Friday, July 30, 2010

The politics of anti-politics in California

Against my better judgment I read a bile-raising story about the political races taking place in California this year, and decided that our unenviable situation couldn't pass without comment.

Both Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina are running as the 'anti-politics' candidates--for Governor of California and Senator respectively. They are running on their business records (which strangely, neither is willing to have scrutinised in anything like detail), and are pledging to sort out the state and the country's economic woes. This will be accomplished, they tell us, by running government like a company. They present themselves as exalted managers, whose watchword is efficiency, for whom partisan politics are old-hat, and who eschew ideology of any stripe (unless they find themselves in the company of Tea Partiers, in which case they metamorphosise with alarming rapidity). But their sharp, clean, non-partisan version of politics assumes a good many things--things which in fact are very ideological.

The key assumption is that it is right to manage a state or a country the way you manage a business, and that the way you manage a business is upright and moral and just. Within this assumption is another: that the purpose of government is to maintain a good economic bottom-line at all costs, irrespective of human consequences, because make no mistake, this is the lesson of business that they are both seeking to apply to governance.

If the managerial mantra is one plank of these candidates' platforms, the other is the acerebral, foaming-at-the-mouth anti-government rhetoric. That someone as apparently intelligent as Fiorina could pick up the endorsement of the likes of Sarah Palin is curious indeed. And yet in other ways it is unsurprising when one looks at the kind of campaign Fiorina has run, which relies on slick presentation, a profound disrespect for the facts, a willingness to reduce genuinely complicated moral problems (education, healthcare, budgets, individual rights) to the most half-witted of sound-bytes (think FCINO, the demon sheep ad), and a business record that she is happy for us to admire as long as we don't get too close and take out the magnifying glass.

Fiorina has, we should remember, signed the deceptively-named Taxpayer Protection Pledge which, should she keep her pledge, prevents her from ever voting to raise taxes. No matter if schools are laying off teachers and increasing class sizes, if healthcare needs funding, if environmental or energy initiatives need jump-staring...better (or more politically expedient) for the likes of Fiorina to pander to the extremist Republican base which has come to dominate the party, excising anyone who threatens to think for themselves. Of course we might take some comfort from Fiorina having changed her mind about issues ranging from taxation to abortion to immigration in the past. But that is small comfort indeed.

Whitman comes from a similar ilk. She has produced thick policy documents in certain areas, but you get caught up in a bramble of unworkable contradictions and inconsistencies the moment you enter into them (on reducing the number of state employees, to take one example). Whitman's primary strength derives from her conviction that democracy can be bought, and dispiritingly, California's public seems ready to prostitute itself to the highest bidder--not in terms of high-mindedness, strong idealism or a sense of collective responsibility for our state's community...just cold, hard cash. That Whitman sees nothing problematic in spending $70 million of her own money to win a primary bespeaks, to me at least, a deep moral void. Neither Fiorina nor Whitman, with their support for Arizona's discriminatory immigration law (Whitman has said she'd veto it, but that it should be let stand in Arizona), their new-found contempt for individual rights, their disdain for public education, and their belief that public good doesn't matter and that equality is irrelevant, should be getting a second look in a state that prides itself on being progressive.

We've seldom seen such rank populism so skillfully combined with a soulless shafting of teachers, students, children, the elderly, immigrants, public-sector employees, low-earners, the sick and the unemployed. It helps that the Democratic Party is without a progressive standard-bearer of its own. Barbara Boxer's progressive voice sounds tired, hoarse,and more than a little arrogant. She has fair environmental and social legislative credentials, but is singularly uninspiring in her agenda and approach, and seemingly ineffective at shaping national debates. That she is the best hope for California's Democrats is a bit sad.

Jerry Brown reminisces about the good-old-days when Democrats and Republicans would sit down with cigars at the Capitol and stitch-up state politics (no wonder then that he opposes any move to eliminate minority rule in the state and the end to the crippling two-thirds rules that this would require). He talks up his non-ideological credentials. And in this, at least, he's right. It's hard to figure out what else Jerry Brown has ever believed in consistently aside from his own political future. It also helps Fiorina and Whitman to be able to tar every cent that comes into their opponents' campaign coffers as 'union money'...which is truly strange as accusations go, all the stranger for Californians to buy given its presupposition that the only voices that ought to count come from the top of the table...that the only people with a right to look after their interests are those making six, seven, eight figures.

So if California's budget can stay in the black, if the big business community can prosper, and if the Tea Party is happy, the candidates for California's two most important public offices will be pleased. And if you believe that they are right about the purpose of government--that it is there to manage the community in a state so as to balance a budget and meet an economic bottom-line--then they are probably inspiring candidates. But if you believe that there are times when the human consequences of that management need to be taken into account, or that, in fact, this thing we call 'the Economy' should be managed around the needs of people--real, live human beings--then theirs is a dangerous ideology, one which has little time for the needs and rights of people, and which should be condemned, as often and as loudly as possible, before November.

1 comment:

  1. I sure do miss our conversations over dinner back in Mesa. Glad you're doing well--this blog may have motivated me to write my own blog as I travel to South Korea on Sunday. I'll be teaching English there for a year. This is Billy btw. :)

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