The recall election in California has dominated the headlines of late, thanks, in part, to Governor Hiram Johnson, the lion of the Western Progressives.  The irony is that today’s alleged “progressives”—in thrall to the special interests (i.e., the public-employee unions)—are horrified by what their ancestors have wrought.

The Union Pacific Railroad was a great octopus that gripped the legislatures of a dozen states by their necks.  Farmers were being driven off the land, while the solons in Sacramento loosed the railroads on previously “public” properties.  Corporate power feeding at the public trough provoked a mighty rebellion that, in California, reached its climax with the election of the Progressive Republican Hiram Johnson as governor.  We must “arm the people” to “protect themselves hereafter,” said Johnson in his inaugural address.  The organs of direct democracy—the initiative, the referendum, and the recall—were written into the state constitution.  If the government displeased the people, they were free to tear it down.  A California tradition was born.

Today, another sort of many-tentacled creature has the Golden State in a death grip: The public-employee unions, with their fat pension funds and exorbitant salaries, are draining the state dry, and the tax-happy Democrats, along with various fellow travelers, saw this as a great opportunity to do an end run around Proposition 13—California’s historic tax-capping measure, passed by referendum in 1978.

Except that it didn’t work.  All it did was rouse the right-wing populist spirit of Howard Jarvis, the doughty old founder of the original tax-revolt movement, coauthor and guiding spirit of Prop. 13.

Suddenly, like one of those seismic shifts for which the state is renowned, the spirit of rebellion worked its way above ground: The movement to recall Gray Davis, our bloodless cur of a governor, caught on like a prairie fire.  Oh, but they’re paying for signatures, the faux- “progressive” friends of Governor Davis exclaimed.  It’s not democracy—it’s a Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy!

It’s much easier to buy the governor and the state legislature than to buy half of the electorate, but such arguments are useless when confronting the new elitists, who huff and puff about the evil Money Power—yet were silent while Governor Davis sold off the state piecemeal to the special interests, from the prison guards to the teachers’ union.

The recall was a great victory for grassroots conservatives, but it was soon snatched away from them by Ah-nold and the Republican Party bosses, who co-opted the movement and turned a populist revolution into a Hollywood production.

As Ah-nold strides through glossy “upbeat” commercials, promising everything and proposing nothing, rumors of a possible tax hike are never denied by the Terminator’s praetorian guard, including tax hiker Warren Buffett.

Meanwhile, the real conservative in the race is Assemblyman Tom McClintock (R-Thousand Oaks), the Ron Paul of California.  “I’m a Jeffersonian Republican,” he told the Los Angeles Times, “which means I believe the fundamental responsibility of a government is to preserve the liberty of the people, rather than to abridge that freedom for whatever fancies the government in power develops.”

Unlike the Terminator with his vague promises, the real action figure here is the no-nonsense McClintock, who would do an end run around the recalcitrant legislature and make the necessary cuts in state-employee compensation by executive decree.  This would allow him to cap the tax rate, cut back the bureaucracy, and contract out state services—a libertarian version of FDR’s “Hundred Days.”

Former California governor Pete Wilson and the Republican Party chieftains have always resented McClintock.  He’s a living reproach to their spineless opportunism, and they gave him no support when he nearly won election as state controller, losing by a few thousand votes, while the establishment’s handpicked nominees, who garnered plenty of campaign dollars from GOP bigwigs, trailed far behind.  With virtually no media exposure except a guerrilla campaign waged in the wilds of talk radio, McClintock’s support has doubled since July, to 12 percent.

With Davis sinking fast and the success of the recall nearly assured, Davis’s accomplices in the looting of the Golden State, otherwise known as the Democrats, are rallying behind the single most unattractive figure in California politics in quite some time.  Carlo Bustamante, the lieutenant governor, is a little greaseball of a man whose oily persona is the perfect representation of the new identity politics.  Ah-nold at least is perceptive enough to make his appeal to Californians’ sense of regional pride: Bustamante’s banner is the rainbow flag of aggrieved minorities who see government as their only possible champion and salvation.

The biggest weapon in the Terminator’s arsenal is the threat posed by Bustamante: Should he win, the revolution will not only have been betrayed but will have been completely reversed.  If the Buffet-backed tax increase is approved by Governor Schwarzenegger, however, it will have been betrayed anyway.  McClintock is now under tremendous pressure to drop out: “Forget it,” he says.  “I know that’s at variance with the country-club variety of the Republican Party, but so be it.”

“From day one, I’ve said don’t count Tom McClintock out,” says Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a political analyst at the University of Southern California.  If the recall of Governor Davis heralded the rebirth of populist conservatism as a grassroots movement in California, then it may be just the beginning.