Does the “Progressive” Policy Agenda in California have any Limits?

David Kersten
David Kersten is president of the Kersten Institute for Governance and Public Policy (www.kersteninstitute.org). Kersten is also an adjunct professor of public finance and economics at the University of San Francisco.

There has been much debate recently in the national media regarding an ongoing battle between “socialism” and “capitalism” and what each would mean for the future of this country.

Meanwhile, here in California state Republican lawmakers, such as this past weekend at their convention, have been increasingly sounding the alarm that California has become and is rapidly becoming a “socialist state.”

California Democrats, led by the newly minted Governor Gavin Newsom, are pursuing an unabashed “progressive” policy agenda that includes single-payer health care, free community college, free pre-school, expanded safety next programs, and stricter climate control policies.

Critics, such as the Trump Administration and Republican lawmakers, charge that such policies are “socialist” in nature ultimately lead to economic catastrophe and complete government control of the economy.

Furthermore, critics, such as President Donald Trump have recently stated that such “socialist” policies serve the primary purpose of gaining political power and control to the benefit of political elites at the expense of the governed.

For decades, California Democrats have been on the leading edge of a “progressive” movement that has garnered national, and even international attention, for being the first or among the first governments to enact progressive policies on everything from tobacco control and health safety net programs to landmark environmental regulations such as policies aimed to reduce energy consumption, tailpipe emissions and point source pollution.

But as Governor Gavin Newsom now takes the reigns from outgoing Governor Jerry Brown, it raises the timely question of what are the limits, if any, of liberalism and “progressive” policy change in California?

I would argue that the most successful Democrat politicians in recent California history have one key thing in common—they understand that there are real, practical limits to a “progressive” policy agenda.

Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-California) demonstrated this recently when she was lobbied by a group of children to support the “green new deal”—which is perhaps the most far-reaching and radically liberal piece of policy legislation introduced in this country in a very long time.

The video of this interaction went viral with Sen. Feinstein being criticized by many on the left for not saying that she wholeheartedly supports the “green new deal” and telling the kids exactly what they want to hear in a made for TV moment.

Instead, Sen. Feinstein respectfully heard the kids out, but said “I’ve been doing this for 30 years. You come in here and say it has to be my way or the highway. I don’t respond to that…I know what I’m doing. Maybe people should listen a bit,” adding that “there’s no way to pay for it.”

Sen. Feinstein is a political icon, commonly admired from both the right and left, and has built a reputation for being fair, deliberate, and in this case acknowledging what she believed to be a real limitation regarding the feasibility of progressive policies.

Even California’s junior U.S. Senator Kamala Harris (D—California), who has shown support for Medicare for All and the “green new deal” in her presidential bid, has recently distinguished herself as a “progressive Democrat,” and not a “socialist Democrat,” according to a CNN report.

To some, this may be parsing words, but I would argue there is a big difference between a “progressive Democrat” and a “socialist Democrat”—the self-declared socialists, such as Senator Bernie Sanders and Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D—New York) who are pushing even more radical, openly “socialist policies” that call for a more dramatic and sweeping government control of the economy and social life.

Bernie Sanders, now a U.S. presidential candidate for 2020, has even went so far as to refuse to condemn the “socialist” regime in Venezuela and appears amenable to an all but complete takeover of the economy by the government—a pure “socialist” system. Sanders has previously supported the communist economic policies of past political regimes in Castro’s Cuba and the former Soviet Union, which have well documented histories of human rights concerns.

Many of today’s so-called “progressive Democrats” make former California Governor Jerry Brown look more like a log cabin Republican, than a “progressive Democrat” who championed many progressive policies on climate change and expanded medical care for the poor, among other things.

Governor Brown, as noted in this column previously, did not support single-payer health care in California and openly acknowledged that there are limits to taxes and environmental regulation of the economy as seen in his numerous veto messages of many pieces of progressive legislation over his recent eight-year stint in office.

Of course, some of the harshest critics on the right will still say that the ultimate end game of many “progressive Democrats” is a “socialist” state.

This may be true in some cases, such as Bernie Sanders, but I would argue the most successful Democrats in California’s history have both clearly acknowledged and heeded the limitations of an overly “progressive” policy agenda.

The bottom line is that “progressive” policies still need to be workable, sustainable and affordable over the long-term. Many such policies originate with interest groups and campaign consultants who have their own political motivations, and are not necessarily invested in the success of a particular policy over the long-run.

Put simply, many “progressive” policies are designed to win elections, and the same can be said for many “conservative” policies—that’s democracy.

But the smartest and savyiest elected public officials, even progressives, must push back, be able to just say no to bad or unworkable policies, and know that it is in their best long-term interests to only champion policies that can actually work and be sold as having proven beneficial results for the governed.

The alternative is not pretty and something that many people and political stakeholders are starting to wake up to in California politics—a series of glaring major public policy failures that were enacted as part of a “progressive” policy agenda but now have some serious negative impacts on the people of this state, particularly low-income households (i.e. high housing costs, high energy costs, increasing public debt, high taxes, and an underperforming education system).

Most economists agree that a capitalist economy will still function to a certain degree under increasing amounts of government taxation, regulation and control, but this government intervention will inevitably produce a series of negative consequences such as higher consumer prices, limited supply, reduced economic growth, and less economic freedom and choice.

While California may not technically be a “socialist” state, and may never be, it is my informed opinion that we are starting to test some of the real economic and social limits of the “progressive” policy agenda in this state.

If recent history is any indicator of future success, it suggests that the future’s most successful California Democrats will continue to be the ones who figure out how to best mitigate, even eliminate, the negative impacts of the “progressive” agenda and put the state back on a path to true economic prosperity and opportunity for all.

The alternative is a continued leftward lurch into economic no man’s land, possibly economic collapse or full-blown “socialism,” and I don’t think that is where many California voters or business owners really want to be—particularly once they realize the consequences.

After all, if California Democrats cannot find a way to get the job done, somebody else likely will try, and that might set the stage for the revival of the California Republican Party or another independent or third-party force in California politics.

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