Governor Jerry Brown is finding California to be an effective Archimedean leverage point in shaping a progressive alternative to a federal system stalemated by the New Civil War.
The latest example is a West Coast pact to combat climate change by the governments of California, Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia, a region populated by 53 million people with a GDP of $2.8 trillion.
The plan will produce energy savings, green jobs and greenhouse gas reductions, and will exploit any new Obama emissions standards that will eliminate new coal plants. California also will soon forge a carbon-reducing trading market with Quebec. The growing clean energy bloc will pressure for adoption of a new global energy agreement in 2015.
California created similar leverage by adopting energy efficiency standards and renewable energy incentives in the Seventies, when America was paralyzed by Detroit's political monopoly over transportation policies favoring gas-guzzlers. At least fourteen states, led by California, formed an alternative energy bloc that resulted in greater fuel efficiency, consumer savings and domestic manufacturing jobs.
Many progressives traditionally regard "state's rights" as the exclusive banner of racial and economic reactionaries. The rise of the Tea Party with its political grip on 23-25 so-called "red" states and its leverage over the House of Representatives is a case in point. But progressives have no alternative to reviving their own tradition of states being "laboratories of reform" as Justice Brandeis once said. Progressive examples in American history include the Farmer-Labor parties in Wisconsin and Minnesota, the election of hundreds of socialist mayors in the Midwest, and the achievements of New York's Wagner and La Guardia administrations in shaping the New Deal.
A progressive state and local strategy does not abandon struggles at the federal level. The victory of Obama over Romney, the subsequent fights over federal regulatory power, the struggle to limit wasteful US military intervention, and the all-important appointment of Supreme Court nominees are the clearest examples of the national stakes.
The reality, however, is that the US is divided solidly between a Progressive American Bloc and one based on the Old Confederacy and the Wild West, with only about a dozen so-called "swing states" where the civil war is internalized. The progressive state-based strategy is born of necessity.
Another key example of the political wind blowing from the West is California's recently-enacted immigration reforms; including drivers' certificates for the undocumented, in-state college tuitions for their children, and even the right to become lawyers despite lack of legal status. The core of the student-based Dreamer movement originated and achieved its early gains in California too. While it is uncertain, even unlikely, that Congress will approve an immigration reform law with an expedient path to citizenship, many parts of the country will become de facto sanctuaries for immigrants, with California in the lead.
Brown's success is leading to his restoration as a sought-after sage on the national stage among Democrats and the mainstream media. California stands in stark contrast politically to Washington D.C., having balanced its budget, passed higher taxes on the wealthy, and redistributed more funds to K12 and higher education during Brown's first three years. The marriage equality movement also has succeeded due to the "California effect", especially among Democratic donors in Hollywood. Public sector unions and the building trades have been largely protected under Brown and the Sacramento legislature.
Brown's initiatives are far from perfect, of course. His climate change policies have failed to address fracking beyond moderate regulatory adjustments. His law-and-order approach helped fuel mass incarceration, and he refused to lift a finger, at least publicly, when hundreds of inmates went on hunger strike against brutal conditions of solitary confinement. Those failures only show that social movements have more pressure work ahead, since Brown is careful about positioning himself too far in front of public opinion. The opposition to fracking will only grow when more Californians in the Monterrey Shale region are impacted, as happened with homeowners all across suburban New York. And Brown may turn to prison reform once his court appeals are turned down for a final time, which is likely to be soon. Then he can blame those judicial mandates for any reforms he adopts while running for re-election next year. Politics is an ugly world, but that's what they have confessionals for.
Some still assert that California models should be discounted nationally because the state and its governor are weird. The most damaging instance of this chauvinism towards Brown's California came from Chicago columnist Mike Royko who coined the label "Governor Moonbeam" a few decades back. The label did inestimable damage to Brown's presidential possibilities and cast ridicule on any programs originating in this state.
The truth is more that California politics today have evolved through the very snares that are causing national politics to be so broken. Today's right-wing insurgency symbolized by the Tea Party began its virulence with the Prop 13 voter revolt against property taxes in 1979. Today's anti-immigrant phobia arose with Pete Wilson's TV commercials of immigrants racing across the border, and with Orange County politicians sending sheriffs to inspect polling places for voter fraud by Latinos. California gave America the Three Strikes crusade. Californians threw out three competent and qualified state Supreme Court judges on the grounds that they were soft on crime. California's LAPD created the national model for SWAT teams and riot control.
Another false conclusion from California political history comes from those who fawn over the reapportionment maps supposedly designed to achieve non-partisan moderation. It is true that the California Citizens Redistricting Commission, created by California's voter, drew legislative lines which were more competitive between the parties. It is true that the Democrats succeeded in electing a two-thirds majority, finally bypassing the Prop 13 obstacles to passing timely budgets and raising taxes. But reapportionment "reforms" also eliminated party primaries by allowing any voters or candidates to participate in a free-for-all circus. California's vast progressive constituencies wound up with pro-business Democrats in the legislative majority, and California's big business lobbies scored nearly one hundred percent on their legislative scorecards. One outcome was that the environmental movement was significantly weakened by the campaign to reduce "partisanship." If it wasn't for Brown's election, and experienced leadership, none of California's current progress would have occurred.
How did the reactionary California fever come to an end? Obviously the demographics changed towards a multi-racial majority, but that's too simple an answer. Californians also learned the hard way what anti-immigrant hysteria, mass incarceration at the cost of $11 billion per year, and unregulated pollution meant for asthma and cancer rates. Ultra-right policies simply didn't deliver, nor did “Outside Saviors” like the swashbuckling Arnold Schwarzenegger or billionaires shopping for a government of their own. Finally fed up with their self-inflicted delusions, the voters themselves yearned for a balanced approach.
Brown himself had learned some lessons too. In his over-heated hunger to be president before turning forty, he was moving too fast. In his advocacy of new ideas, he has little to no counter-weight to the vested interests. After the fiasco of Prop 13, he learned that taxpayers are frugal with their modest earnings. His lifelong belief in public service was adjusted to recognize that the inherent appetites of government bureaucracy had to be sometimes choked. In his successful election three years ago, he tied his tax increase proposal mainly to saving public education while throwing some of the proceeds to law enforcement. Further, he promised that the tax increases would sunset in seven years, quoting the Bible as his higher source. Some liberals went crazy over this careful approach, and tried everything they could to force Brown into a political trap; a plan which failed.
All of these lessons from California should be carefully studied by progressive forces nationally. Selectively choosing some lessons, while ignoring others, will lead to dead-ends. The opportunity to hold the presidency while gaining political and economic strength in progressive states can succeed with careful planning, organizing, and the distribution of campaign resources in regions rich with progressive possibilities. Only two things are certain: American will slowly, painfully evolve to look like and be like California in all its cultural diversity; and the threat from the Right will grow more dangerous and virulent. The passage must be navigated if we are to survive.