Column: Can Anybody Teach Gray Davis How to Behave Himself?





Mr. Thompson, Professor of Public Administration, University of Nevada, Las Vegas, is the author of Legalized Gambling: A Reference Handbook (Santa Barbara and Denver: ABC-Clio, 1994 and 1997-2nd ed.).

Governor Gray Davis is playing the rich man versus the poor man political game as the lights go out in California. Davis sees the cost of energy rising in his state, and because his state and its poor people cannot share any of the responsibility for the price increases, the fault must be put on the doorstep of the rich people--far away rich people--rich people who live in another political jurisdiction--rich people who live in Texas. To Davis politics is a giant zero-sum game. The poor California SUV'rs of Malibu lose, hence the" crude" rich barons of Houston win. Hence the solution to the" crises" is to keep the rich Texans from getting the money. This style of win-lose politics does not fit well upon the traditions of a state that was once the beacon of hope and progress for a nation that was itself a beacon of opportunity for the world.

But Gray Davis is not the one who has repudiated the tradition of moralistic politics set in place by Hiram Johnson and then propelled forward by Earl Warren, Goodwin Knight, Edmund Brown and even Ronald Reagan. California abandoned their win-win style of politics aimed at pursuing a better life for all citizens during the gubernatorial administration of Jerry Brown. Brown (Jr.) was a willing and witting culprit bringing about a sea change in the California political culture, but only after Proposition 13 passed in 1978 mandating drastic tax cuts.

The Three Cultures: Traditional, Individualistic, Moralistic

The notion of political cultures holding influence over political activity became part of the literature of Political Science in the 1960s. Especially influential was the work of Daniel Elazar who saw three cultures dominating state politics: the Traditional culture, the Individualistic culture, and the Moralistic culture. In the Traditional culture, political actors seek to preserve the status quo on behalf of the power interests that dominate society. The apartheid Old South provided the most apparent example of this culture. The Individualistic culture saw politicians as brokers among competing interests. Politics was a vocation similar to horse trading, and after the political battles are fought, the landscape was filled with winners and losers. Government was a giant zero-sum game. The Individualistic pattern was the most prevalent one across America, but it dominated in political machine states such as Illinois, New York, and Pennsylvania.

In the Moralistic culture, the political actors do not hold their fingers in the political winds lowering their hands only for campaign contributions. Rather they pursue the"good" as their hearts and souls direct them to do. Political arguments involving finding the path to the higher good for society, a good that makes all the members of the society winners. Moralistic states included Minnesota, Connecticut, Oregon, and California--the proto-typical Moralistic state.

California was the Golden State, with major settlements coming during the gold rush of 1848 and the years shortly thereafter. The California population grew even after the mining of gold waned. The new population included many families looking for a better life. They wanted clean communities, and by the end of the 1850s they had successfully introduced political and social reforms in San Francisco. The new populations made agriculture a leading industry. The state became a trading center and developed a manufacturing base. These activities depended upon the railroads. The dominance of the railroads and certain predatory practices directed toward farmers and others led to a political reaction finding its voice with Populists and Progressives, their first major leader being Hiram Johnson.

Hiram Johnson

Hiram Johnson made the power of the railroad his major campaign issue as he won the governorship in 1910. Upon taking office, One journalist said,"It was as if the whole state of California, having let its government go to pot for half a century, abruptly dropped everything for a mass spasm of civil house cleaning and rehabilitation." The"spasm" did not cease for the next seventy years.

Johnson was able to enact measures that made direct democracy possible. These included the initiative and referendum. Elections for school boards and judgeships became nonpartisan. The"Oregon Plan" for the direct election of Senators was endorsed prior to the 17th amendment. A conservation commission was created. Railroads were reigned in by a new railroad commission empowered to set rates. A workman's compensation system was established as was the eight hour working day. A state board of control was given power over state finances. In 1913 California became the first state to have a comprehensive budget. (Lower, p. 30-31).

Johnson's progressive mantle was picked up in the 1930s by Earl Warren. Warren started in politics as a prosecuting attorney in Alameda County moving to the office of attorney general where he led a fight against organized crime. As governor from 1943 to 1953, Warren enhanced progressive principles. He advocated compulsory medical insurance, educational programs for state prisons, a gasoline tax to finance highways, and public development of hydroelectric power and flood control. While the earlier wave of progressive reform had bypassed issues of civil liberties, Warren embraced them. As the vice presidential candidate on the national ticket with Thomas Dewey in 1948 he emphasized equality of opportunity and social justice.

In the 1950s traditions established by Johnson and Warren continued under Governor Goodwin Knight. All these leaders were Republicans. However, when the party abandoned its reformist character by nominating conservative Pat Knowland in 1958, Democrat Pat Brown was able to win the governorship. Almost as if he did not skip a beat, he continued policies in the Moralistic pattern.

Edmund G."Pat" Brown served as governor from 1959 through 1966. He excelled in two dimensions of the heritage. He used government to enhance quality of life with an enlarged vision of civil rights. He initiated a $1.7 billion California Water Project, a system of sixteen dams, eighteen pumping stations, nine power generating plants, and hundreds of miles of aqueducts--the largest public works program ever undertaken by a state.

Brown also developed the University of California system. When Brown was elected, the University of California had two major campuses. When he left office there were nine campuses, as the system became a model for the world. His goal was to provide for free tuition for every Californian who could benefit from higher education.

Ronald Reagan was elected governor in 1966 and reelected in 1970 in a backlash against the costs of many of Brown's reforms. Nonetheless, Reagan did not abandon the reforms. During his first administration, he engineered the passage of the largest tax increase in state history. The goal of the new revenue was not the funding of new programs, but rather the funding of large deficits resulting from Brown's programs. While Reagan relished his sparing matches with university supporters, he still managed to increase the budget for higher education 136 per cent during his terms in Sacramento. He also coordinated a massive acquisition of park lands.

Ironically, the downfall of the Moralistic culture in California politics accompanied the election of Governor Jerry Brown, not exactly the proto-typical traditional liberal Democrat. Jerry Brown came to the governorship through the office of secretary of state. In that office he had sponsored major political reform measures creating the California Political Campaign Practices Commission, which required full disclosure of campaign finances. He embraced environmentalism; fought nuclear power plants; and endorsed campaigns for coastal land protection, growth controls, and to"save the whales." He also championed the causes of minorities.

However, Jerry Brown was in office in 1978, as the state experienced a sea change in its approach to governmental activities with the passage of Proposition 13. Brown opposed the property tax cutting measure, but after it passed he embraced it with an uncommon vigor that left progressivism and the culture of Moralistic politics in the lurch.

Before Brown's administration, and through the early years of his service, Californians had supported widespread funding of services and programs that would benefit all Californians. He and his predecessors did not have to engage in the politics of horse trading and balancing competing claims. All could win, and viewed in its total picture, all did appear to win in California.

However, a general prosperity that drew many people to the Golden State also was accompanied by a real estate boom that had to be accompanied in turn by higher evaluations of property for purposes of taxation. As the boom took on exponential dimensions, higher taxes were seen as barriers to the good life as opposed to a means to the good life. Moralistic politics succumbed to a tax revolt. Proposition 13 not only placed severe limits on taxation rates, but it included provisions requiring popular votes on all new taxes. Overnight every public service was threatened. One service was pitted against another service, and new services could be set in place only with extraordinary political campaigns of support, and most often only by cutting other programs.

Regretably, the change in attitudes toward taxation that in the hands of a Jerry Brown led to a change in state political culture occurred at a time of growing migration of Mexican and Salvadorian workers into the state with an attendant mass growth of a have-not population. Such a population would benefit most by the services of a Golden State concerned with the happiness and welfare of all of its citizens. But now the political gatekeepers who had to grudgingly approve all programs old and new saw that education and other programs that offered a hand to pull up the immigrant and the poor were not programs that would help the propertied people who no longer needed the help of the public sector. The programs were viewed in terms of we-they, and the programs suffered massive budgetary cuts. What was once a win-win game became the win-lose zero sum game that is now played by Governor Davis.

And so Governor Davis approaches an energy crisis without any inclination that the game can be played out as a positive sum game whereby all Californians, and all citizens of the country as well, can be winners. Now he sees only that California can win if someone else loses. As Hiram Johnson rolls in his grave, somewhere a Mayor Richard Daley Sr. is smiling--this is his kind of politics.


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