In 2010, California’s Democrats celebrated their ability to resist the national, right-wing tide. At a time when Republicans took over the House and threatened Democratic control of the Senate, every statewide office in California was won by Democrats, who increased their numbers in the state legislature. In 2012, the story was much the same. Several progressive-sounding initiatives (and a couple of them actually were progressive) were passed by voters, and Democrats secured supermajorities in the Senate and Assembly. Progressives, we were told, should rejoice.
But a funny thing happened after each of these elections. In 2011, the existing programme of austerity was sharpened, and the cuts that hit medical care for the elderly and disabled, and other public welfare measures and services were more brutal than ever. Schools, colleges, and universities were hammered.
And after 2012, although they now possess the power to un-do the regime of cuts enacted by a sociopathic, fundamentalist state Republican Party which long controlled the state’s economy by virtue of undemocratic supermajority rules, Democrats have been indicating that Californians can expect little in the way of systematic repair to the badly-damaged safety net and public services.
Some Democrats have defended their regressive politics by saying that they need to exercise caution, lest they lose their supermajority (a funny sort of logic...why bother to win a supermajority if you’re not going to use it?). But recent events have demonstrated both the tenuous nature of that supermajority, and the retrograde character of some Democrats within the party’s Sacramento caucus, both of which threaten to restore the de facto governance by the minority which generated big deficits, slashed social services, eviscerated public institutions, and brought governance to a halt.
This, of course, is the built-in nature of California’s political structure, and no supermajority can get the state around the fact that its system of government dooms the state to chaos before any votes are cast or any bills put forward in the legislature.
But a Senate race in the San Joaquin Valley demonstrates the both degraded character of the Democratic Party, as well as some of the broader flaws in California’s political structure.
As described in the Sacramento Bee, the special election was called because the Democratic Senator resigned to go and work for Chevron. He did so, the Bee reported, after taking part “in two real estate deals with a Kern County oil executive who has contributed to his campaign”. Rubio also “[received] more than $8,500 in travel expenses for a trip to Brazil from the California Foundation on the Environment and the Economy”. In spite of these obvious conflicts of interest, Rubio had served as the chairman of the Senate Environmental Quality Committee.
Now, Chevron is dumping money into the campaign of Leticia Perez, the Democrat running to replace Rubio. The corporation did so using a front organisation, California for Jobs and a Strong Economy. As described by the Fresno Bee, Republicans and the farming communities are upset by this intervention. After the abuses meted out by Chevron to communities like Richmond, the frustration of Valley inhabitants is understandable. So too is their irritation with the efforts of big business to drown their voices.
Republicans’ pique is more hypocritical, and Chevron’s decision to back the Democrats seems to speak to a worrying development in state politics. As a party long managed by corporate interests, and committed to corporate governance, corporate rights, and corporate subsidies, Republicans’ outrage is cynical, and stems more from dismay at being dumped by their erstwhile backers than from any moral outrage.
What Chevron’s backing of the Democrats suggests is that the corporation realises that Republicans are fast becoming a spent force in California. Even if the GOP took the seat, Democrats would retain a supermajority (albeit a very narrow one which could be lost a year from November). But by backing by far the more powerful party in California, Chevron appears to be working to ensure that they have backers in government.
Chevron has remarked that the corporation “regularly supports candidates, organizations or ballot measures committed to economic development, free enterprise and good government” (for which read deregulation, loose oversight, and friendly legislating). But what this kind of spending amounts to is legal corruption, whereby large economic interests seek to influence elections which will tilt the balance of power in their favour, effectively buying themselves influence in Sacramento. Capital is increasingly deciding that it makes more sense to corrupt Democrats in power, buying them off, than to waste money on a limping Republican Party, which voters have rejected precisely because its embrace of capital was too fulsome and too detrimental to the public good.
What we’re seeing in the Valley district would be par for the course if we were discussing Republicans. But the fact that corporations increasingly see allies in Democrats should make progressives, and those concerned about the health of California’s democracy, worry. Last year, ThinkProgress discussed how Chevron backed a no-hope Republican candidate in industry-friendly Roderick White’s district (he’s a Democrat), in addition to funnelling much larger sums of money to Wright, to ensure that in California’s undemocratic Top Two primary system, two corporate-oriented candidates would emerge in the general election. Wright, needless to say, has been a good friend to Chevron, a staunch critic of efforts to combat climate change...efforts which ask corporations like Chevron to step up and take some responsibility for their actions. [Steve Coll’s book, Private Empire: Exxon Mobil and American Power, does an excellent job of illustrating how oil companies funded junk science in order to sow doubts about the seriousness of climate change, in much the same way that business interests fund neoliberal propaganda outfits to promote austerity and divestment from public institutions.]
At the end of the day, then, what was really gained by the ostensibly great progressive victories in 2010 and 2012?
These ‘victories’ brought us a Democratic governor who first embraced punishing austerity, which has hurt a great many people across the state, and then embarked on an irresponsible course of disavowing responsibility for our budget and resorting to temporary tricks via the initiative system while eschewing the kind of political reform that could close both our financial and democratic deficits.
Those ‘victories’ also brought us supermajorities in the Senate and Assembly, supermajorities which the Democratic leadership is afraid to use, and which are undermined by the combination of the revolving door between the legislature and industry on the one hand, and the regressive nature of some Democratic representatives on the other.
And the ‘victories’ have brought about a state of affairs in which Democratic representatives have announced that they are for sale to the same interests that had previously used the Republican Party as their preferred vehicle for weakening consumer protection, for suborning oversight designed to protect the public from exploitation, pollution, or corruption, and for gaining advantages which too often come to the detriment and expense of the common good and general well-being.
What indeed is the point of such victories? Progressives in California should not be quiescent about this turn of events, and should, if necessary, look beyond the Democratic Party, both for progressive policymaking, and for the kind of structural reform which would even the playing field for the public and enable us to have a conversation about the future of our state in which our voices are not drowned out by enfranchised corporate interests and the money those interests use to corrupt our democratic process.