In 2010, California gubernatorial candidate Jerry Brown missed an opportunity. Brown could have run on a platform of political reform, with a promise to address California’s dangerous democratic deficit. Or he could have run while sponsoring a series of reform-minded initiatives, designed to create a situation in which he could have got his first term off to a productive start. Or, he could have run on an idealistic progressive platform designed to create electoral coat-tails for other Democrats with an eye toward capturing supermajorities in the Senate and Assembly.
Instead, Brown ran on a very simple, very stupid pledge. He would not, he pledged, ever attempt to raise taxes without the approval of voters. He was prepared, in other words, to abandon his role as governor, and ask legislators to give up all of their discretion, and operate on a two-year budget cycle subject not to the structured deliberations of elected representatives or an integrated direct democracy process designed to function alongside existing institutions. No, Brown’s pledge means that California operates on two-year cycles that are governed according to who can muster up the most corporate dollars for ad-buys and propaganda.
Like the economic fundamentalists of the Republican Party who governed the state from the minority (thanks to undemocratic supermajority requirements imposed by Proposition 13, passed under Brown’s watch in 1978) having pledged away the use of their grey cells to Howard Jarvis, Brown dispensed with the discretion associated with good policymaking. In a conventional political system, good economic times could lead to higher taxes to invest in public services. In difficult times, a measure of redistribution might be necessary. In light of demographic stabilization, tax cuts might be in order. But Brown’s pledge-based ballot-box budgeting does away with this discretion.
The result was two years of the worst austerity this state has seen during which Brown, eager to prove his “fiscal responsibility”, pillaged our public services for “savings” which came at a tremendous social and economic cost to the working class, students, children, the elderly, the sick, the homeless, and those with no voice in our society.
Relying on an initiative to pass Prop 30, an inadequate band-aid, set a dangerous precedent. It sent the message that it was good politics—even if bad policy, and horrifically immoral—for politicians to abdicate responsibility and pass the buck to a fickle public which exercises its democratic rights in a piecemeal fashion which puts the initiative system structurally at odds with our representative system.
Now Brown is running for Governor again, and the Sacramento Bee reported that “Brown declined to say Friday if he will maintain the pledge he made in 2010 not to raise taxes without a public vote” in his fourth term. Brown’s response, which focused on the water bond and rainy day fund initiatives he is pushing suggested that additional revenue for California’s still-beleaguered public sphere was not a priority. Indeed, the idea of a mandated rainy day fund operates on the misguided premise that even in hard times like these, when schools and universities have a long way to go before they recover, it makes sense to redirect any surplus funds to a rainy-day fund rather than to people who are struggling amidst an on-going social and economic downpour.
While Brown’s refusal to commit himself to another silly, debilitating pledge will undoubtedly frustrate some of his critics, his refusal to address California’s democratic deficit—and the damage that such pledges do to the state given the structural inadequacies of its institutions—is even more frustrating.
Commentators have praised Brown’s accomplishments, ignoring his two-year punitive assault on the public sphere, which has now been followed by two years of neglect or unhelpful devolution. But they also ignore the fact that those accomplishments Brown has managed to wring out of our system are due to a unique set of circumstances which are unlikely to be replicated with any future governor, all but ensuring that in a post-Brown California we will return to an even greater state of gridlock absent any efforts at political reform.