few dozen members of these color-coded pep squads look like they’re just about the only Californians who are paying any attention to this election; so perhaps we should thank them for performing such sacrificial civic duty by standing in for the rest of us.
Hollow, unenthusiastic campaigns, along with a listless and apathetic electorate, are hardly news in American politics. But there’s something about this primary that gives new dimensions of meaning to the words entropy and ennui. You’d think that at a time when the Republican president of the United States is tanking with 29 percent approval ratings, and after three years of a polarizing and in many ways failed Schwarzenegger governorship, and on the eve of what could be a decisive national midterm election, that the biggest state Democratic Party in the country would be out in front of some operatic, rousing populist revival, whipping up its frustrated and even enraged constituents into a whirlwind of political engagement. You’d think Democrats might actually care who they’re going to send out against Arnold in November. You’d be wrong, of course.
Politics is not a zero-sum affair. The ongoing collapse of the national party in power, or the governor in the Statehouse for that matter, does not necessarily rebound in favor of the opposition. Some deluded pundits have gone so far as to describe the Angelides-Westly match as some sort of struggle for the soul of the Democratic Party, the usual liberal-vs.-moderate scenario. That, in turn, assumes the party has a soul. Or even a body.
But what the Angelides-Westly race mostly tells us is that the Democratic Party, at least as a party, would be better described as a brittle, even ossified, shell. Even in true-blue California, the party is a sclerotic, dysfunctional affair, ever more remote from the everyday lives of the people it purports to represent. Some small cadres of activists, organizers, hacks and apparatchiks battle each other for control of its levers, but other than these interested parties — or, better said, special interests — no one gives much of a damn. The Democratic campaign to govern the most populous state in the Union, the sixth biggest economy in the world, plays out almost invisibly in a narrowly squeezed parallel universe accessible only to a few thousand operatives, consultants, phone bankers and reporters.
Consider the candidates’ third and final debate, two weeks ago in San Francisco. As Westly and Angelides faced each other for an hour, the event was carried live on CBS network affiliate Channel 5, in prime time, in the virtual world capital of anti-Schwarzenegger resistance, the most Democratic of all American cities, and one that is situated in the northern half of the state, where both candidates’ name recognition is highest. And what was the rating? Nielsen tells us that a grand total of 1.8 percent of the Bay Area viewing audience tuned in. Which means 98 percent of San Francisco viewers chose Access Hollywood, Wheel of Fortune, Entertainment Tonight or reruns of Friends and Seinfeld over the season finale of the Phil and Steve Show. Viewers in Southern California had no access to any broadcast of the final debate.
Which is probably good news — at least for Democrats. For the full, torturous 60 minutes, Angelides and Westly stood there and — purses a-swingin’ — verbally and mercilessly beat the snot out of each other. Angelides, a wealthy developer, the current second-term Democratic state treasurer and a notorious bare-knuckle campaigner, slammed Westly, our current Democratic state controller and a megawealthy former eBay exec, as a flunky and handmaiden for Governor Arnold who shills for Exxon-Mobil in his spare time. Westly dished it right back, suggesting that his fellow Democrat Angelides was in reality one of those tax-and-spend Democrats determined to bust out middle-class families and then bulldoze their homes for some pet development project. Fortunately, we didn’t quite get to the comparison-to-Hitler level, though, during one campaign stop after the debate, Angelides did obliquely compare Westly to dear, departed Tricky Dick: “Just like Nixon had a secret plan to end the war, Steve Westly has some sort of secret plan to fund education,” Angelides said with his unfortunately frequent smirk.