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Days of the Locust

Illustration by Juan Alvarado

Like the earth beneath it, social and political California erupts in all manner of ways. There are inner-city riots; Los Angeles was the only American city in the second half of the 20th century that was home to two of them. For the past decade, there have been the far more orderly strikes and demonstrations of the largely Latino immigrant working class, a latter-day version of the immigrant protests that shaped New York’s Lower East Side a century ago.

California’s most distinctive social upheavals, however, are neither those of the working class nor those of the lumpens, but those that the broader, unanchored white middle class supports on Election Day. They’ve included tax revolts, like Howard Jarvis’ Proposition 13, and somewhat veiled moves for racial separation, like last year’s failed campaign for San Fernando Valley secession from Los Angeles. There have also been the Perotoid revolts against the state’s political class, which have led to term limits so severe that most state Assembly members are still learning how a bill becomes a law as they’re being shown the door.

The recall circus into which the state has now plunged is the reductio ad absurdum of these middle-class eruptions. Though it began more simply, as Darrell Issa’s new-age coup d’état, it quickly took on all the symptoms of a classic California convulsion, in which the state’s problem (supposedly, Gray Davis) and its solution (supposedly, Arnold Schwarzenegger) are characteristically misidentified. But in a state where television news coverage of politics and government is nonexistent and where the entertainment industry is covered (actually, hyped) constantly, the emergence of Arnold as the political savior of the month should come as no surprise.

The sheer abundance of fruitcake and exhibitionist candidates, the treatment of politics as tabloid entertainment, the touting of Schwarzenegger’s “leadership” capacities (as evidenced by what? Conan’s rescue of the princess?) and his quick embrace (according to the polls) by a quarter of the California electorate — all these seem to come straight out of Nathanael West’s 1939 comic-grotesque novel of L.A.’s embittered and sensation-seeking lower-middle class, The Day of the Locust. “Their boredom becomes more and more terrible,” West wrote of his anomic Angelenos. “They realize they’ve been tricked and burn with resentment. Every day of their lives they read the newspapers and watched the movies. Both fed them on lynchings, murder, sex crimes, explosions, wrecks, love nests, fires, miracles, revolutions, wars. This daily diet made sophisticates of them.” How West was able to anticipate a typical Channel 7 newscast is anyone’s guess.

West’s novel ends with a deadly riot at a Hollywood premiere. A bit hyperbolic, that; when the Golden State’s white middle class riots, it normally happens at the ballot box. And so we get the California that votes against desegregated housing and for sending immigrants back to Mexico.

Which brings us up to October 7, Election Day, which may turn out to be one more Day of the Locust after all, with Gray Davis devoured by an angry mob. If so, the next governor of California will likely be either Schwarzenegger or the least charismatic and able of the state’s Democratic leaders, Lieutenant Governor Cruz Bustamante. The Democrats have some absolutely sterling statewide officials who’d been planning to run for governor in 2006, most notably state Treasurer Phil Angelides and Attorney General Bill Lockyer. But the A-team is on the bench this time around, sensing, perhaps, that this is an election in which every candidate would emerge from the process the size of Gary Coleman.

But one Democrat needed to be on the second half of the ballot, and if Dianne Feinstein wasn’t available, the state’s Democratic congressional delegation thought Bustamante had the best title. The lite-gov is one of the dimmer stars in California’s political firmament, but he comes by his obscurity honestly. Bustamante has no notable achievements he can point to from his years in the Legislature or as the state’s number-two official. He is known chiefly for his own ambition and that of his consultant, Richie Ross.

Bustamante comes complete with two sets of baggage. The first is his longtime, and current, dependency on Indian casinos to fill his campaign treasury — not necessarily the most prudent source of funding at a time when his opponents are already running against the special interests controlling Sacramento. The second is his rocky relationship with some of the state’s key unions, in particular the Farm Workers (Bustamante has been a friend of agribusiness) and the Hotel Employees (who are endeavoring to organize those tribal casinos). These unions play a critical role in the massive Latino voter-mobilization campaigns conducted by the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, and Bustamante cannot win unless the L.A. County Fed goes all out for him. “Cruz has a Spanish surname,” says Fed leader Miguel Contreras, “but he needs a Latino effort.” After trying to keep all prominent Democrats out of the race, the California Labor Federation will convene on August 25 to decide if its money is better spent on defeating the recall (leading by 54 percent to 35 percent in a recent CNN/Time/Gallup Poll) or electing Bustamante (trailing Arnold by 10 percent in the same poll).

The case for Bustamante this October is pretty much what the case for Gray Davis was last November: For all his limitations, a Governor Bustamante would still sign, as Davis has, much of the groundbreaking legislation that the progressive-dominated Legislature sends his way. There is, of course, a genuine progressive on the ballot, Arianna Huffington, but that Gallup Poll has her back in the pack at 4 percent, tied for fifth with Peter Ueberroth and Larry Flynt. Early on, Arianna told friends and supporters that she didn’t want to play the role of a Naderesque spoiler, and when she entered the race on Thursday morning, she declared, “It is morally imperative that we do not allow this state to be hijacked by Republicans.” A few hours later, Cruz entered the race, too, and for now, Arianna looks perfectly positioned to play the Nader spoiler.

That Gallup Poll put Bustamante at 15 percent to Arnold’s 25 percent, with the two GOP right-wingers, state Senator Tom McClintock and Didn’t-You-Just-Lose? Bill Simon, at 9 percent and 7 percent, respectively. Looking at these numbers, given the state’s Democratic tilt, Bustamante clearly has the greatest potential for growth. Schwarzenegger, meanwhile, is just one of four prominent Republicans in the field, perfectly positioned to lose votes to his right when he says something moderate and to lose votes to his left when he says something conservative.

Bustamante may have caught an odd break when Schwarzenegger announced that his campaign will be chaired by Pete Wilson, the former governor. Wilson may help Arnold win more Republican votes, but he may also help Bustamante turn out Latinos, who still hate Wilson for his support of 1994’s Proposition 187, which would have denied public services — including the right to attend school — to illegal immigrants and their children.

Schwarzenegger advertises himself as an immigrant success story, but whether his story will resonate with the bulk of California’s immigrants — overwhelmingly Latino, poor, Democratic, and backers of unions and big government — is another question altogether. It certainly doesn’t help that Arnold himself voted in favor of Prop. 187. Time was when leaders of California’s white-middle-class revolts didn’t have to concern themselves with nonwhite-voter turnout, but those days are passing. October 7 may be yet another Day of the Locust, but I suspect those days may be passing, too.

A version of this column has appeared in the Washington Post.


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