Friday, July 27, 2012

California's GOP in Decline? Hardly

The New York Times recently turned its eye to the apparent plight of California’s Republican Party, suggesting, as commentators in California have been for years now, that the GOP is in terminal decline in the Golden State.  Their evidence is largely electoral, and the party’s abject failure to win any state-wide office in 2010 is the most widely-cited example of this supposed decline. 

Steve Schmidt, one of the GOP’s more discontented consultants, told the Times that “The institution of the California Republican Party...has effectively collapsed.  It doesn’t do any of the things that a political party should do.  It doesn’t register voters.  It doesn’t recruit candidates.  It doesn’t raise money.  The Republican Party in the state institutionally has become a small ideological club that is basically in the business of hunting out heretics”.

Schmidt is obviously wrong in suggesting that the California GOP is somehow anomalous within the broader Republican tent in its McCarthyite witch-hunts, whether ideological, religious, or racial.  But I think he’s also off-base in his assessment of the GOP’s power in California. 

Because the implication that shrinking numerical support for the state GOP equates to the party wielding less influence is erroneous.  I don’t know when there’s ever been a period when Republicans exerted so much influence and control over California’s politics.  Nagourney, the Times article’s author, suggests that California “has become a national symbol of fiscal turmoil and dysfunction”.  That we are viewed in this way, and that our state has in fact become utterly un-governable, is a sign of the Republican Party’s great influence, not of its decline.  California’s failure is the GOP’s victory, and if the party was routed by the voters in 2010, the year was actually a great victory for the economic ideology behind the party.

What is happening in California today—the de-funding of schools and colleges, the shuttering of public spaces, the deregulation of industry, the creeping privatisation of our universities, the growth of economic inequality, the maintenance of loopholes for the wealthy and for corporations—is the implementation of the state Republican Party’s platform.

We elected a Democratic governor to office who has made austerity—that is, the Republicans’ primary political plank—his watchword where not his ideology.  Austerity, in the hands of people on a search and destroy mission in our state’s public sphere, is indiscriminate dynamiting masquerading as sober-minded accounting. 

This Democratic governor, instead of placing the welfare of the Californians first, embraced his erstwhile opponent Meg Whitman’s focus on the budget.  He has, in fact, managed a couple of balanced budgets.  But they’ve been balanced, fiscal conservatives and economic fundamentalists will be happy to know, at the express expense if not the outright butchery of schools, colleges, universities, and other public institutions which provide for the welfare of a broad spectrum of Californians.

Why does this occur?  Because the threshold for making decisions about revenue is so high that the Republicans exercise a veto over virtually any decision dealing with finance (one of Proposition 13’s many legacies).  If the party had an affirmative programme, this might still leave them out in the cold.  But because their ideology calls for the dismantling of the public sector, thereby defaulting power over labour, consumption, education, environmental protection, energy regulation, and the provision of social support and services to the private sector.  There might be things that the private sector is good at, but making calls about the welfare of the majority and self regulating are not amongst its virtues. 

The point is, however, that the Republican Party’s veto suits them very well.  Instead of registering voters, it registers itself with irresponsible corporate interests.  Instead of recruiting candidates it deploys paid-up fundamentalists.  Instead of raising money, it coasts on that of its paymasters. 

Nagourney quoted California Republican Party Chairman Tom Del Beccaro as saying, “The Democrats are in a lot of trouble because they’ve had the governorship, the Assembly and the Senate, and the budget is way out of balance; unemployment is third-highest in the nation.  They don’t have any plans related to those problems, other than higher taxes...And the issues are coming our way because the biggest issues are budget and taxes”.

This is the point at which responsible journalism would involve the author of the article qualifying this combination of misstatement of fact and mangling of the argument by providing some information to readers.  The Democrats might have the numerical advantage in the Assembly and Senate, but through the unconscionable exercise of their undemocratic veto, the Republicans control both chambers.  Neither have the Republicans ever had a better ally in the Governor’s office than Jerry Brown, who has never been big on public investment. 

“Higher taxes”, as Del Beccaro well knows, don’t constitute a plan.  The plan involves setting standards, allocating resources, investing, and making calls about what policy changes are in the interest of California.  And yes, many of those things cost money, not surprisingly, given that our state is increasingly more populous and diverse, that our demographics are shifting, and our relationship with our environment changing.  But Del Beccaro and his witless oath-swearing, pledge-taking colleagues have deprived state government of the ability to invest in the state’s human capital.  They have denied state government the flexibility that should characterise its engagement with moral quandaries and demographic dilemmas. 

The Republicans are fond of calling high speed rail—our state’s lone effort to make some kind of investment which will aid our quest for sustainable living, generate employment, and promote the free movement of people and goods—“The Train to Nowhere”.  It’s characteristically catchy, typically disingenuous, and classically declensionist.  I’m worried that high speed rail will turn into an albatross around the state’s neck.  Not because there’s any inherent problem with the plan.  But because the Republican Party, with its immense influence and total immunity from culpability in our state’s bizarre political system, is hell-bent on making it one.  And this sums the state GOP up very well: the exercise of enormous power through dishonest means which exempt them from all responsibility.

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