American politics has historically proceeded in 40-year cycles in which one political and ideological movement dominates the policy agenda and frames the terms of political discourse. We are now coming to the end of the dominance of the conservative movement, which in turn supplanted the 40-year dominance of the New Deal era.
Very few presidents can claim to have served as agents of these sea-change political realignments. FDR qualifies as a transformational president who established an enduring coalition based on classic liberalism which lasted until, exhausted by bureaucratic sclerosis, imperial military over-reach and crony capitalism, it was supplanted by the corporate-funded conservative movement led by Ronald Reagan. The conservative era launched by Reagan was in turn reduced over the decades to a discredited and spent force by fact-free ideological rigidity, failure to discipline the party’s fringe actors, reckless over-reliance on military power as the main instrument of foreign policy, and corporate capture of the policy agenda.
President Obama aspires to be the next transformational figure in the American political tradition. His second inaugural speech outlined the contours of a 21st century doctrine grounded in the ethical foundation of the New Deal and Great Society social compact. The Obama doctrine features streamlining and modernization of governmental services, a muscular but restrained foreign policy focused on diplomacy and international development, investment in human capital, national infrastructure and energy resources upgrade, and environmental remediation to spur broad-based prosperity.
The wild card on the national scene is the increasingly erratic and desperate behavior of the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party. Their basic calculation seems to be that if they cannot govern, no one can govern, until they are returned to power. With the destabilizing fiscal cliff negotiations concluded, they have now moved on to manufacture nonstop legislative gridlock over the formerly routine debt ceiling authorization for the remainder of the 113th Congress. The House plan is to mete out the money in three-month increments, seeking to exact extreme concessions at each iteration. One might ask: where is the concern over creating “uncertainty” in the markets now?
Closer to home, the reality of contemporary California politics, especially here in Sonoma County and the Bay Area, is that it is now a contest between so-called “moderate” Democrats and progressive Democrats. This is a direct consequence of the 2010 Citizen’s Redistricting Commission. Be careful what you ask for. This was demonstrated very clearly in the 2012 10th AD contest, which lined up a progressive, Michael Allen (who had the misfortune of having to run in an entirely reconfigured district), against corporate Democrat Marc Levine. Levine got the endorsement of key state Republican leaders, because they realized that he represented their best shot at enacting a conservative agenda. The top Republican political consultant in Sonoma County, Herb Williams, persuaded his candidates to register as Democrats in order to have any chance at election in a predominantly liberal/progressive county.
The state Republican Party has forfeited their natural role as an alternative governing party through unpopular and bizarre right-wing ideological fixations, out-of-the-mainstream social values, and an abrasive and tone-deaf political style. The political malpractice by the Republican minority in the legislature, exhibited in their flat refusal even to consider ending utterly unjustifiable multi-billion dollar annual tax breaks for corporations, oil producers, commercial property owners and high net worth individuals (as the state faced bankruptcy) has damaged the brand.
The California Republican Party has been dismissed from the adult table for their lack of responsibility in governance. They underestimated the distaste of the public for their intransigence in refusing to cooperate in solving the state budget crisis by defending every single budget-busting tax break larded into the California tax code over a couple of decades as the price of prior year budget deals.
These fiscally ruinous tax exemptions for a small privileged class, most of which were extracted under severe pressure after gut-wrenching, months-long legislative stand-offs, year after year, by a minority party abusing the ill-advised Prop. 13 two-thirds requirement, turned off a critical mass of the public. The Republicans finally reaped the consequences of their political malfeasance by getting shellacked with a Democratic super-majority, rendering them legislatively irrelevant. They got so deep into their own hype that they did not get that the public simply will not support tax breaks for yacht owners while grade school teachers are being laid off by the thousands.
To his credit, former Governor Schwarzenegger tried to show the California Republican Party the way out of the wilderness by offering the hybrid formula of fiscal conservatism with socially liberal stances. Unfortunately for them, the core of the California Republican Party wasn’t buying. That market niche is now being filled by centrist Democrats in urban and coastal areas.
Another couple of election cycles with Democratic supermajority status, combined with a modest economic recovery, and we will finally restore a properly funded state budget, which will in turn take the budgetary pressure off cities and counties. We can again have a decent state with good schools and universities, well-maintained parks and roads, and proper healthcare and mental health services. California used to be the best state in America, and we can reclaim that title. Our best days are ahead of us.