What’s Behind the Schwarzenegger ‘Reform’ Agenda?

Political Action Vice-President
AFT Guild, Local 1931

“We are trying to change the tones in the state capitals and turn them toward bitter nastiness and partisanship.” — Grover Norquist

On Feb. 10, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger rolled into San Diego and staged a speech in an unused rental car lot where he mugged for the cameras in front of two Brinks trucks overflowing with money bags, which he used as a graphic illustration of the “sweetheart pension deals” enjoyed by teachers and other state employees who deserved a plan that was no longer “gold-plated.”

Now the public sector and public sector unions were enemy number one for the governor whose “reform” agenda is taken right out of the playbook of the likes of Bush Administration confidante and anti-government zealot Grover Norquist, whose agenda has long been the radical dismantling of the public sector, the destruction of the power of public sector unions, and the elimination of the collective power of public pension funds to check corporate abuses. When Norquist advised Republicans nationwide to turn state capitals into battlegrounds, he was articulating a strategy that reveals the ultimate goal of the Right — to fundamentally and permanently reshape American political and economic life on the national, state and local level.

When the Governor pulled his pension reform after botching the first attempt, only naïve observers thought that was the end of his assault on California workers. Now, he and his corporate allies are back with a special election designed to bust unions’ political clout this November and he has announced his intention to take a second shot at busting the pension system in June 2006. It’s all part of the master plan.

This is not a conspiracy theory. In his September 2004 article for the Washington Monthly, “The Democratic Party Is Toast,” Norquist quite overtly argued that the Democratic Party could not survive a second Bush term and that the key to eviscerating the opposition, which he calls “the Dependency movement,” composed of “the coercive utopians — the radical environmentalists, animal rights activists, feminists” as well as “government workers,” “middle managers in state and federal government,” “local government” and especially “labor unions,” was to starve the beast.

For Norquist, the attack on government is an end in itself and his shrewd Machiavellian logic is simply that eliminating government will eliminate Democrats and unions. As he puts it, “Every worker who doesn’t join a union is another worker who doesn’t pay $500 a year to organized labor’s political machine.”

If you are not a union worker or supporter of unions, all-the-better, for it will be just that much easier to eliminate or privatize your position. As for pensions, the more one transfers the risk of retirement savings from the government to individual workers, the more Republicans you create. In Norquist’s estimation, “Every demographic group, including race, gender, age and income, becomes more Republican with stock ownership.” The goal of eliminating Social Security or the State Teachers Retirement System is not economic reform for the public good; it is a purely ideological move designed to consolidate and increase right-wing hegemony. Hence, like it or not, Democrat or Republican, public sector workers are all in the crosshairs of the coercive market utopians who see them, whether they be teachers, nurses, cops, firefighters, food service workers, office workers or any other “public servant” (remember that quaint notion) as public enemy number one in need of a good dose of social Darwinism.

As historian Mike Davis noted in a Sacramento Bee article, the governor’s rhetoric is evidence of the “rising tide of libertarianism in the GOP . . .  His proposals for the privatization of non-instructional school services, stringent performance reviews of state programs and the consolidation or elimination of state agencies were quoted chapter and verse from the ‘Citizen’s Budget’ crafted last year by Carl DeMaio, the resident guru for government reinvention at the Reason Foundation.”

Like Norquist, the Reason Foundation folks — the men behind the curtain for the governor — seek an anti-bureaucratic revolution that moves toward “market-based government” based on the same principles that brought California the marketplace utopia of energy deregulation. Unfazed by such failures or the larger lessons of United States history before the New Deal and Progressive Era reforms, the libertarian right maintains a rigid ideological faith that the golden era of the past, before big government, was better for everyone from the Robber Barons to child laborers and the majority of Americans who never went to college and spent their old age in wholesome poverty free from the burden of government handouts.

Such notions would be laughable if they weren’t driving Schwarzenegger’s efforts at “reform” in the name of “the people.” Sadly, the Governor’s reform crusade borrows its rhetoric from an earlier era when Gov. Hiram Johnson favored big government as a buffer against the excesses of corporate greed and abuse. As historian and political writer Peter Schrag has pointed out, California’s first progressive Republican reformers would find the current brand of pseudo-populist grandstanding to be inconceivable. Even less-ancient conservative notions such as deficit reduction have been thrown overboard by the corporate anarchists running the show today. Indeed, as we ponder the fact that despite massive borrowing via ballot measures, the Schwarzenegger deficit is now larger than the Davis deficit, it becomes clear that deficits are not altogether unwelcome for these reformers. By refusing to ever address the problem by bringing in new revenues, the governor and state Republicans are showing their hand.

As the Democratic Leadership Council’s Vice President for Policy Ed Kilgore has noted of the New Right’s affection for debt, no tax pledges and debt are “good in themselves because they will ultimately force a shrinkage in government — without the pain or controversy of identifying specific cuts in popular government programs.” Hence, by refusing to even consider increasing taxes on the wealthiest Californians or corporations and by calling for the creation of an automatic trigger for budget cuts when expenses exceed revenues, the governor’s plan would create a permanent scarcity model for state services. It would, quite effectively “starve the beast,” as David Stockman once called the strategy, as privatization or elimination of services as well as the radical restructuring of existing programs and pension funds would become a necessity.

The driving force here again is not hard reality but an inflexible ideological agenda. When Schwarzenegger’s own appointees disagree with his pension proposals, he simply fires them rather than listening to opposing arguments. Such actions, along with the governor’s reneging on the Proposition 98 deal he struck last year, his backtracking on equalization, and his assault on teachers’ tenure, are a clear signal of his true intentions.

Gov. Schwarzenegger is not the moderate he plays on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno;” rather, he is a pretty front man for a radical agenda at odds with the interests and priorities of most Californians. As the dog and pony show in front of the Brinks trucks in San Diego illustrates, he is perfectly willing to demonize teachers and other state employees and call on Californians to terminate the “special interests.” Arnold could care less if his “reform” agenda does nothing to address the budget deficit or that spending tens of millions on his special election is not favored by most Californians (61 percent oppose it).

The governor is not a populist, but rather a political thug with rich friends. When his party can’t win the seats necessary to support his agenda and the polls show his popularity tanking with his job approval at an all time low 40 percent, his gut tells him to impose his will.

None of this should come as a surprise. As Arnold’s hagiographer, Lawrence Leamer, informs us in “Fantastic! The Life of Arnold Schwarzenegger,” the Terminator “believed that America needed a strong authoritative leader who could bring order and discipline to the near anarchy of democracy.” Banking on the fact that governing by ballot initiative will allow his corporate allies to dramatically outspend and vilify his enemies so he doesn’t have to negotiate with them, Arnold is hoping to conquer the inconvenient chaos of democracy.

Finally, we have a governor who is willing live up to the creed expressed by the punk rock band, the Dead Kennedys, who sneered, “California Über Alles!” with their tongues firmly planted in their cheeks. This sad performer, however, has no sense of irony.

Jim Miller is co-author of “Under the Perfect Sun: The San Diego Tourists Never See,” and is an associate professor of English at San Diego City College.