Powder keg

Pub date June 29, 2010


Ask any pollster, political consultant, or academic who studies the American electorate about the mood of the voters this year and you’ll get the same one-word answer: Angry.

Everyone’s pissed — the liberals, the conservatives, the moderates, the people who don’t even know where they fit in. It’s an unsettled time and, potentially, very bad news for a progressive agenda that seeks to address issues ranging from poverty and war to the long-term health of the public and the planet.

The Democrats, who swept into power with an enormously popular president just 18 months ago, may lose control of Congress. The tea partiers have driven the Republicans so far to the right that some candidates for Senate are openly talking about eliminating Social Security. The unemployment rate — the single most important factor in the politics of the economy — remains high and doesn’t show any signs of improving.

And the progressive left seems frustrated and demoralized, particularly in California. The Golden State, which once led the nation in innovation and enlightened social policy, now seems to be leading the politically dysfunctional race to the bottom.

The nation could be headed for a dangerous era, rife with the potential for right-wing demagoguery and other nasty political schisms. The state of the economy could easily fuel a more powerful movement to shrink the scope of government and a continuing backlash against the public sector — and the financial backers of the antitax and antiregulation movement are drooling at the prospect.

But there’s also a chance for progressives to seize a populist narrative and shift the discussion away from traditional disagreements and toward those areas, particularly the destructive influence on government by powerful corporations, where the grassroots right and grassroots left might actually agree.

The anger that voters feel toward a government that isn’t meeting their needs is starting to find other outlets. People are as mad about the abuses of big business — the Wall Street meltdown, the bailouts, the BP oil spill, the political manipulation — as they are about the failures of Congress and the president. If you ask Americans of every political stripe who they least trust — big government or big business — even conservatives aren’t so sure anymore.

For 30 years, the central narrative of American politics has revolved around the size and effectiveness of government. Now there’s a chance to shift that entire debate in American politics toward the largely unchecked power of corporations. It is, populist writer Jim Hightower told us, “an enormous opportunity handed to us by the bastards.”

But so far, none of the Democratic leaders in California are taking advantage of it to start dispelling damaging myths and crafting political narratives that might begin to create some popular consensus around how to deal with society’s most pressing problems.



There have been many polls gauging voter anger, but one of the most comprehensive and interesting recent ones was “Californians and Their Government,” a collaborative study by the Public Policy Institute of California and the James Irvine Foundation that was released in May.

It shows that Californians are mad about the state’s fiscal problems, disgusted with their political leaders, divided by ideology, and deeply conflicted over the best way forward. An astounding 77 percent of respondents say California is headed in the wrong direction and 81 percent say the state budget situation is a “a big problem.”

But the anti-incumbent message isn’t necessarily an anti-government message. Most Californians are willing to put more of their cash into public-sector programs, even during this deep recession. When asked to name the most important issues facing the state, 53 percent mentioned jobs and the economy . The state budget, deficit, and taxes only got the top billing of 15 percent.

And contrary to the conventional wisdom espoused by moderate politicians and political consultants, most voters say they are willing to pay higher taxes to save vital services. “Californians tell us they continue to place a high value on education and want education to be protected from cuts. And they’re willing to commit their money to help fund that,” PPIC director Mark Baldassare told the Guardian.

The survey found that 69 percent of respondents say they would pay higher taxes to protect K-12 education from future cuts, while 54 percent each say they would pay higher taxes to prevent cuts to higher education and to health and human services programs. In other words, voters seem to recognize where we’ve cut too deeply — and where we haven’t cut enough: only 18 percent of respondents would be willing to pay higher taxes to prevent cuts to prisons and corrections.

Baldassare said the June primary results also showed that people are willing to pay more in taxes for the services they value. “Around the state, there was a lot of evidence that people responded favorably to requests by their local governments for money, particularly for schools,” he said.

Both the California Legislature and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger are held in very low esteem with voters, according to the PPIC study, and Schwarzenegger’s 23 percent rating is the lowest in the poll’s history.

Barbara O’Connor, political communications professor who heads the Institute for the Study of Politics and the Media at Sacramento State University, told us that voter unhappiness with elected leaders is no surprise. Right now, most people are afraid that their basic needs won’t be met over the long run.

“The common narrative is fear, and fear channels into anger,” O’Conner said.

And that fear is being tapped into strongly this year by the Republican candidates, who are trying to scare voters into embracing their promises to gut government and keep taxes as low as possible.

“If there’s any lesson to be learned from Meg and Carly’s early ads, it’s fear-mongering, fear-mongering all the time — and that doesn’t create a very positive narrative,” O’Connor said of gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman and U.S. Senate candidate Carly Fiorina.

O’Connor noted that Barack Obama’s campaign had great success in using a positive, hopeful message and said she believes the right leader can also do so in California. “I talked to Jerry [Brown]’s people about it and said you can’t just run a negative campaign because that’s what Meg is doing.”

Despite the tenor of the times, O’Connor said she’s feeling hopeful about hope. She also believes Californians would respond well to a leader like Obama who tried to give them that hope — if only someone like Brown can pick up that mantle. “I think the environment is right for a positive message. But the question is: do we have people capable of delivering it?”

She said the no-new-taxes, dismantle-government rhetoric has started to wear thin with voters. “The real fiscal conservatives are badly outnumbered in Californian,” O’Connor said. As for the corporate sales jobs, O’Connor said voters have really started to wise up. “They aren’t going to be scammed.”

The results of the June primary election showed that voters across the spectrum were also disturbed by big special-interest money. Proposition 16, backed by $46 million from Pacific Gas and Electric Co., went down to defeat — even in counties that tend to vote Republican.

And this fall, with two rich former CEOs spending their personal wealth to win two of California’s top elected offices and energy companies pushing a measure to roll back California’s efforts to combat global warming, there could be great opportunity in a narrative targeting those at the top of our economic system.



Some observers say that whatever their shared feelings about corporate scams, conservatives and liberals in the state are just too far apart, and that there’s little hope for any substantive agreement. “People are becoming more polarized,” said consultant David Latterman, who often works for downtown candidates and interests. “I think we’re beyond compromise.”

Allen Hoffenblum, a Los Angeles-based Republican strategist, agreed. “The voter are all mad, but they’re mad at different things. I just don’t see where they come together.”

But Hightower, who has spent a lifetime in politics as a journalist, elected official, author, and commentator, has a different analysis.

“As I’ve rambled through life,” he wrote in a recent essay, “I’ve observed that the true political spectrum in our society does not range from right to left, but from top to bottom. This is how America’s economic and political systems really shake out, with each of us located somewhere up or down that spectrum, mostly down.

“Right to left is political theory; top to bottom is the reality we actually experience in our lives every day — and the vast majority of Americans know that they’re not even within shouting distance of the moneyed powers that rule from the top of both systems, whether those elites call themselves conservatives or liberals.”

In an interview, he told us he sees a lot of hope in the fractured and potentially explosive political ethos. “There’s all this anger,” he said. “People don’t know what to do. And I think the one focus that makes sense is the arrogance and abuse of corporate executives.”

In fact, Hightower pointed out, the teabaggers didn’t start out as part of the Republican machinery. “Wall Street and the bailouts sparked the tea bag explosion,” he said. It wasn’t until big right-wing outfits like the Koch brothers, who own oil and timber interests and fund conservative think tanks, started quietly funding tea party rallies that the anti-corporate, anti-imperial edge came off that particular populist uprising.

“At first, the teabaggers didn’t even know where the money was coming from,” Hightower said. “You can’t be mad at the teabaggers; we should have been out there organizing them first.”

There’s plenty of evidence that anger at big business is growing rapidly — and rivals the distrust of big government that has defined so much of American politics in the past 30 years. The bailouts were “the first time in a long time that people have been slapped in the face by collusion between big business and its Washington puppets,” Hightower noted.

Then there’s the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission. In January, a sharply divided court ruled 5-4 that corporations had the right to spend unlimited amounts of money supporting or opposing political candidates. Progressives were, of course, outraged — but conservatives were, too.

Polls show that more than 80 percent of Democrats think the decision should be overturned. So do 76 percent of Republicans. “This is a winner for our side,” Hightower noted. “But our side’s not doing anything about it.”

Sure, President Obama denounced the ruling in his State of the Union speech and promised reform. But the bill the Democrats have offered in response does nothing to stop the flow of money; it would only increase disclosure requirements. And in response to furor from the National Rifle Association, it’s been amended and is now so full of holes that it doesn’t do much of anything.

Political consultants advising Whitman are clearly looking for ways to direct the voter unhappiness into a demand for lower taxes and smaller budgets. She’s already vowed to fire 40,000 state workers, and her most recent campaign ad attacks Brown for expanding public programs and raising the state deficit.

So far Brown hasn’t challenged that narrative — and some Democrats say he shouldn’t. It would be safer, they say, for Brown to get out front and demand his own cuts in Sacramento. “Going after public-sector pensions is a winner,” one Democratic campaign consultant, who asked not to be named, told us. “If Whitman beats Brown on those issues, she wins.”

But that approach is never going to be effective for Democrats. If the argument is over who can better cut government spending, the GOP candidates will always win. The better approach is to see if progressives can’t shift the debate — and the anger — toward the private sector.

As Hightower put it: “You can yell yourself red-faced at Congress critters you don’t like and demand a government so small that it’d fit in the backroom of Billy Bob’s Bait Shop and Sushi Stand, but you won’t be touching the corporate and financial powers behind the throne.”

That’s where the discussion has to start. And there’s no better place than California.

The Golden State is a great example of what happens when the tax- cutters win. In 1978, the liberals in Sacramento, operating with a huge state budget surplus, couldn’t figure out how to derail the populist anger of property tax hikes. So Proposition 13, the beginning of the great tax revolt, passed overwhelmingly. Over the next decade, more antitax initiatives went before the voters, and all were approved.

Now the state is heading toward fiscal disaster. The schools are among the worst-funded in the nation. The world-famous University of California system is on the brink of collapse. Community colleges are turning away students. The credit rating on California bonds have fallen so far that it’s hard for the state to borrow money. And there’s still a huge budget gap.

The tax-cut mentality that led to the so-called Reagan revolution started in California; a political movement that shifts the blame for many of the state’s problems away from government and onto big business ought to be able to start here as well. And it’s potentially a movement that could bring together people who normally find themselves on opposite sides of the fence.

A case in point: the measure the oil companies have put on the November ballot to repeal the state’s greenhouse gas limits. The corporations backing the initiative, led by Valero, argue that California’s attempts to slow climate change will cost jobs. That’s a line we’ve heard for decades. Every tax cut, every move toward deregulation, is defended as helping spur job growth.

But the past four presidents have done nothing but cut taxes and reduce regulations — and the result is facing Americans on the streets every day. There is also growing evidence that even Republican voters don’t believe everything big businesses tell them anymore. And they’re starting to grasp that sometimes deregulation leads to outcomes like larcenous CEOs and unstoppable oil leaks.

So the potential for a successful progressive populist movement is out there. But it’s not going to happen by spontaneous combustion.



On the national level, one of the factors creating this gloomy electorate is the failure of President Obama to keep the coalition that elected him active and engaged. The intense partisanship in Washinton has turned off many independent Obama voters, while his progressive supporters have been disappointed by issues ranging from his escalation in Afghanistan to tepid reforms on health care and Wall Street.

“One of the narratives now is where are the Obama voters and will they participate?” Jim Stearns, a San Francisco political consultant who works mostly on progressive campaigns, told us. “They still love Obama but they’re not moved by him anymore.”

Perhaps more important, they have lost the sense of hope that he once instilled. The Republican Party’s descent into right-wing extremism and the strong anticorporate narratives that have emerged in the last year — from BP’s oil spill to PG&E’s political manipulation to Goldman Sachs’ self-dealing to the prospect of unrestricted corporate campaign propaganda unleashed by the Citizens United ruling — have created the possibility that the negative narratives by the left may crowd out the positive ones.

“Meg Whitman is someone you can hate. She’s the rich Republican CEO trying to buy her way into office,” Stearns said. “But it’s a depressing message.”

But Stearns said there is another, most hopeful political narrative that is emerging in San Francisco, one that might eventually grow into a model that could be used at the state and federal levels. “We’re lucky in San Francisco. Progressive voters are engaged.”

He noted that San Francisco’s voter turnout was higher than expected in the June primary, and far higher than the record low state number, even though there really weren’t any exciting propositions or closely contested races on the local ballot — except for the Democratic County Central Committee, where progressives maintained their newfound control. And it’s because of the organizing and coalition-building that the left has done.

“What you’ve seen over the last few years is a coalition of labor, neighborhood groups, environmentalists, and the progressives now operating through the Democratic Party. That’s a great coalition with a lot for people to trust,” Stearns said.

Meanwhile, downtown has all but collapsed as a unified political force. “They don’t really have a political infrastructure,” Stearns said of downtown. “Normally it would be the mayor who gets everyone in line and working together.”

Even Latterman, the downtown-oriented consultant, agrees that the business community is no longer setting San Francisco’s agenda because it’s become fractured and unable to push a consistent political narrative: “There’s certainly been a lack of coordination.”

He also agrees that progressives have become more organized and effective. “Clearly, the Democratic Party of San Francisco has become a conduit for progressive politics and politicians, but not issues,” Latterman said. “What a lot of people get wrong in the city is the difference between politics and policy.”

Part of the reason is economic. With scarce resources, a high threshold for approving new revenue sources, and a fiscally conservative mayor unwilling to talk taxes, it’s been difficult to move a progressive agenda for San Francisco. And in Sacramento, it’s barely part of the discussions.

“The people of California have been held hostage by a handful of Republicans who are making us cut everything we care about,” while in San Francisco “Newsom is taking an entirely Republican approach to the budget,” Stearns said.

Looking toward the fall races, Stearns said the progressive coalition and majority on the Board of Supervisors will be tested on issues such as Muni reform, and the question will be whether fiscal conservatives like Sup. Sean Elsbernd can blame Muni’s problems on drivers, or whether progressives can create and sell a broader package that includes new revenue and governance reforms.

“The drivers are going to get their guarantee taken out of the charter, that’s going to happen. But people know that isn’t all that’s wrong with Muni,” Stearns said.

But to craft a more comprehensive solution, he said the progressives are going to need to use their growing coalition to connect the dots for voters. “We need to run a citywide campaign around a whole constellation of issues,” Stearns said, citing Muni, schools, taxes, resistance to mean-spirited measures like sit-lie, and the larger issues raised by the Brown and Barbara Boxer campaigns. “We need to figure out a way to put all that in the same coalition and run one campaign around it. And we can do that because progressives retained control of the DCCC.”



Although they’ve made great strides, San Francisco progressives are still struggling with a mayor who sees the solution to every budget crisis as cuts — and with a growing number of efforts to blame public employees for the city’s fiscal problems. Even Jeff Adachi, the public defender once considered a standard-bearer for progressive causes, is pushing a ballot measure that would require city workers to pay more for their pensions.

Gabriel Haaland, who works with Service Employees International Union Local 1021, made the right point in the pension debate. “Big financial institutions crashed the stock market,” he said recently, “and now they want to blame city workers.”

In a blog post on the political website Calitics, Robert Cruickshank put it clearly: “The notion that ‘everyone needs to give back’ just doesn’t make sense given our economic distress. We’ve already given back too much. We gave back our wages. We gave back our ability to afford health care and housing and transportation. We gave back the robust public- sector services that created widespread prosperity in the 1950s and 1960s. We gave back affordable, quality education. And too many of us have given back our future.

“No, it’s time for someone else to give back. It’s time for the wealthiest Californians and the large corporations to give back. For 30 years now they have benefited from economic policy designed to take money and benefits from the rest of us and give it to those who already have wealth and power.”

That’s a message that ought to appeal to anyone who’s hurting from this recession. It ought to cross red and blue lines. It ought to be the mantra of a new progressive populism that can channel voter anger toward the proper target: the big corporations that created the problems that are making us all miserable.

If Jerry Brown could adopt that narrative, he could change the state of California — and the state of the nation.