Friday, February 28, 2014

Jerry Brown's Reelection Bid Suffers From a Lack of Imagination and an Absence of Social Responsibility

Some years back, in his inaugural address, Governor Brown described how “through the turmoil of change, and sometimes chaos, Californians have pressed on toward the good society—not for the few, not for the many, but for all”.  In his address he focused on infrastructure, social welfare, and education, remarking that California’s “public schools have begun shoring up their curricula to meet the stern demands of an age in which the only public cost greater than education is ignorance.”.  He went on to describe a “bold program to duplicate in ten short years a tuition-free system of higher education which already is the best in the world”. 
Jerry Brown | Photo: ohad/Flickr/Creative Commons License

An inaugural address with such progressive aspirations very likely sounds rather strange and unfamiliar to most Californians, and so it will undoubtedly make sense to learn that it was not Jerry Brown, our current Governor, who delivered that address, but rather his father, Pat Brown, in 1963.  Pat Brown helped to engineer California’s social welfare network, bits of which endure.  He promoted higher education and K-12 education in the state, and emphasized a communitarian mode of politics in which all members of society were asked to contribute in keeping with their success to the welfare of society as a whole.

Jerry Brown, by contrast, in his most recent tenure as Governor, has been a major proponent of dismantling the state his father helped to build.  Propelled by his ambitions, lack of imagination, and a fanatical Republican Party minority, Jerry Brown subjected the state to a blistering round of cuts, launching an opportunistic attack on the public sphere which dwarfed the efforts of his Republican predecessor, Arnold Schwarzenegger. 

Having hamstrung the public sphere, Brown pushed Prop 30, an initiative which he billed as a “fix” for education in the state, but which really did nothing more than slap a band-aid on the gaping wound inflicted by the Governor himself.  Brown has no aspirations for California, and talks ceaselessly of limiting our ambitions and finding ways to short-change our public sector.  When pressed on whether the state would seek to live up to its obligations to its public universities by restoring funding, Brown referred to state funding as a “bailout”, likening our state’s students to Wall Street titans.

On Thursday, Brown announced that he will run for re-election in 2014, which would give him a fourth term governing California.  His announcement comprised a list of “accomplishments”, but curiously, many of these “accomplishments” involved him making some amends for the problems he generated with his cuts.  Brown is like a mugger, who takes $50 from his victim and then asks for praise when he returns $10. 

Brown, largely by dint of out-lasting the competition with his chameleon-like political maneuvers which today leave him governing like a faux populist Tea Party Republican, has built up a considerable reservoir of trust with voters and the media (particularly that outside of California).  Some long-time California commentators are predicting an historic landslide for Brown. 

And yet Brown has chosen to do very little with this mandate.  All Californians would benefit from systematic political reform: the democratization of our voting system; the elimination of supermajority rules; the roll-back of propositions which deny Californians the right to make choices about their society; and the empowerment of our governing structure, which today operates under voter-imposed constraints which prevent our government from actively addressing voters’ concerns. 

Brown could choose to run on an ambitious platform which could transform our state’s capacity for self-government and restore principles of democracy and equality to a society increasingly dominated by elite interests and money.  Instead, he’s running on a self-contradicting policy grab-bag designed to appeal to diverse constituencies without accomplishing anything of significance.  He is promoting fracking while eliminating the regulation that could make the technology safe.  He’s pushing a bullet train while ignoring the ailing existing transit system, and declining to tackle the state’s incapacity to fund such a large-scale project.  He’s pushing a model of “fiscal responsibility” which makes the working class pay the price for the anti-social behavior of the wealthy, and allows our public institutions to become casualties of a broken system of government which he refuses to address.

Progressive voters, dissatisfied with Brown’s refusal to address the growing inequality and gap in access to public institutions in the Golden State will have no alternative candidate in the general election thanks to the state’s undemocratic Top Two primary system, which will see Brown and one of two GOP fundamentalists advance from the June election to the November ballot.  I will vote in the election, because there will be other offices sought by responsible candidates, critical initiatives, and much at stake at the federal level.  But I will probably leave my ballot blank when it comes to voting for a Governor, because a choice between a fundamentalist and a fundamentalist who pretends to be progressive is not much of a choice.

Pat Brown was not a perfect Governor, and progressives and right-wingers alike could find much to critique about his tenure.  But he did not give in to the temptation that has beguiled his son: to back away from the dream of a fair society by building up poll numbers while preaching about the need for introducing cruelty, inequality, hardship, and social demolition in our state. 

In his second inaugural Pat Brown declared that “We are here to prove that a civilization which can create a machine to fulfill a job can create a job to fulfill a man”, pointing out that all Californians want much the same thing: “A productive life in harmony with neighbor and nature— [which] will not be wrought in our lifetime … But here and now we can put our hands to good work. What we do here may not have its full impact on our own lives. Our children and their children will be the better judges of what we do.  They will measure our actions by the security of the lives they live; by the wisdom they acquire; by the way they invest their leisure; by the quality of the very air they breathe”.

By such metrics, Jerry Brown’s cynical campaign is very much lacking.  He should take the opportunity to make his final tilt at high office about something more than chasing a margin of victory.  He should think a bit longer about what he could do in his campaign to introduce a greater degree of democracy, equality, and social responsibility into our civic sphere and governing structure, and thence into the state he aspires to govern for a further four years. 

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