Jerry Brown's Political Reboot

In his reprise as governor, he's been as ruthlessly practical as he's been reflective, embracing his inner politician to restore the California dream.

Jerry Brown takes the oath of office as secretary of state of California in 1971. (AP)

The Impossibility

I was living in China at the time of Barack Obama’s election. People there would ask me how much it mattered that America had chosen its first nonwhite president. I would say that it mattered a lot—and only a little, since it left so much of America’s racial snarl untangled. After talking with people about Jerry Brown, I realized that I was hearing a similar answer about his effect on California. His successes matter a lot, and only a little. As Joe Mathews put it: “I think he has done as good a job as anyone could of managing a broken system.”

What does it mean to call a democratic system broken? For England before the voting reforms of the 1830s, it meant the parliamentary dominance of “rotten boroughs,” the depopulated shires whose representatives wielded power far greater than that of their urban counterparts. For American national government in the 2010s, it mainly means the dominance of money and the paralysis of the Senate, as the filibuster has gone from an exceptional safety-valve protection to a routine obstructionist technique. These problems have in common what Francis Fukuyama has called “vetocracy”—the structural over-weighting of some citizens’ views relative to others. The details of the problem are different in California, but the results are similar, and instructive for the nation as a whole.

Liberals outside California tend to assume that the state’s problems ultimately stem from the passage of Proposition 13 back in 1978. It sharply limited property-tax rates and thus changed California’s schools from among the best-funded in the country to among the worst-funded. When I was in public school, we were frequently told that California’s per capita school spending was No. 2 in the nation, behind Connecticut. Now, depending on how you count, it is somewhere in the 40s. Spending isn’t everything, but it’s something. Meanwhile, conservatives outside California tend to assume that the problems come from unionized public workers, a lavish pension plan, and liberal excess in general.

Imagine getting to relive, as a vigorous and lucid 70-something, many of the choices and challenges you faced in your 30s. That's Jerry Brown in his return to office.

You can find evidence for both of these views. But really—as I heard time and again—California’s problems are all symptoms of a disorder deeper and worse than the blue-red divides we usually consider so intractable. Its root is the unique nature of California’s rules of governance, a sharper variance from national norms than Nebraska’s unicameral legislature or even Louisiana’s European-based civil code. Scholarly articles, popular books, and think-tank projects are devoted to exploring this peculiarity. Of the latter, the most prominent is the Think Long Committee, which is part of the Berggruen Institute on Governance, in Los Angeles; the most accessible recent book is California Crackup, by Joe Mathews and Mark Paul.

The main oddity of California’s system is that any measure that passes by initiative, even by a single vote, can change the state constitution or enact policy beyond the legislature’s power to amend. It would be like the national electorate getting a crack at the First Amendment—­or the Second, or the Fifth—when it went to the polls. “The initiative process in California is a radical form of direct democracy that is absolutely unique,” Carlyle Hall, a prominent public-­interest lawyer with Akin Gump, told me. “In other states, the public shares power with the legislature, through the initiative. In California, with each successive measure, the public takes power for itself and away from the legislature.”

In other states, the legislature can undo or adjust the results of referenda. In California, that is very hard. Thus each proposition becomes part of permanent law, as Prop 13 has—unless it has a sunset provision, as Brown’s new Prop 30 does; or is overturned by another ballot measure, which is rare; or is thrown out by the courts as unconstitutional, which is rarer still but is the basis of the challenge to Prop 8, the anti-gay-marriage measure narrowly approved in 2008.

As every California schoolchild is supposed to learn, these tools of direct democracy were the gift of Governor Hiram Johnson a century ago. He thought they gave ordinary citizens the best hope of offsetting the power of entrenched interests, the most entrenched of which was Southern Pacific. In fact they’ve had the opposite effect, and worse, in a vicious cycle that Mathews and Paul explain and that boils down to this:

  • The legislature is uniquely weak in California, so it doesn’t solve many problems. Because legislators can’t solve many problems, voters punish them by imposing term limits and throwing the bums out.
  • Because of term limits and rapid turnover, the legislature has no institutional memory (in 2004, the then-speaker of the California State Assembly was a freshman—serving under a governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was also entirely new to politics).
  • Because legislators don’t know what they’re doing, they’re more under the control of the permanent influence structure of lobbyists and bureaucrats.
  • Because the public grows steadily less satisfied with what it’s getting from the state government, it turns even more to propositions and initiatives.
  • Because there are so many initiatives, and the provisions are so confusing, and voters are so busy, initiatives have increasingly been sponsored by well-financed interests—­today’s counterparts to Southern Pacific. Even Jerry Brown’s Prop 30 relied on large-scale financing from unions and businesses that wanted to stay on Brown’s good side. “It’s a big state with a lot of voters,” Carlyle Hall told me. “You have to get signatures of at least 5 percent of the voters to get an initiative onto the ballot, and normally the only way to do that is to hire these expensive professionalized firms. So to get your stuff on the ballot, you need money. Who has the money? Usually the very vested interests who were controlling the legislature 100 years ago.”

Thus the cycle of unintended consequences is complete: the rules designed to limit special interests ultimately empower them, while hobbling normal government. “Over thirty years voters slowly squeezed the life out of their legislature but never stopped complaining that it didn’t work,” Mathews and Paul conclude in their book.

There are further twists to the California governing pathology, including a nightmarishly extended version of the filibuster abuse that now paralyzes the U.S. Senate. Along with permanently lowering property-tax rates, Proposition 13 also rewrote the constitution to require a two-thirds legislative vote to raise taxes; a previous proposition required two-thirds to approve a budget. The state had to adopt a budget; a one-third minority, which in practice today means the Republicans, could keep that from taking place. So for the past generation (until the two-thirds requirement for budget passage was removed, by initiative, in 2010), all budget battles in California have resembled the U.S. House Republicans’ threat not to raise the federal debt ceiling two years ago. “In California we separated winning elections from having power,” Bruce Cain, of Stanford, told me. “When you sever the connection between political power and winning elections, you get irresponsible behavior.”

All of this Jerry Brown knows, of course. But he has chosen not to take on California’s structural dysfunctions directly. When I asked him whether, instead of sponsoring Prop 30 to close the budget gap, he had considered challenging the entire destructive proposition system, he wasn’t interested in even talking about it. “That’d be tough,” he said. “You work in the real world.”

The Politician

Another way to describe what has happened in California is to say that the situation has been stabilized—but only in circumstances that can hardly be believed outside a movie script, let alone counted on to produce a long-term solution. Jerry Brown’s return to office is implausible enough in human terms: imagine getting a chance to relive, as a vigorous and lucid 70‑something, many of the choices and challenges you faced in your 30s, but with the benefit of all you’ve learned in the intervening years. It’s like the Freaky Friday–style fantasy of going back to high school and understanding everything you’d been confused about then. As a bonus, while you know much more about what you’re doing, most of your opponents, rivals, and critics know less than their earlier counterparts did, given the systematic amateurization of the California political scene in the interim. The closest comparison in business life would be Steve Jobs’s chance to return to Apple 12 years after he was forced out. The closest political comparison is imaginary: it is as if a wiser Bill Clinton came back to the White House (“careful with the interns”)—and he had grown up as LBJ’s son, approximating the early immersion in politics Brown received as the son of Pat Brown.

“He wasn’t really a politician the first time,” Bruce Cain told me. “He could be standoffish to legislators, who in those days were formidable figures with real knowledge and expertise. Now the legislature is full of itinerant politicians, and he is far more experienced than before, and than any of them now.”

When I asked Brown to compare the earlier and later versions of himself as governor, he seemed uninterested in (rather than annoyed by) the question, and didn’t really engage. But in themes that ran through several conversations, he ended up characterizing the difference in three main ways.

First, by the time he returned to office in 2011, he’d had many years to think—to “live in the question,” to watch things work and fail, to expand and refine his network of contacts. I first met him, briefly, 25 years ago, when I was living in and writing about Japan and he, as an ex-governor, was studying culture and religion there. At the time, he was reading about Japan’s industrial policy and its implications for America—­and he has kept reading and asking since then. “What do we think about Chalmers Johnson now?” he asked, right off the bat, when I had my first meeting with him this year. “And Lester Thurow? And how does this fit China?” In each of the policy areas that now has his attention, from water to clean energy to school reform, he draws on discussions and readings from the 1970s onward.

Second, he has raised his EQ score—for Emotional Quotient, or ability to read other people and understand how he is coming across. What the Washington establishment said of Barack Obama during his first term—high IQ, low EQ—was the verdict about the early Brown as well, and one that he seems to share about his earlier self.

“I didn’t have the ear to hear a lot of things, before,” Brown said, referring to his first time as governor. “Now I can hear things I might have missed, before. And because of how I look, and my age, people think I’ve learned.” Kevin Starr, who grew up in San Francisco at about the same time as Brown, said that as governor, Brown “has developed emotional intelligence of a very high order, exceeded only by his wife.” One indication of this new sensibility, Starr says, is that Brown has under- rather than overplayed his presence in the media and the demands he makes of the public’s attention. Since at least Bill Clinton’s time, U.S. presidents have served as highly visible mourners in chief after tragedies, and national emcees after major news of any sort. Some governors take on a similar public role during state crises; Brown has held back.

“Jerry’s reputation rises with everything he chooses not to say,” Starr told me. “He understands the fatigue with politics at the state level.” I asked Brown whether this was right. “If you’re in the news all the time, you can be associated with bad news,” he said. “People don’t need to hear from me all the time.”

Third, the older Jerry Brown seems to have embraced all aspects of the family heritage that the younger Jerry Brown appeared to be struggling against. In the 1970s, anything Brown said about frugality or “limits” was read by the political press in Freudian psychological terms. The dominant father, Pat Brown, had left his mark on the state with his openhanded spending projects. The rebellious and intro­verted son would bring the state into a new age with his more austere approach. I didn’t directly ask Brown about any of these father-and-son questions, but allusions to the subject kept cropping up.

To begin with, he said comparisons between him and his father were difficult because the two men were products of such different eras. “My father couldn’t go to college, because he didn’t have any money,” Brown told me. “His own father [Brown’s grand­father, who ran a poker club in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco] died flat broke—and he always put it that way: Flat. Broke.” Brown’s father went straight from high school to night law school, which in those days was possible without a college degree. He paid his way by, among other jobs, reading to a blind lawyer as they rode on a trolley car. In contrast, by the time Jerry Brown was a teenager, his father was a popular statewide figure as attorney general. “There were always people around the house, the phone was always ringing—the number was listed—I was always hearing them talk politics. I thought I had a ‘purer’ view and was above politics. But here’s the truth: It’s like a little duck who learns to swim by following the mother duck. Obviously I was imprinted early with these skills and propensities.”

Brown said that his father never told him to be a politician. “It was more: ‘Son, you have to get a job!’ ” But the imprinting was deep enough that by the time Jerry Brown was 32—with Jesuit seminary, college, Yale Law School, and a clerkship behind him—he decided to run for election as California’s secretary of state.

“My dad said, ‘Don’t do that, it’s a silly job,’ ” Brown told me—until then, secretaries of state had performed purely administrative roles. “And I said, ‘No, Dad, it’s a title! Edmund G. Brown Jr., secretary of state!’ ” He ran, and won; four years later he was governor; and since then his life has been policy and politics. “This is really all I do,” he told me. “I’ve been doing it for 40 years.”

You might expect, at this point in a political profile, that a quote like this last one would be the setup for a dismissive judgment. This person is only about politics, which means the only thing that matters is the greasy pole. Or, this person is only about policy, which means that we’re dealing with a drudge. In fact, I’m setting up the opposite argument: that Brown’s obsessive involvement in politics and policy is not simply the key to his recent effectiveness in California but also the reason his example deserves attention elsewhere.

Americans admire “leaders” and “statesmen” rather than compromisers or people who say they are aiming for a “lifetime committed to politics.” I can think of dozens of candidates whose promise has been to “rise above” politics—­and if that is not possible, to save the republic from the ignoble workings of politics by instituting rules the politicians must obey. The so-called sequester is the most recent example on the national scale: since we can’t trust our representatives to be sensible, we’ll substitute a formula to make sure the job gets done. This is one more step on the path blazed in the 1970s with Prop 13—we can’t trust our elected representatives with our money, so make sure the money never gets into their hands—and whose origins trace to the “direct democracy” measures Hiram Johnson brought to California a century ago.

The truth is that a reliance on rules and a mistrust of mere politicians have come close to ruining public life in California. “When given a choice between human judgments and formulas, we’ve always chosen the formulas,” Joe Mathews says. He is critical of Brown in many ways, and yet he says, “I would rather let the Jerry Browns of the world make decisions for me than some crazy set of rules someone thought would help.”

California has once more led the way for the nation: through the past generation in showing the damage that disdain for politics can do, and in the past three years in its demonstration of the all-fronts embrace of politics needed to repair the damage. That California’s broken government is still functioning is largely because Jerry Brown has spent his life studying its machinery. In California, new governors are expected to propose detailed budgets within weeks of their election. Brown had the advantage of having already been through eight budget cycles. From his years as mayor, he knew the budget tricks that cities try to pull on the state, for instance the redevelopment-agency con. From the many campaigns he had won, and lost, he had learned the difference between fights that were tough but winnable, like the push to pass Proposition 30, and those that mean certain defeat, like challenging California’s direct-democracy system. With the perspective of 30 years, he has seen which of his early programs have proved to be farsighted and effective, notably his environmental and clean-energy initiatives; and which have gone nowhere, notably his fascination with colonizing space.

From his earliest days, the mother tongue Jerry Brown heard spoken around him was that of politics. California is an exceptional state, and his career in politics is not likely to be duplicated. But a country conditioned to dismiss the skills of deal making, persuasion, and sheer immersion in politics can learn a great deal from what he has achieved.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

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