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The California Recall Election Is a Big Mess

“We have to care more than just about ourselves,” Jennifer Aniston wrote in an Instagram Story, responding to backlash from an InStyle profile in which she discussed cutting ties with unvaccinated friends. The quote resonated with me. The pandemic has been hard, but what I didn’t expect was for it to be so politically divisive. Then again, this is America, and I should have known better.

On August 14, on the south lawn of city hall in downtown Los Angeles, several hundred people gathered, protesting against vaccine and mask mandates. The protest turned violent; a reporter was attacked and at least one person was stabbed. The rally came as California governor Gavin Newsom issued several vaccine mandates, and the L.A. City Council passed legislation to have an ordinance drafted requiring COVID-19 vaccinations for indoor activities.

Tensions are high, and while we should be having a conversation about what is best for all of our collective health, the conversation instead has become about individual freedoms.

Caught in this political predicament is California. After getting caught at a fancy maskless dinner last November, during a time when the state had a mask mandate in place and social gatherings among multiple households were discouraged, Governor Newsom made himself an easy target. Republicans seized the opportunity.

A petition to recall the governor gained steam in the wake of the mask mishap, earning enough signatures to trigger a special election. Now Newsom — and the Democratic Party’s response to the pandemic more generally — is on the ballot for a September 14 recall election. The polls don’t look great for him, and I’m not sure many Californians even know that the race is happening. The sorry series of events should be a warning to Democratic lawmakers as the 2022 midterm elections draw closer.

The right has long used the strategy of fear. Fear of “the other” and fear that their freedoms are being taken away are not new to the GOP’s playbook, but now they have a source of fear to exploit that goes beyond the usual political lines: the pandemic.

In California we are currently grappling with a multitude of crises: drought, wildfires, unaffordable housing, and the pandemic. Newsom’s decision to enforce statewide restrictions and mask mandates — and more recently vaccination mandates for health and school employees — is at the heart of this election.

His top GOP challenger in the race is Black conservative radio host Larry Elder. According to the Los Angeles Times, Elder allowed an anti-vax doctor on his syndicated radio show to spread misinformation on vaccines, writing that Elder “didn’t object when the physician implied that Bill Gates might have backed the ‘experimental’ immunizations as a form of ‘population control.’” Elder also posted the interview on his website with the lead-in, “You’ll want to hear this physician’s take on the vaccines.”

Elder is against any sort of government-imposed mandates, saying on his site, “Californians who assume the risk of not wearing a mask or not getting vaccinated should not be forced to do so.” In response to a Daily Mail article about Newsom comparing not wearing a mask to drunk driving, Elder retweeted in all caps, “ONE HAS A RIGHT NOT TO WEAR A MASK.” The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization have encouraged mask use as a way to prevent the spread of COVID-19, especially in light of the more contagious Delta variant.

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