California has often spun the cautionary tales of American progress. Smog. Sprawl. Ronald Reagan. But this summer’s California horror story is particularly sobering, as it could signal the darkest turn for democracy since the Supreme Court made George W. Bush President. Thwarted repeatedly in their efforts to win statewide contests the old-fashioned way–with votes cast on Election Day–California conservatives decided to buy themselves a different sort of election. When a relatively sincere, if misguided, grassroots drive to recall Governor Gray Davis failed, GOP Congressman and car-alarm millionaire Darrell Issa bankrolled the collection of 1.7 million signatures, enough to make Davis the first governor to face a recall election since North Dakota’s Lynn Frazier in 1921.

The carnivalesque contest that has ensued, with celebrity candidates, consultants-gone-wild price tags and two separate ballots–chronicled by Peter Schrag on page 13 of this issue–has obscured the fact that what is happening in California represents a gross abuse of the democratic process. Created as a progressive reform by California Governor Hiram Johnson in the early twentieth century, the recall option was intended for use only in extraordinary circumstances–convictions, corruptions, infirmities and insanities. Even Davis’s harshest critics cannot explain why the state’s $38 billion budget shortfall justifies his removal when the President, who is running far more serious deficits at the federal level and whose reckless policies have helped create California’s fiscal crisis, gets credit as a “fiscal conservative.” Don’t expect to see Bush campaigning for a Golden State Republican as the recall approaches; his political team won’t let him anywhere near a discussion of deficits, and they fear getting mixed up in the fight between GOP moderates, who prefer actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, and conservatives, who are aghast at Schwarzenegger’s support for gay rights and abortion rights. That said, Karl Rove won’t be complaining as the California campaign draws attention and dollars away from Democratic contenders in 2004. And Rove certainly wouldn’t mind having a telegenic Republican governor promoting the Bush-Cheney ticket in the nation’s most populous state (although GOP strategists rightly worry about inheriting the same fiscal mess that plagued Davis).

How the majority of California voters who are not Republicans–not to mention national Democrats and their allies in the labor movement–handle the bad cards they’ve been dealt will decide whether this cautionary tale has a happy, or at least tolerable, ending. The first step is to vote no on the recall of Davis. The point is not to reward the governor but to send a message that the recall should not be abused, in California or in the seventeen other states where it is an option. But Davis’s low approval ratings require a measure of realism. Even if Davis loses, those who bought the election need not necessarily win. While it appears unlikely that a progressive populist like columnist Arianna Huffington will ride to victory, it is reasonable to believe that an acceptable Democrat–especially one who appeals to the state’s burgeoning Latino electorate, like Lieutenant Governor Cruz Bustamante, the only candidate other than Schwarzenegger polling in double digits–could terminate the Terminator in second-round voting. If the schemers are not stopped in the first round, they must be blocked in the second. But only a resounding rejection of the recall itself would show the cynics that gaming the system doesn’t pay.