Some Bread Please With Our Circus

Gray, Arnold, Cruz, Arianna, Peter and Other Performers Under the California Big Top

by Bill Onasch

During the sunset years of the Roman Empire the aristocracy sought to keep an increasingly unemployed proletariat happy by providing “bread and circuses.” It was thought that as long as they were well-fed and entertained the proles would be passive and the Empire would live long and prosper. While this approach had some short term success the Coliseum has been pretty quiet the last fourteen centuries or so. 

Our masters today also think in terms of empire, some not shrinking from use of the “e” word. They too have an increasingly unemployed proletariat at home. But, hoping to get by on the cheap, they have adopted only part of the Roman strategy—circuses of various kinds are abundant but bread keeps getting more dear.

Unfortunately for our rulers human slaves are no longer available for mortal arena combat. Even life-and-death battles between humans and wild animals are restricted. The "entertainment" field has had to settle for tamer substitutes such as WW Raw “wrestling”; vicarious video games and thrilling “reality” television shows that keep viewers on the edge of their Lay-Z-Boy®.

Recently politics and show biz have come together to produce what many call a circus—the recall of California governor Gray Davis. Actually, from a quality aspect, “carnival” might be a better metaphor—you know, the kind that set up in the corner of strip mall parking lots. The main event is the decision whether Davis will be allowed to stay or, as seems likely, face humiliating expulsion from Paradise Island. But wait, there’s more! More than 130 side shows ranging from a competitive body builder Republican movie star; an ambitious Latino Democrat Lt. Governor; a former Trotskyist Green stock broker; "a former right-winger who has evolved into a compassionate and progressive populist;" a porn publisher; a well-endowed 
billboard model; to a 100-year-old lady who would like rides to campaign events;—along with 123 others.

It’s easy for those of us residing east of the left coast to join in laughing at, not with, a state that has tried to ban barbeque fires as air pollution. Indeed sarcastic humor can be a healthy occasional buffer against the harsh reality of life in America today. Unfortunately for the working people of our biggest state the recall madness is not a joke, not merely entertainment. What we are seeing is:

Liberal Democrats cried foul when Republican congressman, car alarm magnate, and governor wannabe Darrell Issa put up 1.5 million dollars of his own money to bankroll the recall petition drive. Joe Conason wrote: “…the California recall is just the latest in a series of episodes that demonstrate the Republican Party’s unquenchable urge to seize power by whatever means are available—even when that means vandalizing American political norms and traditions.”

He has a point. This is not playing by the long standing gentlemen[women]’s rules of two party stability. Clearly if elected officials faced recall every 
time their popularity in the polls sank the business of government (which is mainly business) would be severely disrupted.

But the same ruling class political forces that showed no hesitation in installing a second-place finisher in the White House; the same political forces that are arrogantly rewriting foreign policy/military doctrine; the same political forces that are encountering only token opposition to their body blows against civil liberties—these guys don’t care a rodent’s behind about the old rules of engagement with the other party. They smell blood and they’re going for it.

But the recall effort is supported by more moderate wings of the two parties as well. They find the whole thing a bit distasteful and will certainly discourage wide use of the recall tactic. Right now it is in their interest to portray the fiscal and economic crisis in California as the fault of a widely-despised lone politician—not the economic/political system.

When it became clear that the recall election was going to happen, Issa got brushed aside, leaving the scene literally in tears. The front runner, Arnold 
Schwarzenegger, is aiming for a broad appeal. While he shares the fiscal approach of Bush Republicans his positions on social issues such as abortion rights and gun control are not much different than Davis. His main advisers are former Republican governor Pete Wilson and Democrat venture capitalist Warren Buffett.

A few months ago political pundits were talking about the Democrats “owning” California. Today the Dems are in total disarray. The Democrat Lieutenant Governor, Cruz Bustamante, loyally backs Davis 110 percent, calling on voters to reject the recall. At the same time, just in case, he is asking them to vote for him on the second part of the ballot.

The leadership of California’s unions are floundering about as well. They played a key role in electing Davis last year. Davis has asked them to chip in another ten million dollars for this campaign. Initially this request seemed a sure thing but now some are questioning whether this wouldn’t be good money chasing bad.

Well known “populist” author/columnist Arianna Huffington called on conservative Democrat US Senator Dianne Feinstein to run for governor. When Senator Feinstein wisely passed Huffington threw her hat in the ring as an “independent.”

The Green Party candidate Peter Camejo, who once ran for President on the Socialist Workers Party ticket, has offered to pull out of the race if 
Huffington does well in the polls.

The present day “populists,” who talk constantly about “taking back” democracy through reforms in the political process need to draw some lessons from this experience as well. The working class of California has never been able to effectively use the recall and initiative reforms won by populists of a different era. But our enemies have often utilized ballot propositions to advance all manner of reactionary attacks. Democratic forms can be worse than useless if the working class is not organized on the political level.

No state has a stronger, more active labor movement than California. But their subservience to one of the bosses’ parties keeps them politically marginalized.

The California experience should make us laugh a little, cry a little—and stir us up to build a party of our own.

August 16, 2003