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California’s Populist Revival


So, you’re mad as hell, and you’re not going to take it anymore. The powerful spirit of populism is now channeling through California’s body politic: “Throw the rascal out!” And Gray Davis is a fine specimen of rascality: an ice-veined governor who catered to big donors and simmered the books in Sacramento until they exploded with red ink.

But the winds of populist anger rarely reach gale force on their own. In politics, no one should expect a perfect storm to occur by accident. Much more than a pressure system is needed. Lots of money and access to media help. So do calculated ambiguities.

Just about every candidate tries to sound anti-elitist. In or out of office — from the left, right or center — politicians rail against “special interests” (either defined or kept vague). Campaigners insist they just want to help citizens reclaim their government.

“Most people are eternally taken in by the myth and rhetoric of democracy,” says Gray Brechin, the author of a book about the Golden State’s development, Imperial San Francisco: Urban Power, Earthly Ruin.

“What we have now is an increasingly uneducated public — especially in what used to be called civics — dealing with evermore complex issues with which they are unequipped to knowledgeably deal,” Brechin says. “We have a population ripe for manipulation by powerful public relations firms and political consultants who are expert in sound bites and seductive imagery.”

The recall grew from genuine grass roots but germinated on political Astroturf.

While high octane populist anger fuels the state’s first gubernatorial recall, the vehicle for it would not have budged without Darrell Issa’s $1.7 million jump-start. Now, three replacement candidates are in the front seat with a realistic chance to win: a pair of Republicans along with Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, who is chairman of the California campaign for Sen. Joe Lieberman — the most conservative contender for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination.

Fury at Gov. Gray Davis hails from all over the ideological map, but not a single plausible winner on the recall ballot is more progressive than the corporate centrist now in the governor’s office. This situation must be gratifying to those who initiated the process.

From the outset, anti-tax crusader Ted Costa has been a key promoter of the recall. As chief executive of the People’s Advocate organization, he formally launched the drive by filing a recall petition with the secretary of state’s office on Feb. 5, the same day that leading Republicans announced a parallel effort. Costa walks in the footsteps of his longtime mentor, Paul Gann, the People’s Advocate founder who 25 years ago co-authored Proposition 13 — the most enduring legacy of California’s electoral populism in the last half century.

When voters approved it as an amendment to the state Constitution in 1978, the proposition’s appeal was widely obvious, but the long-term devastating impacts weren’t. The measure not only capped annual property taxes at 1 percent of assessed value, it also imposed a 2 percent limit on yearly increases in valuations and froze assessments entirely for existing owners. Prop. 13 nailed local governments to the lowered property-tax ceiling.

Californians, says Brechin, “really hadn’t a clue about what they were doing to themselves and the public life of the state. And, unfortunately, the effects of Prop. 13 were masked because (then-Gov.) Jerry Brown used the state surplus to bail out the counties that would have had to almost immediately begin shutting down all sorts of public and emergency services had he not done so. When the real effects began kicking in, people couldn’t make the connection. . . . The decline in the quality of public life only made them angrier and riper for more manipulation.”

For corporations and homeowners, Prop. 13 has been a gift that keeps on giving. It’s a prime example of contorted populism that rewrites the social contract, inserting fine print that undermines the middle class and the poor. We’re still dealing with grim results while government in California fails to meet immense social needs — for health care, education, housing, employment and environmental protection.

The recall battle is another historic turning point for California. Yet insufficient scrutiny has been devoted to Costa and the organization that he heads. Aptly described by media outlets as “leading the campaign for the recall” and “ground zero of the recall movement,” Costa and People’s Advocate are marketing a type of well-heeled populism with a nativist odor.

For many years the president and then chairman of the People’s Advocate board of directors was Dan Benvenuti Sr., a Sacramento-based real estate magnate who is now an emeritus board member. The vice president of People’s Advocate is Stanley Diamond, coordinator of the California English Campaign.

The Web site of People’s Advocate proudly explains that Diamond worked in the mid-1980s to pass Proposition 63, making English “the official language of California.” Diamond now “heads up the efforts of People’s Advocate to enforce the provisions of Prop. 63 and represents People’s Advocate in the national effort to make English the official language of the United States.”

People’s Advocate — the organization with the most pivotal role in the launch of the recall — appears to fit the profile of what authors Chip Berlet and Matthew N. Lyons refer to as “repressive populist movements.” Such movements “deflect popular discontent away from positive social change by targeting only small sections of the elite or groups falsely identified with the elite, and especially by channeling most anger against oppressed or marginalized groups that offer more vulnerable targets.”

Consider the indignant tone and anti-immigrant undertow of the declaration that’s featured in the “California English Campaign” section of the People’s Advocate site: “The Legislature has thus far failed in its official duty to implement Prop. 63. In fact, our research found that the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) offers the driver’s license exam in 37 languages! AND the DMV employs approximately 8,000 people who act as ‘translators.’ To add insult to injury, the Attorney General has issued an opinion stating that the voters’ will was merely ‘advisory’ and not binding on the state.”

Some very different populist voices are being heard in the recall campaign. The inclusion of progressives Arianna Huffington and Peter Camejo in debates has widened the spectrum of public discourse. But in a state with a population larger than many countries, Huffington and Camejo lack the multimillion-dollar campaign war chests necessary to win a race for governor.

In political arenas, the broadness of populist sentiment is its strength and weakness: The rage is unmistakable, but the proclaimed solutions with the highest media decibels tend to be vague and simplistic.

Everyone except a die-hard Davis loyalist can blame the governor for the state budget wreck. But when Arnold Schwarzenegger and Tom McClintock talk about the need to make California more friendly to business, their stump speeches ignore the ways the governor’s undue deference to huge corporations was a crucial factor in electricity price-gouging as well as in the state’s budget mess. And, given Bustamante’s career-long political swoon for corporate power, it would be unwise to take very seriously his newfound populist effusions about challenging big business.

“When an election came up during a time of rapid social change and increasing problems,” the seasoned progressive journalist Carey McWilliams wrote soon after Ronald Reagan won the governorship in November 1966, “the people of California fled reality. Instead, they indulged in a ritual cleansing, and brought in a totally inexperienced man who campaigned on the basis of being a political innocent.” Thirty-seven years later, another “ritual cleansing” may be in the offing, with foreseeably dire consequences.

Yet it would be a mistake to denigrate the power of populist action to improve our society. The fact that anti-elitist rhetoric is often useful to elites for their avaricious schemes is no reason to be cynical about the potential value of idealistic activism at the grass roots. “History — and certainly the history of our country — is the story of people struggling, always going uphill against the powerful to seek a little more democracy, a tad more justice, a slightly wider sliver of the economic pie,” progressive populist Jim Hightower writes in his new book Thieves in High Places.

But it is not progressive populism that has stampeded California to its Oct. 7 rendezvous with recall destiny. The election is extraordinary, but the pattern is familiar. “Popular anger and desire for easy answers to complex problems have been manipulated time after time by special interests and elites, ” Brechin points out. “The referendum and initiative have been used to essentially hamstring and bankrupt the state, especially since Prop. 13.” Looking ahead, he speculates gloomily that “the recall of Davis, and especially the election of Arnold, may well be the final nail in the golden coffin, except for those who are wealthy enough to provide themselves with private security.”

If Davis is recalled, he won’t be the first or last politician to ride out of Sacramento festooned with tar and feathers. Nor will his replacement be the last corporate bootlicker to arrive on a spiffy white horse while spouting populist hosannas.

A central problem with throw-the-bum-out populism is that plenty of other bums are cued up and, in the absence of a coherent analysis of inequities or a program for structural reform, the underlying problems remain. This is not to blame populism for modern-day political demagoguery any more than we should blame religion for the fundamentalist madness of terrorists and militarists. But assertions of religious faith — or heartfelt populist zeal — are no assurances of anything.

Norman Solomon is executive director of the Institute for Public Accuracy, a policy research organization based in San Francisco.

Original Publication: San Francisco Chronicle