Things Fall Apart

Today California is witnessing an interesting convergence of events. As the state legislature begins to debate whether to destroy prisons, education, or health care, the eyes of most Californians will be trained on downtown San Francisco, where the California Supreme Court is going to issue its ruling on Proposition 8.

Both events signal the failure of California’s system of government. The system that creaked along for the last 30 years has now failed at the core tasks of an American government – to protect the rights of the governed, and to promote prosperity.

The victory of Prop 8, the dire economic crisis, and the looming collapse of our public services are all the product of a singular failure: the inability to respond effectively to the rise of a political movement bent on destroying the fabric of postwar California. I am referring, of course, to movement conservatism. California’s politics, dominated by a centrism determined to uphold the status quo, felt it had tamed the right-wing beast. It was wrong, and we are suffering the outcome of that massive miscalculation.

Since Howard Jarvis’s 1978 victory, the unavoidable armageddon that Prop 13 initiated was frequently postponed through a series of short-term financial gimmicks as well as an unprecedented era of cheap credit that enabled prosperity to be offered to the middle-class in spite of wage stagnation. When the cheap credit vanished and the toolbox of gimmicks was exhausted, we were left with our present crisis, and the fundamentally right-wing nature of state government could no longer be masked or ameliorated.

To continue the story David Dayen began yesterday, Howard Jarvis never did live to see the massive spending cuts he hoped the legislature would be forced to produce. Beginning in 1980 a new political consensus was forged by Speaker Willie Brown and the next three governors – Democrat Jerry Brown and Republicans George Deukmejian and Pete Wilson. The consensus  revolved around California’s version of late 20th century centrism – made possible by, and totally reliant upon, the appearance of “growth” driven by asset bubbles. Those bubbles allowed Sacramento to paper over the loss of tax revenue and offer economic growth.

The 1980s saw the construction of the model. Sprawl was used to provide affordable housing. Special tax systems were set up to pay for suburban schools – the 1982 Mello-Roos Act – which were funded as long as there was enough credit to sustain sprawl. The loss of property tax revenue led cities to shift toward retail, further promoting sprawl (big box stores, malls). The jobs and spending created by sprawl provided enough prosperity to keep voters happy and the politicians in power. For those who were left behind – those living in the city centers, people of color, and the poor – 1978 had been partly about their political and economic marginalization, and the majority of Californians embraced it as part of the deal.

The ideal feature of the centrist system, from the view of its practitioners, is that it apparently neutralized the right-wing revolt of 1978. Low taxes could be paired with preservation of core services, albeit at a slightly reduced level, and thereby avoided another Jarvisite outburst. Well-paid consultants could run statewide TV campaigns to force the public to accept the consensus, without having to do the messy work of engaging a grassroots that would challenge the centrist status quo.

When the system came crashing down in 1991-92, the centrists found it possible to cut a deal to keep things going. Pete Wilson and Willie Brown had much in common, and were able to hammer out a package of tax increases and spending cuts that got a 2/3 majority. I don’t romanticize that deal, but instead use it to show that it confirmed to the centrists that the system they’d built in 1980s could withstand crisis as long as everyone was willing to sit down and make a deal, damn the consequences.

However, the right-wing wasn’t sleeping. In 1990 they managed to convince a bare majority of voters to approve Prop 140, a radical term limits measure that should have fallen afoul of the “revision” rule. But the real moment of change came in 1994, when the far-right in the Republican Party grabbed control of the agenda and launched a massive attack on Latino Californians. Pete Wilson wholeheartedly embraced the attack, and although it brought Republicans gains that year, it was a victory to make Pyrrhus jealous. Latinos registered for citizenship and to vote in massive numbers, and beginning in 1996 what had once been a state whose politics were fairly balanced shifted massively to the Democrats.

As long as Republicans stood a reasonable chance of winning control of California’s legislature or its electoral votes, Democratic deal-cutting with Republicans could be sold to the base as a necessary move to stave off the Jarvisite hordes. But after 1996 this became less and less plausible. The California Republican Party became a captive of the extreme right, even more than usual, and in one of its last acts before leaving power in 1998, pushed through a massive and reckless series of tax cuts.

Democrats, still believing in the ’80s model of centrism even though their moment had now arrived, stupidly went along with the deal. Their own approach to state politics dovetailed with the dominant Clintonism – that the right-wing was something to be appeased and never fought. It helped that another asset bubble had given the appearance of permanent prosperity, even though wiser heads had tried in vain to tell the legislature that the tax revenues of the dot-com boom were impossible to sustain.

In 2002 the bottom fell out again. But instead of sitting down and cutting another deal, Republicans held out in an effort to destroy their Democratic opponents. They succeeded in recalling Gray Davis. But Democrats did not learn the lesson. They believed in centrist deal-making and in asset bubbles. So once more into the breach they went, enabling Arnold out of a hope that by doing so they could sustain the political arrangements of the ’80s and ’90s without having to confront the ghost of Howard Jarvis.

But the center did not hold. The asset bubble, the biggest one yet, burst. And the right-wing had learned how to manipulate the rules it had set into place over the previous 75 years to ensure that any deal that would be made would be made on its own terms.

American centrist politics is a politics enabled by prosperity. As long as the economy does well, Democrats and Republicans can generally agree on pro-business policies. Democrats promise to not pursue social democracy, and Republicans promise not to be too mean. After 1980 that promise was junked, and the party set about undermining the Democrats at every turn. Yet the Dems never seemed to understand this, and still believed that their former partners really wanted to work with them, instead of stick a knife in their back.

The disappearance of prosperity has made California centrism untenable. It has exposed the machinery of our state’s government to be deeply right-wing and undemocratic. It leaves Democrats with only two choices – embrace Jarvis as their own, or embrace FDR.

As has happened in Washington State (under a Democratic governor! who has massive legislative majorities!), California Democrats have chosen Jarvis. They are trying to put the same old centrist spin on this turkey:

I hope the bipartisan cooperation between the Legislature and the Governor that went into this effort will continue as we move forward – the people of California clearly expect us to work together to get the job done. And we will. Speaker Karen Bass, 5/20/09

But this is not possible. “Bipartisan cooperation” is a fiction in a California experiencing a Depression, governed by a right-wing Constitution, and where actual political power is exerted by an insane right-wing cult determined to destroy prosperity and individual rights.

The rough beast whose hour has come is that of Howard Jarvis, who has now converted the Democratic leadership to his theories en masse. The best lack all conviction except that which is Jarvisite; the worst are full of passionate intensity, as Glenn Beck and Newt Gingrich and company have shown in the aftermath of the May 19 election and as they will certainly show should we get a just ruling from the CA Supreme Court today.

And that is why we see a growing divide between the Democratic leadership and the grassroots. A grassroots that found it could beat the right-wing in a transformative national presidential election sees no reason why it cannot accomplish the same thing at home in California. The people of this state never were Jarvisites – half the electorate wasn’t eligible to cast a ballot in 1978 (and hell, many of us weren’t even born yet), and they have shown no inclination to embrace the right-wing proposals that we are now told are inevitable.

There is nothing inevitable about California going the way of the Weimar Republic. But the failure of political leadership is total. The only thing that is inevitable is that the people of this state will not tolerate this situation any more, and will force change. The question before us is whether the change will be progressive or reactionary. Jarvisism in a bipartisan mask is a form of the latter, no matter who tells us we must accept it.

with apologies to Yeats

11 thoughts on “Things Fall Apart”

  1. the most frustrating thing about the past decade is the seeming inability of the dems to recognize when an era and its attending political logic has passed away.

    (i see the dissertation is coming in handy after all)

    storling newberry just wrote a good piece along similar lines here at FDL, where he seems to be writing nowadays.

    the voters rejected the old centrist deal on may 19. now it is time for democrats to put that aside and decide which vision of the future of california they side with.

    this can’t go on like this.

  2. A curious thing in my mind is what the heck the newly active progressives in the California Democratic Party are doing. They seem to be sitting on their hands rather than going to Bass and Steinberg and trying to supply them with a bit of backbone.

    This past Sunday, the New York Times laid it our pretty well:

    “Like other states, California is suffering from a collapse in tax revenues brought on by the recession….

    “What the Obama administration should make clear is that a bias for spending cuts – and against tax increases – is the wrong approach for California and other states. Both spending cuts and tax increases are harmful in a downturn, because they reduce already weak consumer demand. But most states are required by law to balance their budgets, so when deficits emerge, they are forced to do one or the other, or both.

    “Contrary to conventional wisdom, raising taxes may be better than spending cuts because tax increases, especially if they are focused on wealthy taxpayers, have less of a negative impact on consumption. Spending cuts hit consumption hard, depriving the economy of money that would otherwise be spent quickly. They also have the disadvantage – so evident in the cuts proposed by Mr. Schwarzenegger – of falling heavily on the needy.”

    That same day, Willie Brown had this to say in the San Francisco Chronicle:

    I was on the phone with state Assembly Speaker Karen Bass the other day, and I came away with the firm belief that she’s going to move quickly to see that the state budget is enacted on time, by the end of June.

    What’s more, it’s going to be all cuts.

    Bass and Steinberg have clearly lost their minds.

  3. To those of you who believe conservatism is at the root of CA’s problems, I’ll just ask you to remember which party does currently and has predominantly controlled the legislature in modern CA politics.

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