Saturday, April 14, 2012

Playing at Politics (and Journalism)


I regularly read George Skelton’s column in the Los Angeles Times, and regularly find myself having the same set of complaints (regular readers, feel free to stop here...you know the story-line).  One of Skelton’s recent columns, “GOP to Democrats: Gotcha”, was no exception. 

There, Skelton described the state Republican Party’s decision to endorse California Governor Jerry Brown’s pension reform.  Don’t get me wrong, there are problems with public employee pensions in California.  And banging on about pensions is a tried and tested strategy used by right-wingers and ‘moderates’ alike: bash public employees as lazy, entitled, under-worked, over-paid, expendable leeches to distract from the benefits that unionisation would bring to private-sector workers and from the fact that the pensions crisis is only that—a potentially very serious crisis—because we’re content to live in a prehistoric political world that prioritises low tax rates at the expense of the public good, means at the expense of ends, and the voices of the few over those of the many. 

My problem with Skelton’s column is that he identifies two things in conjunction with the GOP endorsement of Brown’s pension plan, and then proceeds to confuse and intertwine them.  On the one hand, he writes that the Republicans’ move makes good strategic sense: for once they’re doing something besides saying ‘no’ to what the majority party suggests; they pit Brown against the Democrats in the Assembly and Senate; and they’re following the vacuous and popular line of logic which lays the blame for our political crisis at the feet of public sector unions.  On this, Skelton is right: the GOP is making strategic sense.

But then Skelton urges us to “credit the GOP with a responsible act that moves us closer to good public policy”, and suggests that this kind of “bipartisan cooperation” is just what the state needs.  He approvingly cites Republican consultant Rob Stutzman as saying, “That whole place works better if everyone is playing smart”.

This is where he loses me, on several counts.  Firstly, bipartisanship is not an end, and can (and frequently does) as easily produce bad policy as good.  There is no reason why a party endorsed by voters to the tune of 64% of the legislature should have to make one concession after another to a radical, minority party.  Secondly, you can’t argue that an act motivated by blatant self-interest is de facto “good public policy”.  Moreover, “playing smart” isn’t necessarily a good thing, if what you mean by this (as Skelton seems to) is “playing” with an aim to winning a political game and coming up with a short-term fix that pretends to solve a genuine political, democratic crisis through pension reform. 

And that’s the problem with our current politics in California: neither Democrats nor Republicans are seriously interested in the kind of political reform that would yield elections that matter (currently, Democrats can win 65% of the legislature without winning a mandate for their agenda, even when allied with a relatively popular Democratic governor).  Neither party wants to tackle Proposition 13, the ghost of ’78 that continues to haunt our politics: the Democrats because Prop 13 has morphed into some kind of sacred cow, ill-understood by most Californians; and the Republicans because Prop 13 has become the keystone of the corporate welfare legislation that has become their raison d’être, due both to its provision for an undifferentiated (and low) property tax and its hamstringing of the state’s ability to raise revenue—a cornerstone of most democracies.

Now most people, when their house is on fire, don’t say, “There’s this peeling paint at the back of the bedroom that’s been bugging me for ages...I think I’ll go and see what I can do about that right now...”  (I’ll admit, I have no scientific evidence as to what most people do say when their house is on fire, but I feel safe in assuming that the large, blindingly obvious threat to the integrity of their dwelling takes precedence over smaller problems...)

That’s why it’s maddening that Skelton and the other yappers amongst the Capitol correspondents buy into the myopic line of thinking that manufactures a series of mini-crises, some of them genuine, others the products of creative if misdirected imaginations, while ignoring the looming threat posed to the state by minority rule; by our political structure’s pitting of voters against legislators; and by the obsession with the means and the concomitant thoughtlessness about the ends.

If Brown really understands what the state needs, if he really wants to make a mark on the state, he would aim high, and go for an overhaul of the broken political structure that forces politicians and voters alike through absurd contortions and balancing acts.  But he won’t.  Because to all appearances he thinks of our politics as a game in which you’re always looking to the next election and always thinking of how to outwit your opponent without having an end towards which you are working.  And he continues to give the impression of thinking of inaction on the big questions of the day as a mode of governance in and of itself, an enactment of the minimalist creed he triumphed during his earlier tenure as Governor.

Finally, for those obsessed with the pension crisis, I’d suggest that Democrats would be less reflexively defensive of the faults of public employees pensions (because their support is critical for any pension reform) if they and their organised labour constituents didn’t feel under such an unhinged and sustained assault, both in California and across the country.  And that assault would be less offensive and threatening to their interests if it were not being staged by small and unrepresentative group backed by corporate dollars.  These groups are as nastily frank about their self-interested project to dismantle protection for workers as they are extreme and radical in their rhetoric, and in the face of this kind of attack, it is small wonder that Democrats and labour allies feel that the right thing to do is to make a firm stand.

If we tackled the serious question of political reform, divorced money from politics, and created  the conditions for a more open and democratic polity, we would be able to have a more honest conversation about the benefits of unionisation and the dangers of some unions over-reaching themselves and abusing their rights.  Democrats would be less financially beholden to unions (and therefore more able to be constructively critical), and Republicans less in thrall to their corporate paymasters.  This is just one example of how reform would be good for Californians of all political persuasions, inasmuch as it would allow us to discuss the ideological and material merits of labour rights and collective bargaining without each party looking over their shoulders to wonder how any concession might play out in the undemocratic morass that is today California’s politics.

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