California Gov. Gavin Newsom has survived a recall election, but that is not his victory. Collecting enough voter signatures to trigger a recall election confirms broad dissatisfaction with government leadership. The actual winner is the recall system itself, which allows voters to express discontent between scheduled elections.

California politics places a premium on citizen participation, building on a rich, at times radical and raw, history linked to the Progressive Movement of the early 20th century. The successful recall of unpopular Gov. Gray Davis in 2003 witnessed a large and bizarre collection of candidates, many of whom made victor Arnold Schwarzenegger appear mild by comparison. The latest California recall election had a similar “inclusive” collection of contenders.

During the Great Depression, California was a hotbed of religious as well as political extremists. Dr. Francis Townsend’s crackpot movement to pay a generous pension to everyone over 60 who would swear not to work, and to spend the money immediately, started in Long Beach. Sinclair Lewis’ fictional evangelist Elmer Gantry was based on real-life Bible beaters and bamboozlers found in startlingly large numbers in Southern California.

Depression-era desperation – fear itself – fueled not only fringe phenomena but also powerful populism. Upton Sinclair, who exposed shocking meatpacking industry practices in “The Jungle,” nearly won election as governor in 1934. He promised any means necessary to end poverty, won the Democratic nomination in a landslide, finally losing the general election only because of a terrified powerful alliance of big agribusiness, big studios and the Los Angeles Times.

Republicans led by Earl Warren and Goodwin Knight brought relative stability to California politics in the years that followed, but a radical unpredictable undercurrent remained. Populism proved powerful in California, which never had Eastern-style class politics, dominant organized industrial interests, or traditional party machines.

Ronald Reagan shrewdly exploited this. After Reagan’s smashing 1966 gubernatorial election victory, Harvard political scientist James Q. Wilson explained the appeal. In the boom after World War II, prosperous California working people could buy their own homes, a luxury that remained a dream elsewhere. Reagan’s charismatic emphasis on patriotism and tradition drew voters no longer focused on economic need.

Reagan demonstrated skill in exploiting growing public resentment of flamboyant nonconformity. Campus unrest, hippies and radicals were a favorite target. He also railed against government waste, in particular welfare programs. Reagan personified a new sort of populism, in which government had replaced big business as the enemy.

Gov. Reagan in office, however, was relatively moderate. He built a relatively broad coalition of public support, providing an accurate preview of his later approach to the Presidency. At least at times, his rhetoric reflected statements by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Demonstrating the momentum of the populist surge in California, the nation’s most populous state, Reagan daringly challenged former Vice President Richard Nixon for the Republican presidential nomination in 1968.

Gov. Nelson Rockefeller of New York was viewed as Nixon’s principal rival for the nomination, but a different story unfolded at the national convention. Nixon easily deflected Rockefeller, while upstart Reagan came close to breaking open the convention.

Reagan challenged incumbent President Gerald Ford for the nomination in 1976. Finally, Reagan secured the long-coveted Republican presidential nomination in 1980.

Wisconsin Progressive leader Robert LaFollette introduced populism to California. His family spent winters in San Diego because of their son’s lung disease.

As in Wisconsin, “Fighting Bob” brought change to Republicans – and to the people.

Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of "After the Cold War" (NYU Press and Macmillan). Readers can wrote to him at acyr@carthage.edu.

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