With the focus of the Presidential primaries turning to California, it was perhaps inevitable that the national media would swivel its attention at least momentarily toward the Golden State’s own political-economy and its trajectory over the past several years. The New York Times, on the eve of Governor Jerry Brown’s endorsement of Hillary Clinton, ran a story recommending that the “Success of Jerry Brown, and California, Offers Lesson to National Democrats.”
That could certainly be true, but while the New York Times suggests that this is a lesson Democrats should celebrate and emulate, a more careful reading of recent history demonstrates that it is a cautionary tale.
The NYT praises Democrats in California as “a model of electoral success and cohesion,” arguing that it is “one of the few states in the country…where Democrats are completely in control, holding every statewide office as well as overwhelming majorities in the Assembly and the Senate.” They praise state Democrats for pursuing legislation “on guns, tobacco, the environment, the minimum wage, and immigrant rights.”
But that’s hardly the whole story. Jerry Brown’s own triumph came in 2010, the year of the Tea Party surge. Many read his election as a rebuke of the rigid, pledge-taking radicals in the Republican Party, who pursued vicious policies of austerity rather than pursuing reinvestment in a public sphere that had the capacity to uplift people whose livelihoods had been badly impacted by recession.
In reality, Brown ran on a Tea Party lite platform. He took a pledge not to raise taxes without a referendum, tying his hands for the first years of his governorship. During those years he pursued savage austerity, damaging social services, schools, universities, and other core institutions in the public realm, harming all those people who don’t have to resources to rely exclusively on the private sector for support.
Brown failed to tackle the state’s structural ills that keep it on autopilot towards austerity over the long term, absent courageous leadership. And Brown made clear—trumpeting his philosophy of “creative inaction”—that he would offer no such leadership. Instead of tackling big, structural problems, solutions to which would free up resources and allow the state to rationalize its tax structure and services, he set about micro-managing public institutions and turning them into the “villains” of the piece.
A consistent target has been the University of California. When UC students requested tuition relief after decades of dramatically rising costs, Brown compared them—students at a public institution, asking that their institution be made genuinely public—to bankers asking for a bailout, and crudely offered them a “reality sandwich.”
Aside from his policies of austerity, his political cowardice, and his attacks on the vulnerable in a state of great resources, Brown has also put a dramatic check on the influence of his party. When other Democrats sought to challenge Brown’s commitment to austerity by suggesting that reinvestment in the public sphere could do more to help Californians, Brown shut them down and made clear that he would veto efforts to reject his tepid and therefore damaging liberalism.
The NYT clearly does not understand that in a state like California, with its supermajority rules, majorities in the Assembly and Senate do not amount to “complete control.” Absent supermajorities, Democrats are in no position to seriously address fundamental questions of taxation, revenue, and public priorities. Without a supermajority, the party cannot challenge the state’s slide toward austerity with a population growing in size and in demographic complexity.
When he ran for re-election as a popular incumbent with a massive fundraising advantage in 2014, Brown had the opportunity to mount a campaign of ideas and generate coattails for the Democratic Party to allow it to seize such a supermajority. Instead, he ignored the election altogether and let the party fight a series of disparate battles across the state. He ran a non-campaign laced with contempt for California’s voters and the media.
So when Jerry Brown endorses Hillary Clinton, saying “the stakes couldn’t be higher,” he is articulating a truth, but also exposing the extent to which he failed Californians for whom the stakes in 2010 were very high indeed. Brown is no party-builder, no progressive, and no kind of leader.
His much vaunted “fiscal discipline” is just another word for disciplining the poor, the sick, the young, the weak, and anyone else on the margins of society. In that, he represents the liberal orthodoxy of the large, right-wing of the Democratic Party that is fighting off a challenge from the left in the form of the uninspiring but much-needed candidacy of Senator Bernie Sanders.
I hope California voters and the media will take a slightly harder look at the record of Jerry Brown and the right-wing of the Democratic Party before they recommend his mismanagement of California as a model for the country.