The Pat Brown Republicans
California old timers can remember the state’s first Governor Brown, Jerry Brown’s father, who served as the 32nd governor of California from 1959 to 1967. It would be difficult to imagine anything the elder Brown did that would be in alignment with the Democratic politicians currently running California.
The achievements of the Pat Brown era, and the policies that made them a reality, are needed today more than ever. Back then California was affordable and safe, and its public education from kindergarten through graduate school was the best in the world. Today, with its incredible wealth, diverse economy, and vast resources, there is no reason why California can’t achieve this quality of life again.
If the Democratic party has abandoned the policies of the Pat Brown era, and they have, the Republicans in California stand in desperate need of new policy ideas that voters will find compelling. This weekend delegates from every corner of the state are congregating in Sacramento to discuss the future of their party. The good news, if you want to call it that, is California’s Republicans have nowhere to go but up. In the wake of the 2022 midterms, Republican seats in the state legislature are the lowest they’ve been in the history of the state; they hold 18 out of 80 seats in the Assembly, and 8 out of 40 seats in the Senate.
Republicans have plenty of reasons to explain their unprecedented irrelevancy in California. Proposition 187 in 1994, supported by Republicans, denied public services to undocumented immigrants. Proposition 8 in 2008, supported by some Republicans and opposed by others, banned same sex marriage. Ironically, both of these measures were approved by California voters, but they were both eventually overturned, and they no longer reflect the majority sentiment of voters. The only lasting result of these two propositions is that they are still used by Democrats to claim that Republican politicians, and the Republican voters that support them, are despicable bigots. They are the disqualifying gift that just keeps giving.
In more recent years, Democrats have managed to reinforce the Republican bigot brand by attaching Donald Trump to every Republican candidate. The truth is irrelevant, of course. Not every Republican candidate in California is aligned with Trump, and, notwithstanding his bombast and braggadocio, Trump is probably not a bigot. But the stain doesn’t easily fade, and in politics that’s all that matters.
A New Brand for Republicans
While California’s GOP may have hit bottom with voters, new political opportunities are developing. California is not affordable, its cities are not safe, and its K-12 public education system is delivering some of the worst results in the country instead of being among the best. But it isn’t enough to say “Democrats did this, so vote Republican.” It isn’t even enough to say “Democrats did this, and here, exactly, is how Republicans are going to fix everything.”
Having specific policy options available under the umbrella issues of affordability, safety, and education is an essential prerequisite, but it won’t matter if the carefully curated toxic Republican brand, inculcated in the minds of California’s voters for decades, isn’t decisively replaced. And a replacement, recognizable and alluring, neglected by Democrats, is waiting to be seized.
Here is how the California Museum’s website describes Governor Pat Brown:
“Governor Edmund G. ‘Pat’ Brown ushered in a golden age, making California famous for having the biggest water system, the best higher education, the longest highways, and an economy exceeding that of nations.”
“A Golden Age.” Now that’s a brand.
These policies of the 1950s and 1960s, implemented by Democrats, are policies that will excite Californians, and they are the only way to bring a Golden Age back to California. What Pat Brown did for California was build an infrastructure that was oversized at the time, and because of the resulting abundance in water, transportation, and educational assets, the cost of doing business and the cost of building homes was made affordable. Living here back then was so affordable that – imagine this – only one parent needed to have a full-time job to own a home and raise a family.
Things can get that good again. California’s state government needs deregulation to encourage private investment in enabling infrastructure, and it needs to issue general obligation bonds to pay for infrastructure wherever private funding isn’t sufficient. And the money the state invests in lowering the cost of living will come from savings elsewhere. When there is broad based prosperity, instead of record poverty, spending on social programs plummets because the need evaporates.
The entire Pat Brown era is instructive. Crime rates were low because criminals faced certain punishment. This deterred crime, resulting in lower rates of incarceration and fewer prisons. K-12 education as well enforced accountability. If a young student was disruptive, they would end up in reform school, and if they remained incorrigible, they ended up at the boys ranch (or the girls ranch). This certainty of discipline as well deterred misbehavior, minimizing the need for juvenile detention facilities.
In the Pat Brown era, vagrancy and public intoxication were crimes, which, surprise, deterred vagrancy and public intoxication. And voila, billions of dollars were not being fed into the insatiable maw of the homeless industrial complex. The list goes on. This was life in a state ran by Democrats, with a Democrat governor.
A popular movement within the national Republican party is the so-called “walk away” campaign, which encourages liberals to leave the Democratic party. But if California’s independent voters were told that the Democratic party itself has walked away from its own Pat Brown era roots, and that’s why the state is unaffordable and unsafe, it would resonate.
If California’s Republicans brand themselves as Pat Brown Republicans, and emulate the policies of the Pat Brown era, they might just finally throw off the negative labels that have worked so well, and hurt so much.
Edward Ring is a contributing editor and senior fellow with the California Policy Center, which he co-founded in 2013 and served as its first president. He is also a senior fellow with the Center for American Greatness, and a regular contributor to the California Globe. His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Economist, Forbes, and other media outlets.
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