The End of California Dreamin’ July 6, 2009Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, politics.
Tags: California’s social imaginary, cause of California’s budget crisis, starve the beast
The United States is enjoying a resurgence of Democratic, liberal politics with Obama and congress tackling economic recession, health care, and climate change, while reviving our global image
The conservative revolution, ushered to power by Ronald Reagan, has been stymied, its advocates confused, and its standard bearers performing incredible acts of self-destruction.
California is the exception.
In California, conservatism has succeeded in imposing its vision of a society run by oligarchs serviced by government, while the rest of the population is left to fend for themselves. For perhaps the first time in recent memory, California is no longer the leading edge of innovation and change.
The facts of the debacle are well known—a $25-$30 billion state budget deficit, collapsing revenue streams, a decades long refusal to find new revenue sources, and a state government so completely paralyzed that ordinary budgeting tasks were submitted to a public referendum that was soundly defeated. As a consequence, school and university funding is plummeting, public health and safety is endangered, social support services are shutting down, and local governments are starved of the funds needed to keep basic services intact.
Our state is a basket case. But this is no accident; this is what conservatives sought.
Conservatives have long held that cutting taxes was good because it will ultimately paralyze and force reductions in the size of government. This is the so-called “starve the beast” strategy imagined by Ronald Reagan and vigorously defended by activists such as Grover Norquist. By cutting taxes and refusing to go along with any proposal to enable revenue to keep up with growth, California Republicans have succeeded over the long run in implementing this strategy. Of course, they cannot take full credit for the success of their strategy. The economic meltdown and collapse in home values account for much of the decline in tax revenues. But conservatives made sure that the state government has no way of responding to the loss of revenue except through massive spending cuts. I doubt that it matters to them how we got here—what matters is that we have finally arrived. California government is as powerless as any advocate of small government could want.
But this strategy, although abetted by Republican politicians, was implemented largely by the people themselves through ballot initiatives. Proposition 13, passed by votors in 1978, not only capped most property taxes, it also imposed a “2/3 rule” that requires supermajorities to pass tax and budget legislation. Polls have shown that these government-strangling rules are still popular, and attempts to modify these rules or to find new sources of revenue are routinely beaten back.
What is puzzling is that this conservative revolution happened in the bluest of blue states. Despite occasional flirtations with conservatism, California remains comparatively liberal. The state legislature has been dominated by Democrats for years, and California tends to vote Democratic in national elections. When Republicans win statewide elections they must avoid appearing excessively conservative. (Recent Republican governors, Pete Wilson and Arnold Schwarzenegger, campaigned as moderates.) To their credit, most Californians never bought the nostrums of the religious right. Majorities have rejected the kind of immigrant bashing and know-nothing, anti-environmentalism that characterizes conservative discourse in other states. And, Californians have been reasonably progressive on worker’s rights and gay rights, despite the recent success of an anti-gay marriage initiative.
So why, in California of all places, did conservatives achieve their ultimate victory?
The answer lies in the social imaginary of California culture.
California has always been a dream merchant, the land of milk and honey, the home of Hollywood, Disney, and the technological dreamscape of Silicone Valley. It was the destination of choice for those wishing to escape the dustbowl, harsh Northern winters, or stifling Eastern social norms—a place where the impossible dream was not quite impossible. And its’ people understand themselves as the keeper of such illusions.
But as “keeper of illusions” we are too willing to believe that constraints on human aspiration are temporary, chains are easily sundered, and facts merely inconvenient obstacles to be overcome. If you’re committed to making dreams come true, you must be less than fully committed to reality as it is. Thus, liberal, caring Californians came to believe that our world-class schools, gleaming infrastructure, and commitment to public health and safety could be maintained without cost. We came to believe that property is protected by low taxes rather than police and fire services, that public health can be maintained while the homeless wander our streets, that schools are someone else’s responsibility. And we need supermajorities to pass a budget just in case reality begins to intrude on the reverie.
The public didn’t want poor schools or a porous safety net. They just wanted to preserve their fantasy of California exceptionalism. Conservatives who don’t care much for public schools or safety nets were all too willing to play along. Howard Jarvis, Darrel Issa, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and the rest of the crowd who have destroyed the quality of life in California knew what they were doing. They were lucky enough to have a public sufficiently delusional to play along.
It is often claimed that conservatives are adept at taking advantage of the public’s irrational fears—fear of crime, communism, Islam, and people of color defines much of their agenda. But they are equally good at taking advantage of the public’s irrational hopes.
We now confront the consequences of those irrational hopes.
The big question is whether the free lunch crowd has been sufficiently chastened to take seriously the process of governance, or are they still too busy fashioning Hollywood endings out of tragedy and mayhem to notice that the milk is curdled and the honey spoiled.
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