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California Dreaming Got Lost Along The Way*


On the day that three more US soldiers died in Iraq, Californians elected a narcissist governor in a bizarre recall election. As Der Gropenfuhrer** heads for Sacramento, millions of poor people believe that Arnold will magically terminate the newly imposed and hated car tax (He’ll have a tough time convincing the majority in both Houses). That may have been the loftiest reason that blue collar voters had to remove Governor Gray Davis. He and the legislature in desperation used a hike in auto taxes to try to fund schools and other necessities.

Try as they may, liberal Democrats can’t attribute their heavy loss in this election to the hanky panky Republicans used in Florida in 2000. Yes, some voting machines didn’t work, some voters had to jump through hoops to find their polling place and others found the punch-out instrument too dull to pierce the paper. But these explanations are insufficient to explain the overwhelming loss for Governor Gray Davis and the impressive tally for Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Rather, Democrats should go back to the world of fiction for their insight. The descendents of Californians described in 1939 by novelist Nathanael West in The Day of the Locust have now put into office a man who hobnobbed with the very oil thieves (like former ENRON CEO Ken Lay) who stole billions from the state to help get Californians into the current mess. West called the Hollywood residents “savage and bitter, especially the middle aged and the old… made so by boredom and disappointment.”

I did my own little public opinion experiment.  On election day, the following conversation took place between middle aged Hispanic women. “Hey,” said one housewife, “Arnoldo can pinch my nalgas if he wants. It’s more than my husband does these days. But I need the $130 we’ll have to shell out for the car tax.”

Another said: “Who does Cruz [Lt. Governor Cruz Bustamante, Schwarzenegger’s main Democratic competitor] think he is, taking us Latinos for granted? Does he think we don’t know he tried to take the Indian gambling money and use it for his own campaign?” (A reference to Bustamante’s attempt to transfer Indian gaming money to another fund he controlled and calling it a donation to charity).

In my suburban precinct at 8:00 a.m., I estimated the average age of the long line of people waiting to vote to be about 80. I talked with an elderly couple.

LANDAU: So, what brings you out so early?

OLD LADY: Imagine, telling us that we have such a large deficit and we have to pay more taxes to meet it. He never told us that when he was running for reelection — last year [2002], was it?

LANDAU: You mean Governor Davis?

OLD MAN: He had plenty of time to raise money for his campaign from those billionaire friends of his. Why didn’t he use some of it to meet the deficit?

OL: I voted for him in the last election and I don’t recall him mentioning that we had such a large deficit. He tried to hide it from us. Who did he think he was fooling?

OM: You bet. He mismanaged the state. He’s finished as far as I’m concerned.

LANDAU: I gather you’re a Republican?

OM: I voted for Clinton and he did plenty of groping. At a certain age you stop caring about stuff like that (giggles).

OM: “Let’s win this one for the groper, I say.”

AFRICAN AMERICAN WOMAN, (shaking her head in disgust). “Yeah, you ain’t got nothing to grope. Man, some people never learn.”

She was right. Once again, rich Republicans figured out a way to screw the poor and manipulate them into voting for it. Back in 1978, Howard Jarvis pushed Proposition 13 and convinced working and middle class people to put a lid on the legislature’s ability to raise property taxes. Yes, they did save a few hundred dollars a year, but they lost far more as their children’s education got cut along with other vital services. Proposition 13 required a 2/3 vote of the legislature to pass a tax increase.

The big winners, the ultra rich and the big corporations, saw their property taxes reduced dramatically. Indeed, one of the world’s richest men, Warren Buffett, admitted to paying only $2,000 a year on his $4 plus million fourth home in California. When as an adviser to Arnold, he mentioned publicly that this taxation system was unfair, the former body builder told him to shut up. Buffett’s voice has not been heard of since then on the Arnold campaign. Needless to say, the majority of the plutocrats did not agree with him and would rather pay large sums to their CPAs to find loopholes so they don’t pay even a small increase in taxes.

The tax loopiness had decisive results. From leading the nation in education in the 1960s and early 70s, California dropped to fiftieth in spending per child. Arnold pledged to fix all that without raising taxes. In 2002, he had backed a state-wide proposition to fund after school programs, which passed. The money used to implement that was deducted from the education budget  another of the bizarre rules established by Californians in their democratic evolution from the modern to the cave era.

Arnold ran as a social progressive, pro choice, tolerant on gays and steering clear of prayer in schools and the right to have a howitzer in your backyard. He did, however, continue driving one his nine hummers around smog filled, freeway-congested Los Angeles.

By doing so, Arnold put his finger on the neo-macho, Harley Davidson pulse of the times. He not only apparently won the former Reagan male blue-collar vote  the sixteen women who accused him of improper groping may actually have helped him sway these lugs  but actually persuaded enough women that his magical star-shrouded ability to accomplish the impossible merited their support as well. Those men who feel vulnerable before confident women may well see appeal in ersatz macho figures like George W. “Bring ‘em on” Bush and the muscle bound, boob-pinching Schwarzenegger.

The testosterone-exuding Arnold also captured the “blame someone” voters. When the recall petitions circulated, I remember hearing anger in people’s voices as they signed on to the move sponsored by extreme right wing Republicans. These wingers saw recall as the only way they could win an election. The far right, cynical, power-hungry and devious Republican strategists, like Paul Weyrich of the Free Congress Foundation and Phyllis Schlafly of the Eagle Forum, do not lack intelligence and insight.

Indeed, they saw the politics of blame as running through California history. At the turn of the century, lured by what Nathanael West called “the land of sunshine and oranges,” and free enterprise opportunities galore, aspiring lower middle class, workers and farmers left Ohio, Indiana and later Oklahoma in large numbers.

The descendent of these people now find themselves paying outrageous prices for almost everything  especially homes, cars and gasoline. “They realize they’ve been tricked and burn with resentment,” wrote West. He might have added: “Not only against taxes, criminals and pederasts, successful people and children, but against those who in the name of feminism, women’s rights, modern times, justice or whatever have shaken the foundations of their social status.”

Millions of Californians voted with discipline: against the recall and for the lackluster Bustamante  the much lesser of two evils. But many more, some 4.5 million plus, voted for Schwarzenegger or for Tom McClintock, the traditional anti-abortion, pro prayer Republican.

The San Francisco Bay Area and the heavily liberal areas of southern California voted against the recall and against Arnold. But the non-voters remained in the majority. Of approximately 21 million eligible (out of a total population of about 35 million), some 15 million registered to vote. Out of those about 8 million actually cast ballots on October 7.

Jokes aside, Arnold is not pro-Hitler; nor is he a flaming reactionary. As soon as he ascends to the actual governing chair he will face the very same issues as Gray Davis did: inadequate funds to service the citizens. Arnold hints that to fix the education system without raising taxes, he’ll ask President Bush “for a lotta, lotta favors” — one neo-macho guy to another!

In the real world of politics, Arnold will face the tough, progressive, veteran John Burton, President of the California Senate  a man who does not easily suffer fools or frauds.

What lessons does the California election hold for progressives? Liberals and left activists used their organizational skills and imagination to mobilize voters to defeat handily the racist Proposition 54, the openly right wing push to prohibit state and local governments from classifying people by race, ethnicity, color or national origin. They garnered a broad coalition to label the measure racist, including three former surgeon generals who said it would impede medical research and health care itself. Now, will the progressives of this state and the nation summon their energies toward power? If so, there is no more important challenge than the 2004 national elections.

 *Mamas and Papas hit from the 1960s

**LA Times columnist Steve Lopez’ term

Landau’s new book, THE PREEMPTIVE EMPIRE: A GUIDE TO BUSH’S KINGDOM, was released this month by Pluto Press. He teaches at Cal Poly Pomona University and is a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies.

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