Jerry Brown, in this third term as California’s Governor, seems immune not just to criticism, but in the national press at least, to anything resembling scrutiny. In paper after paper and in one magazine after another, glossy profiles featuring the defiant-looking Governor have appeared. Brown is quoted spouting classical sages and sounding by turns hard-nosed and Zen.
His tenure since 2011 in Sacramento has generated a veritable cottage industry of crummy “Comeback” literature which proclaims him the Best Thing in California since gold was discovered, back when Brown was but a wee lad. There are variants to this literature. Some national commentators don’t even pretend to know anything about California’s politics, and just sit on Brown’s famously uncomfortable bench in his Capitol office and let their eyes get wider as the canny political operator leads them down the garden path.
In the Huffington Post, William Bradley writes with far more knowledge and experience of California’s political scene, and is in a different way just as startlingly bad, although in his case it has more to do with treating politics like a game instead of a moral endeavour. In the last few days, Bradley has launched a new one-man tendril of a strain of “Comeback” literature that earlier seemed to die out: the Brown for President 2016 sort. Bradley cites a GOP operative who “recently talked about a potentially powerful Brown candidacy for president in 2016 with a strong story to tell”.
His efforts, perhaps better motivated by the sense that it’s better to start a bandwagon than to jump on one, depart from the premise that “Brown is getting a tremendous amount of credit, most deserved, for turning around California’s once crisis-plagued state government by cutting the budget, raising revenue, and encouraging economic growth”.
The latest evidence of Brown’s popularity comes in a poll which suggests that if the election were held today, Brown would secure 57% of the votes of “likely voters”. His nearest Republican Party competitor, Tim Donnelly, is forty points behind, and Neel Kashkari, the pundits’ favourite to save the Republican Party’s brand, makes an impressive showing with all of 2%! The Republican Party clearly has no interest in being saved. It could also be, understandably, that the party has some difficulty in recognising “the 35-year-old dingbat from Goldman someone put in charge of handing out $700 billion bailout dollars” as its Saviour.
Undoubtedly Brown’s popularity has something to do with the fact that he is something of a known quantity running against one professed cultural fundamentalist (Donnelly) and two economic fundamentalists (both Donnelly and Kashkari). The Republicans on the gubernatorial ticket might very well welcome Texas Governor Rick Perry’s efforts to poach jobs from California. Kashkari is a buffoon, whose “education policy” ran to a half dozen lines. Donnelly is an Assemblyman famous for trying to carry a loaded gun onto an airplane. Putting Donnelly in charge of a political system like California’s would be akin to handing a loaded gun to a raving lunatic.
But any evaluation of Brown’s record should recognise that Bradley’s characterisation of Brown as having “[turned around] California’s once crisis-plagued state government by cutting the budget, raising revenue, and encouraging economic growth” rings hollow from the perspective of many Californians.
The recession ravaged California at the end of several decades of increasing economic inequality. More and more people during that time, and particularly during the eight years of the Bush administration, were shunted down the social ladder. Their vulnerability, not immediately apparent during more stable years, became tragically apparent when the bottom of the public sphere and the social net fell out from under them—or rather, was slashed from beneath them—in response to the recession and California’s budget deficits.
The nationwide response to recession, increasingly the norm particularly after 2010 was a cruel drive for austerity, which held that the black in the budget was more important than people’s lives, and that the spectacular wealth of the plutocrats who increasingly dominate our country was off-limits when it came to redistribution. Instead, that redistribution had to occur amongst people in the middle class and below.
In other states, that might have provided enough leeway for the state governments to take something resembling a humane approach to its problems when it came to the provision of state-sourced welfare and public goods. But California possesses a Byzantine political structure, with details of the tax code written into what is one of the world’s longest constitutions. The Golden State’s political structure pits voters and the legislature against one another.
Most devastatingly, it is rigged towards making cuts, because it requires 66% of the legislature to vote to direct more tax dollars towards, well, anything, but only 51% of the legislature to rip the foundations out from beneath a population rendered vulnerable by national and statewide trends towards divestment from the public sphere, slow processes accelerated dramatically from 2008 onwards.
Arnold Schwarzenegger set grimly about the business of squeezing Californians and shaving down their institutions. But it was Jerry Brown who gave a more credible face to austerity. Our gimlet-faced Governor, elected by a wide margin in 2010, launched a stunningly regressive assault on schools, universities, parks, libraries, regulatory agencies, and the social safety net. By so doing, he achieved the balanced budget of which the pundits are so enamoured. But the human costs of Brown’s violently-reactionary program never feature in the calculations of such people.
None of them ask what it means to use these cuts to fashion a society in which fewer people have access to quality public services like schools and universities and libraries and the social welfare resources that act as a stimulus to families who are the victims of economic forces beyond their control. None of them have sought to measure the value of a balanced budget against the chronic damage done to those on whose backs the budget was balanced.
The pundits’ excuse for neglecting these issues would likely be the passage of Prop 30—by voters, not Brown and legislators—which was sold as a “fix” by the Governor, but did nothing more than place a band-aid on the gaping wound the Governor helped his predecessor and the Crackpot Caucus (i.e. the California GOP) inflict on the state.
Brown’s best moment for potential redemption after his sociopathic assault on Californians during the previous two years came in 2012, when Democrats won supermajorities in both the Assembly and Senate. This could have been the chance to reinvest in our state’s beleaguered institutions, the strengthening of which would have been a boon to the working and middle classes. It could have been an opportunity to tackle our broken system of governance. It could have provided a moment for a debate about the responsibilities of those who govern—including California’s voters—and the value we place on democratic public institutions and democratic forms of government.
Instead, Brown threatened to go to war with Democrats in the legislature if they contemplated taxes. He ignored outright calls for political reform. He compared our state’s struggling, debt-burdened students to millionaire bankers. He is wrenching the “community” out of our Community College system. He is instrumentalising higher education. He didn’t even mention the word “inequality” in this year’s State of the State Address.
Bradley praises Brown’s “future-oriented” agenda, citing the bullet train, and renewable energy, but not identifying who will ride the train that will likely serve fewer people than a overhaul and subsidy of the existing Amtrak system would achieve, or mentioning Brown’s decision to simultaneously endorse facking and roll back the remit of regulators who could assess the safety of the policy.
Brown resembles less some classical sage in the agora of the “New California”, fresh from a comeback, than an addled Nero, fiddling to some orchestra only he can hear atop a social and economic tinderbox which he is actually well-placed to overhaul were he not so serially irresponsible.
Given the cowardice and irresponsibility of the California progressives and Democrats who have given Brown a free pass, abetted by the bamboozled press, I can’t imagine a scenario in which he is not our Governor until January of 2019 (barring a successful presidential run, of course). What is so shameful is that these coming years will be spent so unproductively, because of the refusal of this one man who sits atop his state and so obstinately refuses to come to grips with its emerging social chasms, the crumbling of its public sphere, and its devastating democratic deficit. We need a Governor who will do more than take up space and contribute to the degradation of our polity, and Jerry Brown is unlikely to fit that bill.