In the final days of the campaign he has barely acknowledged, Jerry Brown’s contempt for the democratic process, California’s voters, and the media is seeping through. Brown hit the campaign trail in the 11th hour, having spent almost no money on his re-election bid and virtually no time outlining a vision for the next four years.
The Sacramento Bee reported an exchange on Wednesday between Brown and reporters in Modesto. A journalist asked, “Governor, you’ve been kind of reluctant or maybe cagey about your platform for a fourth term”.
The Governor interrupted with a violent “Noooo!”, and added, “Quite the opposite, I have communicated more completely to the people of California than any other governor in history”.
“How so?” replied the journalist.
“This is my 12th year”, smirked the Governor, “no one has ever had 12 years”.
And what a 12 years it has been. Twelve years of obfuscation, “creative inaction”, inattention to California’s social ills, its economic inequality, and its democratic deficit. Twelve years of indecipherable babble, and 12 years of the media lapping it all up and begging for more.
“So what don’t you know?” the Governor went on. “What don’t you know that you think I should tell you now in front of all these people? I’d really like to get a new opening here to propound one of my many deep thoughts”.
The assembled media chuckled and laughed, demonstrating Brown’s ability to hijack a serious question and keep the people who are supposed to ask such questions quiescent in the palm of his hand.
Undeterred, the first journalist followed up and asked about the fourth term agenda.
Transparently exhasperated, Brown whined, “I mean look, you won’t print half of what I say. I dare you to! So this whole canard about ‘What are you going to do Brown?’, think about it!”
It’s a good job that journalists don’t print half of what Brown says, because he is notoriously content-free in speaking, his speeches larded with references that lead down rabbit-holes and off-topic tangents. The media interpret the substanceless nature of the Governor’s press conferences as evidence of his brilliance and “quirkiness” instead of seeing in them his strategy of managing the fourth estate and evading questioning.
When he launched into a soliloquy during the course of the press conference it contained not an iota of illuminating information about a fourth term agenda. He waxed at great length about the need to manage the state’s resource and budgetary problems, and referred to “that train to move from north to south, I mean, getting that thing built”.
On the fourth term agenda: “A fourth term will be very different than a first term or a second term, and it will be even different than a third term. Now what that will all be, you just, you know, fasten your seat belt, it’ll be a very exciting ride”.
A nice way of saying, “Shut up and quit asking questions. You’ll find out in good time”.
This sounds very familiar. In 2012, in one of his faux-reflective moments, the Governor used a theatrical allusion: “We’re just beginning Act 2…the third act is when it gets good. The second is when the tension, the protagonist is under tension, the protagonist is under pressure, can he get out of the box he’s in. That’s always in Act 2. All right, you wait, we’re going to get to Act 3 very soon”.
It’s certainly possible to think of Jerry Brown’s political career as a journey or theatrical production. He’s been taking Californians for a ride for forty years. He pioneered the “gesture politics” that are today a matter of routine for people from all parties, few of whom are as practiced or adept in the cynical art as Brown. But if California has been the setting for a grand performance, it has been either tragedy or epic farce.
The Governor’s refusal to plan, to take the long view, or to govern according to moral principles has been disastrous. His “philosophy” of “creative inaction” created the opening for the passage of Prop 13. That initiative drastically re-arranged government in the state, implemented undemocratic supermajority rules, forced the state to rely on an undiversified revenue stream, and has made it all but impossible to fund the institutions necessary for a state growing in population and demographic complexity, short-changing subsequent generations rather than the socially-irresponsible generation who voted for its passage.
Jerry Brown’s small government mantra of the 1970s, cloaked in faux-philosophical rhetoric, meant that he anticipated the Tea Party by over 30 years. And that he swept back into the Governorship in the same year that the Tea Party made its appearance on the national stage is no coincidence. Commentators described how California resisted the “red wave” of 2010, but such interpretations fundamentally misread what Brown is about.
His social liberalism aside, Jerry Brown’s Governorship has been about violent, destructive austerity. He punished the poor, the weak, the elderly, and the young with two years of draconian cuts. Now he is attempting to force a “Rainy Day Fund” on the state, when Californians have yet to repair the damage done to their society by the last storm.
Like the economic fundamentalists in the Tea Party, Brown sees budgets as an end rather than a means. He arranges social policy, to the detriment of most Californians, around his budget goals rather than using the budget as a tool to advance moral social policies. He is violently anti-tax, and promised in 2010 and is intimating again this year that the only revenue increases Californians will see have to be passed by voters. He is presiding over the privatization and monetization of the state’s University system.
In essence, his is a refusal to govern. And that refusal to govern is crippling the California inhabited by the working and middle class, while permitting the wealthy to go on with their lives, unencumbered by any responsibility to give some of the wealth they have extracted from the state back to the public sector that enabled their rise.
If we have a pretty good idea what a fourth term of Jerry Brown might look like it’s no thanks to anything the Governor has said. Rather, it’s because his political life has followed a pattern of cynicism, inaction, periodic attacks on the public sphere, and a refusal to engage with our state’s structural ills, some of which are of his own making. I don’t envy Californians the coming four years.