30th December 2009
California’s Progressives achieved breakthrough victories in the 1910 elections. With some running as Democrats, others as Republicans, and still others disdaining party labels altogether, Progressives won governing majorities in the state legislature. Hiram Johnson, the candidate of the “Lincoln-Roosevelt League,” was elected governor, and later became Theodore Roosevelt’s vice-presidential running mate on the Progressive ticket in 1912. (One reason Roosevelt carried California that year was the Progressives were powerful enough to keep the Republican nominee off the ballot; President William Howard Taft was forced to seek California’s electoral votes as a write-in candidate.)
At next year’s parades marking the centenary of the Progressives’ triumph, confetti suppliers and marching bands may have to be paid with IOU’s instead of cash. California’s bonds are rated lower than any other state’s; its budget deficit, relative to the size of the state’s population, is higher than any other’s. The current recession is the proximate cause of California’s crisis, but other states devastated by the economic downturn, such as New York and Florida—even Michigan—face choices about taxes and spending that are far less dire. A growing number of observers argue that California’s real problem is that it has become ungovernable. Kevin Starr, for example, who just published the eighth volume in his comprehensive history of the Golden State, recently told an interviewer, “In our public life, we’re on the verge of being a failed state, and no state has failed in the history of this country.”
Rome wasn’t sacked in a day, and California didn’t become Argentina overnight. Its acquired incapacity to manage its own affairs has been a long, complicated story, with many contributing factors rather than a single villain or tragic flaw. No analysis of California’s political demise, however, would be complete without discussing how the Progressive legacy has undermined the state’s ability to govern itself.