California Governor Jerry Brown was famously dubbed ‘Governor Moonbeam’ for his half-hearted futurism, and an apparent willingness to sail against the prevailing political winds (though in actuality he was more likely to ride the waves generated by grassroots environmentalist or labour rights movements). If his claim to possessing any political courage, and the extent to which he earned the ‘Moonbeam’ sobriquet were always open to question, the 2010 Jerry Brown model is decidedly passé.
He resembles nothing so much as a drowning man, frantically grabbing onto anything that floats his way without pausing to consider whether the object in question is sufficiently buoyant to take him (and incidentally California) to safer waters. You’d be tempted to throw him a life preserver, but you’d hesitate, for such is his proclivity for getting things wrong that you suspect you’d only be prolonging the inevitable.
First Brown latched onto the morally and intellectually bankrupt notion of the political pledge, the very thing which has transformed California’s Republican Party from a responsible participant in state politics into a nihilist cult. In this iteration, Brown pledged not to raise taxes without resorting to the initiative process—the other feature of our politics which, in its present form, makes the state ungovernable. Then, failing to recognise the Republican Party for the anti-tax monstrosity that it has become, Brown politely asked them to support putting a tax measure on the ballot, and spent the next several months negotiating with a group of pledge-taking, oath-swearing economic fundamentalists, with predictable results.
In the meantime, the Governor forced a ruthless, anti-social budget on the state, which continued the carve-up of our world-renowned public universities, our social system and our public spaces. As George Skelton recently pointed out, Brown’s decision to close 70 state parks was purely a gesture. Shuttering the parks will not contribute so much as one penny on the dollar to closing the deficit, and will have serious consequences for the communities which depend on said parks for their livelihood. In the long term, small, individual financial sacrifices which fund our health, welfare and education systems pay big, collective social and economic dividends. But this is too sophisticated an argument for the Governor.
Sinking deeper, Brown launched a signature-gathering drive to put a measure on the ballot for the fall of 2012. But the measure consists of temporary tax increases to relieve our beleaguered state. There will be no mention of reforming Proposition 13—either with an end towards ending the incongruity of minority rule which requires a supermajority to raise revenues and a minority to shred our social system, or with an end to rationalising our property tax regime, which in its current iteration treats real estate moguls, large corporations, and Jane and Joe citizen alike. There will be no effort to institute a rational voting system which gives voters actual choice (unlike Proposition 14, which in this year’s election will present voters with neoconservative Democrats like Feinstein, brainless budget-cutters like Brown, and assorted zealots from the Republican Party, and no progressive alternatives). There will be no move to overhaul the initiative process, or to fully integrate it into state politics.
In his campaign against billionaire Meg Whitman in 2010, Brown once said “the process is the plan”. This was derided as a typical Brown-ism, but in one sense he was correct. So broken is California’s political system that any large-scale economic or social plan is doomed to fall apart in the face of the state’s mangled democratic apparatus (unless, of course, that plan is to dismantle the state’s institutions, for the structure is tailor-made to implement such a right-wing agenda). But Brown’s grasp of the process, and specifically of the need to reform the process, has proved spectacularly poor, almost unbelievably so, in fact, for someone who has spent decades in state politics. This is all the more galling because Brown made his understanding of state politics his primarily selling point during the 2010 election. So steadfast has he proven in his unwillingness to address the faulty machinery of California’s political system that one can only conclude that the Governor is possessed by laziness and driven by political expediency rather than any real desire to come to grips with the forces that first paralysed, and are now propelling our state’s public sector inexorably towards self-immolation.
Like his predecessors, Brown is substituting the artful deployment of smoke and mirrors for either a principled stand for the progressive agenda his party once espoused or the kind of rational reform of California’s politics which would both empower progressives in the state and introduce an element of reason into our politics from which we could all benefit. The Governor has been, from day one, obsessed about the budget process, the dysfunctionality of which is merely a symptom of the deeper problems which plague our state. In the context of minority rule, fiddling with the budget, as Brown has chosen to do, can only cause more pain for more Californians.
The Governor is a wily politician, whose entire career has been based on the premise that governance by an unholy combination of inaction and short-term expediency will enable him to survive to fight another election another day. I suspect, however, that the 2014 election will be his last, and the one during which he will be unable to evade facing up to his legacy. Between his airheaded approach to state government in the ‘70s which brought us Proposition 13, and his casual dismantling of our education, research, parks, welfare and healthcare sectors in the ‘10s, Brown will be responsible more than anyone else in the state for implementing our descent into a state of anarchy presided over by the state Republican Party and its wealthy paymasters.
As things stand, there is nothing remotely forward-thinking, courageous, progressive, or even rational about the Governor’s approach to our plight. Moonbeam appears to have swerved out of orbit and lost contact with reality on his home planet of California.