As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Friday, October 09, 2009

California's Past, California's Future

Gordon Skene posted a fascinating echo of the past, from a Jerry Brown address to the state the day after the passage of Prop. 13 in 1978.

The Jerry Brown you hear is in full backpedal mode, telling voters that the message was received, that government spending is a scourge, that "we must look forward to lean and frugal budgets." Voters sent a message that they want their taxes cut, and the state will oblige. Brown offered a hiring freeze for state workers, proposed a round of budget cuts, and endorsed some kind of automatic limit on spending for the future. He offered a defense of state workers late in the clip, and he asked corporations to pretty-please take the huge windfall they would get by having their property taxes lowered to "invest in the state," but otherwise, it's a full-on co-opting of the Jarvis message.

Now, coming the day after passage of Prop. 13, you can argue that Brown was doing what he had to do. The people really did speak, although they didn't quite know the consequences of the words they were using, and Brown would have a re-election battle within 5 months, and he had to project a message that he "felt the pain" of those out there who voted to save their homes.

The problem is that this statement is directly analogous to the statement of Darrell Steinberg on May 20, 2009, the day after the special election went down in flames. Some would obviously ague that he was in the same position as Brown, and did what he had to do as well. As I said on May 20:

Where is the argument for DEMOCRACY in these statements? Since 1978 that democracy has crumbled and needs to be completely rebuilt. Everyone knows this but refuses to say it out loud. This is why the legislature and the Governor have historically low approval ratings. People are starved for actual leadership and see none. Only democracy will save us. This failed experiment with conservative Two Santa Claus Theories has now become deeply destructive. Because the democrats have provided no leadership and ceded the rhetorical ground, California public opinion holds the contradictory beliefs that the state should not raise taxes and also not cut spending. And if it persists without leadership and advocacy to the contrary, nothing will change.

Not once in those 31 intervening years has an argument been offered that leads proudly instead of placates meekly, that tells people about the future instead of the past, that makes stands on principle instead of trying to do the best with the system we have. That address in 1978 should have been replayed in a loop at every Democratic committee meeting and club event for 31 years, with the inevitable question asked afterward: "Is this a rallying cry? Is this the voice of a party that presumes to be on the side of the people? Is this giving people a vision, a dream, even a goal?"

People understand this in their lizard brains. They can naturally discern the strong and the weak, and gravitate toward the former even if their strength is repulsive. Since 1978, we have had exactly one other Democratic Governor in California, the kind of guy who signs on to amicus briefs with the Cal Chamber of Commerce defending illegal gubernatorial actions, and he was run out of Sacramento by a radical right movement that considered him too much of a hippie.

I have always thought that a strong defense of democracy, of the principles of majority rule, of government as a protector and a defender, would be rewarded in the public square. Instead we muddle through, and people suffer. I have not taken too much note of this "failure of the California dream" concept - for my money, as long as there were millions in poverty, gated communities and invisible barriers stratifying society, a separate California for the poor, the sick, the aged, then that dream was a good tool for marketers but a destructive proposition to tout. And while this has never been more true in our unequal society, it was ever thus. For the dream to be resurrected, it would have to be something fundamentally different. Not a "dream" of suburban sprawl and excess, but a dream of a society that takes care of one another, that seeks to maximize potential, that provides opportunity and allows individual dreams to take root. That can only happen in a flowering democracy reflective of the popular will.

I think leaders are emerging. While I won't be a part of day-to-day writing of the back and forth of California politics, as a citizen of the state I intend not to abandon it but to do whatever I can to involve myself in a movement toward fulfilling that new dream. It's deeply frustrating to analyze the politics of a state surrounded by brick walls to responsible governance at every turn, but paradoxically I think it remains an exciting time to be a progressive in California. The long march continues.

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