California Will Be Fine If Larry Elder Becomes Governor

California Will Be Fine If Larry Elder Becomes Governor

I’m here to tell you news that is both shocking and comforting: If California Governor Gavin Newsom loses the pending recall and Republican Larry Elder replaces him, it won’t be the end of the world. In fact, it will be entirely fine.

Elder, to recap, is described as a “right-wing radio” star, and his views are very far from those of most California voters. He espouses a mix of radical conservative and libertarian sentiments. He opposes abortion rights, the minimum wage and mask and vaccine mandates, and wishes to deport undocumented immigrants. He has shown past skepticism about climate change.

And as New York Times columnist Farhad Manjoo and others have detailed, Elder has a history of making misogynistic comments. Even though Elder is Black himself, his sentiments and rhetoric about race are far out of line with Democratic Party norms.

I’m not trying to excuse his extreme political incorrectness or talk you into this bundle of views, but if Newsom goes down and Elder has the most votes of the alternative candidates (as now seems quite possible), no one has to panic.

The reality is that the powers of the California governor are extremely limited, even as governors go. Elder would have very little support in the state legislature, where Democrats hold a supermajority in both chambers. Public opinion and the courts would be mostly against him.

California in particular is a state where courts and district attorneys and cities have a great deal of power, and the Democratic establishment has been ruling the state for a long time. If Elder tried to enact his stated views, he basically would get nowhere.

Why then am I rooting for him to win?

One of California’s biggest problems, especially in its wealthier and more influential parts, is the degree of attachment to symbolic politics and posturing over substance.

Do you remember earlier in the year when the San Francisco school board started renaming its schools (later rescinded) rather than trying to fix their Covid problems? Or how about the banning of plastic bottles in San Francisco International Airport? Or the recent court decision that the University of California, Berkeley, could not expand student enrollment because the school had not done an environmental impact statement? Or why do they call it the People’s Republic of Santa Monica?

Most of the rest of the country knows this is all crazy, and many Californians do, too. But they don’t seem to understand how damaging all the silly posturing can be.

While this is happening, California is being devastated by wildfires, and NIMBYism and the cost of living are out of control. Middle-class residents are leaving the state, poverty problems are perhaps the most serious in the country, and work from home is endangering the traditional revenue sources from employment at the big tech companies. Ezra Klein, co-founder of the Vox website, a columnist for the New York Times and hardly a right-winger, described the current California predicament as a failure of progressive governance.

If Californians had a governor whom people found to be their exact opposite on rhetoric and expressive attachments, they would be forced to wake up and realize that … actually, not very much had changed on the ground. That might nudge some California voters into seeing the emptiness of rhetorical gestures, and perhaps they would instead focus on the actual substance of governing.

An Elder victory also would offer at least some chance of resurrecting two-party competition in California. Democracy works better when each party stands some chance of winning, as that boosts competitive pressures to perform.

Obviously an Elder victory won’t make California into a right-wing state, but shaking things up in this manner, especially with a Black Republican governor, could at least diminish the stranglehold of the Democrats on power at the state level. In the longer run that could be better for both Republicans and Democrats.

In a recent interview, Elder said: ““I’m running because of crime, homelessness, the rising cost of living and the outrageous decisions made during Covid that shut down the state.” Whether you think that is a fully sincere account of his motives or not, is it so terrible if a candidate with those stances wins just once? And perhaps it is worth experimenting with a governor who is not so beholden to the public-sector unions.

What might we then expect from a more mainstream, more “legitimate” governor the next time around? Perhaps a greater focus on those very issues.

To be clear, I don’t have any particular animus against current Governor Gavin Newsom, and I don’t blame him for California’s deeply rooted structural and ideological problems. And I am not myself comfortable with many of Elder’s stances, or with his general approach to thinking and talking about politics.

But the status quo just isn’t working, and California voters now have an actual choice before them. It is time for them to wake from their dogmatic slumbers, and Larry Elder just happens to be the instrument at hand.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Tyler Cowen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of economics at George Mason University and writes for the blog Marginal Revolution. His books include "Big Business: A Love Letter to an American Anti-Hero."

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