When political commentators reach for a cliché to describe California’s infamous Proposition 13—a 1978 measure which imposes supermajority requirements on funding, restricts our ability to tap property taxes, and centralises many governmental responsibilities while making giveaways to wealthy real-estate and corporate interests—they talk about the measure as the “Third Rail” of California politics.
But wouldn’t it be more accurate to refer to Proposition 13 as the “Broken Rail” of California’s politics? After all, it is representative of the divide between political rhetoric and reality in the Golden State; it symbolises the gap between legislators’ capabilities and their constituents’ expectations; it signifies the now-hollow nature of a once-populist direct democracy system which has been effectively captured by our plutocracy; and it embodies the gridlock built into our system of governance.
But if neither “Third Rail” nor “Broken Rail” quite capture Prop 13, we might think of it as a big, fat cow on the tracks, tended and protected by wealthy special interests. Its presence, indefensible and yet, we are told by those with the money, also essential, prevents us from having an intelligent conversation about what we’d like our state to look like, let alone from making any serious progress in reimagining our failing state.
California has been for the last five years at least, in the grip of extraordinary pessimism. If someone suggests that there is a better way or a brighter future, they are dismissed as deluded utopians, out of touch with the harsh and necessary “realities” of the present day. We have, in other words, been conditioned to accept failure.
While the immediate source of this acceptance lies in the manner in which the state Republican Party spent years using its minority position in a state governed by supermajority laws to sabotage not just government, but governance, the deeper causes could be traced at least back to Ronald Reagan’s election as governor in 1966 when he overthrew the “can-do”, “think-big” attitude of Governor Pat Brown by waging a campaign that encouraged people to mistrust government and to see their relationship with their political structure as adversarial rather than cooperative. For all of the sweeping rhetoric he brought to high office, Ronald Reagan perfected the art of appealing to all that was small, base, and resentful in people, and made an art of stoking grievances to coast to offices which he used to generate further inequality.
If we remember that right-wing philosophy is that government can’t work, and if we understand that most of the time, government and public institutions work pretty well, we can understand why the GOP would want to create a climate of fear and mistrust, and why engineering failures of government works to their advantage. This is a party, after all, which has dedicated and rededicated itself to the destruction and sabotage of our state and national institutions, proving time and again that it has no interest in furthering the advancement of those political units which we call “society” or “community”.
The fact that we are encouraged to mistrust the motives of everyone else in society, and to think of ourselves as besieged individuals rather than members of a community, means that there is a “throw the bums” out mentality in California, which substitutes indiscriminate anger for a critical analysis of the condition in which we find ourselves. Because in California, we the people have been the primary contributors towards creating a system in which our legislators can’t do their jobs effectively. We are possessed of a tendency, described by Barry Keene, to “tie the hands of legislative representatives by initiatives, then complain that legislators are acting as if their hands are tied, then punish them by tying their hands tighter”.*
Some reformist groups, representing technocratic elites who think that democratic institutions are a nuisance to be confined and limited, have put forward reform initiatives which are dangerous not only for their piecemeal character (piecemeal reform and a failure to evaluate the “big picture” is why we are in such a degraded situation) but for their contempt of democratic culture and process. Today we have a Governor who has the credibility with his constituents and the knowledge of the machinery and personnel of state government to address many of these problems.
But Jerry Brown is no ordinary governor. He has made an art of what he calls “creative inaction” and what one former electoral opponent called “sitting on your ass”. Rather than spend his twilight political years regenerating our state, Brown is coasting on platitudes and applying band-aids to the festering, self-inflicted wounds from which California suffers. Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Walters opined that “maybe in an intellectual way [Brown] understands [that things have to change], but I don’t think he has the guts to do it”. And commentator Peter Schrag might have been even closer to the mark when he wrote, “Frankly, I don’t think he cares all taht much about making California into a great state again.....He doesn’t like big institutions. A great state was his father’s thing”.**
I fear that they are right, and that we are in danger of having to wait for the end of Brown’s misrule until January of 2019 for an opportunity to get any central leadership on the question of political reform. But I cling to the hope that Brown might use his likely re-election bid next year to launch a program of reform. If he needs some inspiration, he could read some of his own inaugural speeches from his first eight years as governor.
In 1979, Brown declared that “the people know that something is profoundly wrong when 75% of government spending decisions are automatically decided by past formulas and not present lawmakers”. He was referring to inflexible property tax rates, but Prop 13 enshrined just another, ultimately more destructive version of the same, and is but one of a host of spending mandates written into an overburdened constitution. It is a situation that Brown should act upon.
In the same speech, Brown wrote that “Government, as exemplar and teacher, must manifest a self-discipline that spreads across the other institutions in our society, so that we can begin to work for the future, not just consume the present”. But if our government is supposed to represent the morals and ambitions of our society, it should share not just the self-discipline and critical thinking that ought to characterise our individual behaviours, but the compassion, flexibility, and kindness which I imagine—and hope—that most of us would want to find in any human community.
That is, our government should concern itself not just with enforcing artificial economic theories and balancing budgets, but should ensure that our society has the necessary tools at its disposal to care for and look after its members, to ensure that the next generation of our society has the protections and opportunities that it needs to prosper and develop, and that each generation can decide its own path and not be bound by what Thomas Paine called “governing beyond the grave...the most ridiculous and insolent of all tyrannies”.***
But until he begins to work to convince Californians that our democracy is in need of a serious overhaul, the Governor is weighing down our state with his overweening personal ambitions and lack of the same for the place he purports to govern. As much as Prop 13 (which his “creative inaction” helped to make a reality), Jerry Brown has become an institution of California’s politics: a Third Rail, a Broken Rail, or a Cow on the Tracks...a seemingly-immovable obstacle to reform and progress in a state which needs a healthy dose of both.
* In R Jeffrey Lustig, Remaking California: Reclaiming the Public Good, 224.
** Chuck McFadden, Trailblazer: a Biography of Jerry Brown (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013), 68, 162, 170-171.
*** Thomas Paine, Rights of Man.