Friday, February 22, 2013

Progressives’ Pyrrhic Victory in California

California Democrats have been in celebration mode since last November.  “Back from the Brink”, crowed a January article in the New Republic, its by-line cheering progressives for having done “the impossible”. 

Observers might be forgiven for thinking that they have done something significant, like overhauling the state’s broken system of governance, or restoring funding to our higher education sphere to honour the state’s Master Plan, or using their newly-won supermajority to push through transformative social or environmental legislation.

Turns out that they did something much less ambitious and more fleeting, and that they did it in a manner calculated to make trouble for the Golden State down the road.  Turns out “the impossible” just means that they “balanced California’s books”. 

But let me be generous and allow deluded Democrats to tell their side of the story first.  In the words of David Dayen, author of the article cited above, “the answer [to California’s budgetary ills] is quite simple.  Progressive Democratic activists identified the straitjacket of rules that had the state tied up in knots, and devised a systematic plan to change them.  Through massive organizing, they transformed the electorate and sidelined Republican obstructionists”.  Dayen identifies one source of the straitjacket on state government: Prop 13, which neutered discretionary use of property tax, enshrined minority rule, and unilaterally centralised governance in the state.

Nothing that happened in 2012 loosened that straitjacket.  By winning a temporary supermajority, which they could lose in two years, or which could disintegrate under the weight of internal bickering, Democrats were indeed able to marginalise Republicans.  But the absurd supermajority requirement for raising revenue remains (no such restriction operates when it comes to making devastating cuts).  For the time being, much funding remains centralised (something which there has never been a sensible statewide debate on—there is much value in a universalistic approach to some basic education standards and guidelines).  Prop 13 remains intact.  We are still working with an electoral system that doesn’t permit for more than two parties even though growing numbers of Californians are dissatisfied with the lukewarm liberalism of the Democrats and the foaming fundamentalism of the Republicans.  If Dayen’s progressives have a plan to change all of this, they’re primary success has been in keeping it a secret.

So what actually changed, besides the fleeting supermajority?

Democrats now seem to think that going to the ballot box for revenue is a smart and sustainable option.  It is neither.  It is not clear that the electorate has undergone some long-term transformation, as Dayen claims.  People voted (by a reasonable but by no means enormous margin) for the Governor’s Prop 30 (which raised taxes on the wealthy and sales taxes very slightly—amounting to a maintenance of earlier revenue levels rather than a real increase) after being pushed to the brink.  They voted for Prop 30 because they were told that it represented a serious “fix” for the state’s troubles.  I’d love to be proved wrong, but I don’t think that voters are going to be enthusiastic about having to “save” the state in this manner every couple of years.  It’s a method of governing which makes for chronic instability in the budget and, more importantly, devastating uncertainty in the lives of people who depend on the public sphere in one way or another—children, students, the elderly, the poor, those who ride public transport, those who work in the public sphere.  It is unclear that the very real coalition that Dayen identified in his article will mobilise to “save schools” in every election, something which will be necessary if Democrats are too spineless to do anything with their hard-won supermajority. 

Prop 30 was nothing more than a band-aid, which remedied none of the state’s real ills.  It did nothing to check Prop 13.  It did nothing for revenue over the long-term.  It did nothing to settle the contradictions built into our system—a system in which voters can mandate a spending project in one initiative and shut down the revenue which would be needed to fund such a project in another.  It did nothing to settle the question of what kind of society we would like to build—one in which individuals scrape out a living against the unyielding bedrock of a hostile market or one in which we pool our resources, do our best to distribute them in an equitable fashion, and enjoy the benefits which accrue from this communally-minded approach.

Dayan also fails to acknowledge that none of this, the pollsters tell us, would have been possible if Governor Brown had not spent two years subjecting the state to a gruelling round of cuts.  Democrats made their “comeback” on the backs of damaging, irresponsible, anti-social cuts to health and welfare services, higher education, and local governments.  Those who depend on services for the disabled have been made to suffer for years, those who depend on public libraries have found many of them shuttered.  Universities had experienced a decade of decline—the University of California now derives a mere 11% of its funding from the state general fund—before the public began caring.  And now, even though the Governor and legislature are not providing any increased funding for UC, leaving students and their families to carry the burden, Brown suddenly wants to micromanage the system.  So only people who live in the closed-off world of Sacramento political machinations could regard the election as a “victory” in anything other than party-political terms.

Social democracy shows no signs of making a comeback in California.  There is no indication that the state will launch a re-investment in its universities.  There are no signs that we will heed the President’s call and launch a bold drive to reinvigorate Pre-K-12 education. 

If Democrats in California have anything to be proud of, it is perhaps of their deceitful qualities, inasmuch as their “comeback” was shepherded by a Governor who behaves more or less like a Republican: embracing austerity, eviscerating the public weal, treating the budget as an end in itself rather than a tool, and now shirking the responsibility of advancing a comprehensive, affirmative framework for our state.

There are some signs from the Senate leader that Democrats are contemplating some structural reform.  Shortly after the election, a friend sent me a story suggesting that the party leadership is looking into addressing the state’s democratic deficit, noting that someone in government appears to have read California Crackup—the must-read book by Mark Paul and Joe Mathews which details the extent of California’s structural crisis and outlines a set of concrete solutions.  But if Democrats did read this important treatise on California’s democracy, they missed the key point.

Paul and Mathews point out that structural reform is nothing new in California.  Each election, voters and special interests add an annexe to the monstrous edifice that is California’s governing structure, and each of these annexes contains not only the good intentions (and sometimes not even those!) of its sponsors, but also a host of unintended consequences which ricochet around the state for years to come, impacting other spheres of society and governance, creating a totally unworkable system.

For reform to work, Paul and Mathews write, it has to be systematic and comprehensive.  Fiddling here and there—as suggested by the Democratic leadership—will not do.  California can’t afford to allow Democrats to rest on their laurels.  The progressive grassroots need to make it clear that structural reform is a necessity rather than a luxury if we are to make any progress in healing the state.

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