BOTH geographically and culturally, California has always seemed on the extreme edge of the United States. This is where the crazy fashions start,
from oat bran to surfing shorts to New Age crystal-gazing; it is where a black mayor can appear in Chinese robes on a cat-walk, and his rival can be photographed naked in the shower; it is where anything goes, morally,
spiritually or gastronomically, except the lighting up of a cigarette in a bar. Small wonder that many Americans have often dreamed of seeing California, like some extravagant growth, painlessly removed from the body politic.
Anti-money, anti-special treatment
But California has shown surprising thoughtfulness of late, and never more so than in June 2nd’s primary election. There, a millionaire candidate, Al Checchi, who had spent around $ 40m on his campaign (a record, even for America) was soundly beaten in the Democratic primary for the governorship;
and another millionaire, Darrell Issa, was beaten in the Republican primary for the Senate. Voters had more sense than to be swayed by these men’s money, which was a poor cover for the fact that they had no political experience and the vaguest ideological convictions. Instead, they opted for candidates whose careers commended them (see page 55).
It was not a flawless choice: Gray Davis, the relatively impoverished victor over Mr Checchi, now owes a lot of money to the special interests who helped him. But the result adds a hopeful note to the endless debate about the proper role of money in American elections. Mr Checchi’s appearance on the scene was not, as some feared, pernicious: he challenged the establishment at his own expense, which was a good thing, but then found his millions did not sway the voters, which was just as encouraging. Mr Checchi’s ads swamped the airwaves but did not work, suggesting there may be a natural limit to the usefulness of spending money on commercials (the tactic which most inflates the cost of political campaigning in America). Above all,
California has shown that voters can usually be trusted: in all the agonising over campaign-finance reform, perhaps the only vital rule is that they should know where a candidate’s money comes from.
Also on Tuesday, Californians voted to end the state’s programme of bilingual education, by which non-English-speaking children are taught in their own language for several years. This costly programme, the largest of its kind in the country, had patently failed to reduce the drop-out rate of Latino high-school children. Nonetheless, it still had the backing of the education establishment and many politicians; and again, it says much for the common sense of California’s voters that they chose to scrap it, opting instead to give children a year of “sheltered immersion” in English. Latino parents supported the proposal almost as heartily as Anglos, and for a simple reason: in America, despite the currency of Spanish, English is the language of advancement.
There was another, equally sensible, reason for this vote. In recent years,
California has turned against any kind of preferential treatment for minorities. In 1996, it became the first state to bar racial preferences in state hiring and contracting and in admissions to state universities, a bold move that deserved more imitators on the national scene. The bilingual vote is an extension of this policy. California’s voters now believe that after many years of trying to assist blacks and Latinos by applying admissions quotas or easier standards, the proper approach is to spend more money on education at earlier stages and across the board. With a booming economy and a $ 4 billion budget surplus, there is money at last for improving the state’s lagging schools; and, with it, the confidence to defy entrenched bodies, such as the teachers’ unions, that stand in the way of colour-blind reforms.
Not everything went smoothly on election day. Californians turned down a proposal that union members should give their approval before their dues are spent for political purposes: a victory for labour that will have national implications. Turnout, at less than 40%, showed that relentless campaigning-by-television has dulled the taste for taking part in politics.
There was still far too much money around, even if it proved ineffectual.
And promised for November’s ballot are propositions to ban fluoride in water, to forbid the “recreational diplay” of dolphins, and to stop drunk-drivers losing the use of their cars. But hey, this is California; too much good sense all at once may be hazardous to your health.