On July 7 Chronicles sent freelance writer Jim Christie to interview Jerry Brown in Oakland, California.
Ask any Democratic Party insider in California about Jerry Brown, and he will usually say Brown is one of three things; an embarrassment, a flake, or a jerk. The institutional meanness, the state party’s party line, toward the former California governor rests on his failure to meet expectations in registering new Democratic voters when he was the state party chairman and his publicizing of details of the fund-raising he had to do for the party. The dialing-for-dollars weighed so heavily on Brown, he would go on to say during a bid for the party’s presidential nomination in 1992, that it turned him into an evangelist railing against the influence of money in American politics. Insiders said it was a gimmick, and even people who shared his liberal politics were dismissive. One center- left Sacramento journalist would tag Brown as California’s “hectoring, public monk,” which was a clever way of dredging up his ascetic (and ridiculed) lifestyle as governor and his days spent in a Catholic seminary. Of course, nobody foresaw that the sentiments behind Brown’s We the People and Pat Buchanan’s America First would inspire Ross Perot’s United We Stand America. Those who dismissed Brown for pointing out the ugly truth that the Democratic Party, despite its public piety, relies on the same corporate money allegedly reserved for the GOP, the party of business, assumed Brown would return to their fold. That does not seem to be the case. Brown now runs We the People from a warehouse in (appropriately) Oakland’s Jack London Square, and he broadcasts his nationally syndicated radio show from a nearby studio. Brown’s plans include the construction of a new headquarters for his nonprofit organization that will have a studio for his show, which will appear in larger markets soon. Brown continues to rail against the influence of money in American politics, and for good reason: the day before this July interview took place, the Wall Street Journal reported that Dwayne Andreas, an industrialist with agribusiness giant Archer-Daniels-Midland Company and a longtime Republican donor, had the month before turned up as cochairman for a presidential dinner to raise $2.5 million for Democrats. Not surprisingly, the week before the journal broke the story the Environmental Protection Agency, “with the prodding of the Clinton White House,” according to reporter Timothy Noah, announced regulations requiring one-tenth of all gasoline in the United States by 1996 to contain corn-based ethanol. Archer-Daniels-Midland Company just so happens to produce about 60 percent of all ethanol in the country. So much for the “change” promised by the Clinton administration.
Q. About the corruption of the political process, specifically the buying and selling of candidates, how is that to be remedied?
A. First, accept it is going on. That means thoroughly condemning the present manner of electing people in the United States—federal, state, and local. It is grossly corrupted and at fundamental variance with democratic ideals.
Q. Why won’t Congress touch this issue?
A. Congress raised and spent $660 million in 1992, or about a 50 percent increase from the previous election in 1990. That money is not coming proportionately from the American people. It’s coming disproportionately from a powerful minority of corporate-oriented donors. That destroys any fair system of representation, and it’s not acknowledged now by Congress. They don’t talk about the problem of corruption. They just talk about the burdens that they experience in raising all this money. But it’s far more threatening than that; democracy is being extinguished by a plutocracy of campaign donations, lobbyist influence, and media concentration.
Q. So what’s to be done, right now?
A. I believe you have to use the television, the radio, and the post office as the functional equivalent of the town square of old. Also, allow debate to take place around election time that would illuminate the issues and the choices for people without the influence of money that we now see.
Q. Is it really an organizational problem?
A. It’s an organizational problem in the sense that organizational ties for average people have been destroyed. The modern economy has undermined community, the ability of people to work together in groups that could have impact on government. Instead, people are increasingly isolated, preoccupied with watching television and going shopping. That’s a far cry from America 200 years ago, when there was an elite who deliberated based on principle.
Q. The political problem, then, isn’t just a question of organizing, but of identifying principles and worthy standard-bearers?
A. The end-game that we’re now seeing is best expressed by the Nixon funeral, where President Clinton, having been elected on a platform of “change,” called on the nation to pay homage to the memory of Richard Nixon, the man who essentially said, “Leaders don’t need character. They just need to be effective.” Two hundred years ago, John Adams, in a letter to his wife, said that with the Declaration of Independence and the founding of a new government, we would have to purify ourselves from our vices and inculcate virtues. He was focusing very clearly on the absolute importance of virtue to American democracy as well as to American leadership. Today’s teacher is Richard Nixon, who says virtue is irrelevant, that the statesman has to be a Machiavellian operative, a person skilled in the arts of manipulation and deception. I really believe that says where we are. Unless we recognize that, we don’t get anywhere.
Q. One of the great hopes for political change is a third party. Do you think there’s a chance that will materialize soon?
A. The two parties appear incapable of offering any real change. That’s why I mention Clinton as the apostle of change giving the apotheosis to Nixon, who was the complete antithesis of what American democracy is all about, as expressed by John Adams. A third party logically and conceptually would seem to be the vehicle for real change. But all the laws conspire against it, and history tells us that is an unlikely scenario. The local level does present immediate opportunities for action. Taking responsibility for one’s neighborhood, meeting with one’s neighbors, that’s democracy. There is democracy at the local level, because you can see people, you can get beyond computer-generated letters and manipulated TV ads. You can go to a meeting and debate and argue, which is the essence of democratic consensus-building. Politics at the local level are very important. Even so, all the institutions from the Federal Reserve to Congress to network television focus on the global and utterly ignore the value and importance of the local.
Q. Do you think the national press is to blame for quite a bit of this?
A. The national press is part of the larger system that increasingly functions at a global level, a multinational level, and trivializes the local community. You have, for example, public television, and, at least on public television in San Francisco, KQED, there’s very little local programming. For the most part, local programming, they say, is too expensive to produce, so they buy it from somewhere else. Certainly the media has a tremendous focus on what is beyond one’s grasp.
Q. Including Washington?
A. Washington, Wall Street, Europe, wherever. There exists a global focus over which we have virtually no control. And where we have some control, there is amnesia. Are children now taught about their neighborhoods? Are they taught their own history? Here, are they taught about Oakland 50 years ago? How Oakland was 100 years ago? About the nature of this particular watershed, this land, this soil? I myself am a product of Yale Law School, the University of California at Berkeley, the Jesuit schools, so I think in terms of a worldview, and yet I am increasingly perceiving the arena of action to be at the local level. And when I say the local level, I don’t in any way mean we can forget about what is happening nationally or globally. Rather, we have to force larger institutions to operate in the interest of local autonomy and local power. But they all conspire to do exactly the opposite.
Q. Speaking of amnesia, people forget you were the first person to bring up Whitewater during the 1992 campaign. What do you perceive as Hillary Clinton’s role, in that it’s not really supervised by a governmental body? Do you think she might have too much power?
A. I can’t say Hillary has any more power than Mrs. Reagan. She just exercises it differently. I don’t know if I can add on this. But she’s certainly Spearheading the health care reform, and it remains to be seen exactly what’s going to happen. The present state of affairs, at least as it comes out of Senator Moynihan’s committee, is a very minor adjustment—throwing some money at people through subsidies or tax credits and committing to a commission that will convene after the next century to consider what to do next. It’s like, what happened? As Horace said, the mountain was in labor and it brought forth a mouse, which appears to be the case with Hillary’s health care plan and her 500-member secret committee.
Q. What would your proposal on health care reform look like?
A.The most logical system would be the single-payer—and what I envision is something very different from what we now have. It is based on the notion that health involves people taking more responsibility personally, learning more about their bodies so as not to assault their bodies, as most of us do. Secondly, health involves stopping the poisoning of the environment. And, thirdly, as for the medical profession, it should be based not on profit, but on service, on the healing arts, and on the kind of community perspective that medical care used to be associated with.
Q. That’s a tall order.
A. This idea of turning medical care into a commodity, and literally harvesting people who are sick and elderly as sources of billion-dollar cash flows, which is the ease today, is an obscenity. I really believe the best health care will occur when doctors and other providers don’t earn more based on more intervention and procedures, but are free to exercise their wisdom and their skill more in the nature of a teacher or of someone who is rendering public service. I believe the single-payer will allow us to get there more appropriately.
Q. But what about the costs involved, particularly the taxes government would need to collect to cover a single-payer system?
A. It should not require more taxes. That means it would require a radical reduction in the federal government. And I’m talking about providing the basics—and I don’t mean sex-change operations and various cosmetic operations, and, I’m sure, there are many other things you’d want to rate as not basic —but basic care, what we would agree upon to have as citizens. That is a priority, and it should displace some other priority. For example, what is this defense budget all about if there is no war out there and we’re spending almost as much as all the countries of the world combined? The White House alone, supposedly, according to the Washington Times, consumes $2 billion a year. Move on from there: agricultural subsidies, perks, other programs of lower value, including the interest on the debt. There is enough of a burden on the citizen that I would have to say that, yes, let’s have health care be universally available, and, yes, let’s eliminate the insurance companies, and let’s have a single-payer system in the manner of Canada, or something similar, but don’t demand of the citizens that they add any more taxes to what already is a $1.5 trillion federal establishment, which has already taken away enough of our freedom.
Q. How was your idea for a flat tax received in Democratic circles?
A. In Democratic circles, not received well at all. It’s contrary to what these people believe in terms of the status quo, the progressive income tax. Now, I understand that rich people have a much greater obligation, and I’m perfectly prepared to look at a surcharge. And I think people at the lower end need to have exemptions or need to have some help, compensation, so they’re not hit with this flat tax the same way as those who have more disposable income. However, I believe the complexity of taxation, the invasion by government, the cost and the inefficiency on the part of businesses and individuals are too great and are sufficient evils that the system has to be changed. Also, we don’t really know who pays taxes like the payroll tax for Social Security. Who does it fall on? On consumers? On employees? On shareholders? On managers? Very smart economists argue about this endlessly. I have a hunch employees are picking up a good portion of it. If that’s the ease, let’s have a clean tax that everybody can see. It’s efficient, it’s more honest, and it will reduce the corruption that goes with the capacity to buy loopholes, which is endemic in the present system.
Q. How do we begin to address the growth in government?
A. Government is growing at all levels, because the community is being destroyed. People can’t do for themselves or work with their neighbors anymore. Because of our large-scale, professionally controlled, commodity culture, people are rendered more and more impotent to deal with things. Increasingly, everything requires an expert, a permit, and a fee. The message to average people is: you can’t do anything; all you can do is join some kind of bureaucracy, private or public, get your cheek, and start handing it out to people to start covering the basics, like your health care, your education, your transportation, your entertainment. People are garaged in their homes temporarily at night so that they can then get in their cars and be garaged during the day in some paper-pushing private business or public bureaucracy. I think that is the phenomenon that then builds up the federal government to deal with crime and welfare and that subsidizes everyone since nobody can take care of themselves except the affluent. And to those who say the federal government is too big, they have to look at the trends in the concentration of wealth and global decisionmaking. There is a contradiction between the trajectory of growth and independence, freedom, and keeping government in check.
Q. Gore Vidal said that you and Pat Buchanan were the only two “real” candidates during the campaign. Where does right meet left?
A. Buchanan has the message for the religious group, the right-to-life group. He also has a nationalist message, which is very much obscured by the mainstream media and the mainstream political personalities like Bush and Clinton, who are handmaidens of the New World Order, the global-scale management of things, which is totally contradictory to the neighborhood, to the community, to self-reliance, to freedom as we have traditionally known it.
Q. So there is some sympathy?
A. There is sympathy, because democracy cannot exist as we have known it historically with GATT, with multinational companies, with decisions being made at a level where the individual can’t meaningfully participate. Now, I do believe in the Ozone Treaty. I do believe that we should have a treaty to protect the whales. I think we should deal with global warming. When we can understand something, I want to take specific action. But when they talk about creating a GATT that will have a World Trade Organization to set standards that will have an impact on the neighborhood, then I say, no. NIMBY is good, not bad. If everyone would take care of his own backyard, then all the backyards would be better. The way it is today, people are led to believe they have no power over their own backyards, that their jobs are to watch television and go out and buy stuff. That destroys America. That destroys community. That destroys the human mind. Also, sovereignty is a very important idea. Ironically, Buchanan is afraid of the World Trade Organization because the environmentalists might get control over it. Ralph Nader and the Sierra Club and myself are worried that the World Trade Organization will allow the multinationals to dictate local environmental laws. But both of us turn on the central point: Where should decisions be made? I say decisions should be made in America.
Q. And on the local level, too, right?
A. Even the expansion Commerce Clause should be rethought, because if we’re going to give people power, they may want to say that if you want to sell beer in Oakland, you’re going to have to recycle the bottles, or that you’re going to have to refill the bottles. As a matter a fact, if you go a few blocks from where we’re sitting, there’s a business that has bottle refilling. Now, that will burden Anheuser-Busch and Coca-Cola, but I think that localism, if you really take it seriously, is going to interrupt certain patterns of modern growth and globalism. But I think that’s where the battle is, and I think it’s a good interruption if we’re going to maintain our sanity.
Q. One of the more pressing issues here in California politics is illegal immigration. What’s your perspective?
A. We have to look at things we can do something about and things we can’t. You cannot have NAFTA and say we want Mexican trucks, Mexican tomatoes, Mexican cars, Mexican TV sets, and Mexican everything else, except Mexicans. That’s an absurd notion. As a matter of fact, the governor’s office promotes blocking Mexican immigration, while promoting NAPTA. The more trucks you get crossing the border, the more stuff, whether it’s drugs or people, that is going to come across. We have this long border with Mexico, so we have to learn to work with Mexicans. But instead of displacing Mexico’s corn farmers as NAFTA does, and pushing those people northward, we have to work with a traditionalist Mexico to enable Mexico to be a better place in accordance with its likes, to enhance rural life, to enhance the ability of its people to stay in Mexico, as opposed to joining the global marketplace, which uses them as cheap labor for multinational American companies.
Q. But isn’t it true that illegal immigrants are coming here to work?
A. To the extent that Mexico can be incorporated into the North American marketplace, for the next couple of decades that incorporation will just be an incentive for many to join the immigration stream, because it’s still better here in terms of money. And what’s happening now to Americans is that we don’t pick food, don’t work on furniture, don’t clean dishes, don’t do the gardening, don’t build housing. The market says find cheaper labor. The cheaper labor is in Mexico, so no matter how many nativists say “Stop the immigrants,” as long as the market pressure is attracting immigration, you’re not going to stop it. So it’s conceptually dishonest to bash immigrants and push market pressure to find the lowest wages. I assure you, if the jobs weren’t here, these people wouldn’t be coming, and that’s the essence of the problem.
Q. How did being raised Catholic and being educated as a Jesuit shape your political philosophy?
A. It shaped it in a way that would allow me to critique the market and not see it as the god Congress believes it to be. It allowed me to see with some detachment what the latest fashion offers up as truth, to see a long view of Christian history, of seeing secular governments come and go. Having the opportunity of being isolated in a seminary for four years not reading newspapers, not listening to radio or other popular media, and immersing myself in tradition allowed me to look skeptically at what is presented as contemporary reality, which can be filled with illusions, deceptions, and greed.
Q. Where do you think Catholic social thought is headed in this country?
A. I don’t know where Catholic social thought is. There’s certainly the tradition of the common good, the nonmarket principles of virtue that are totally being demolished by economic analysis, which only looks at marginal utility, input-output, Gross National Product, productivity. All those terms never include justice, virtue, goodness, right and wrong. You either accept a qualitative worldview, or you buy into a quantitative worldview. Catholic social thought has always kept alive the notion of the family wage, the common good, which stand in total opposition to market rationality.
Q. But yet we see the power of the bottom-line in San Francisco, with the closing of churches.
A. I can only explain the closing of churches by the corruption of the Church. A church is a repository of shared experience, of suffering, of initiation—from baptism to marriage to death—and all those memories consecrate a building and make it a shrine that cannot summarily be traded for money. The fact that the Church can’t see this or that the bishop can’t see it just says to me they’ve lost their faith and they’re not really, authentically a member of this organic body called the Catholic Church. How are they going to replace the closed churches? The idea of merging parish is an abomination. What does that mean, merge churches? Their separate identities have been won out of 150 years of experience. You just kill it, that’s all.
Q. What political issues will you be pressing in the near future, and what plans do you have politically?
A. I’m looking for a more local form of action: enrichment of the community and real deconstruction of the workings of the global economy, global institutions—the central banks, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, the World Bank, the multinational companies—and of the way in which our lives are being embedded in a runaway, large-scale, corporate, global culture that is undemocratic, inhuman, and destructive of the environment. That’s what I’m focusing on. I want to work where I can to restore vitality to where I am, and through my radio program, to provide a forum for the ideas that really challenge the totally corrupt and bankrupt leadership I perceive to be in Washington.