If We Try, We Can All Push California Into The Ocean


I have a terrible admission to make. I used to work for a bunch of politicians.

And not only that. Part of me enjoyed it.

I didn’t enjoy the way my various state, federal and local bosses would fly off the handle at me for typos in letters and memos. I also didn’t care for the constant state of fear I lived in, worried that a mistake on my part would ruin my career or finish off an endangered species forever (both almost happened, the former more than once.)

But I did enjoy the power — specifically power over other people, especially those I disagreed with strongly. There’s some terrible part of me that really got off on  screwing over my enemies. Admittedly, my enemies at the time were mostly Bush administration lackies, and a lot of them deserved it for screwing over various groups (mostly homeless vets, the poor and disabled people), but often the people I screwed over didn’t do much more wrong than say the wrong thing to the wrong person at the wrong time.

There’s a laugh — a laugh I’ve only ever heard from those who work in politics — that’s somewhere between a witch’s cackle and a little kid’s secret giggling in the back of a classroom. The mouth is half open, the k-9’s are showing, the person laughing sits back in his chair, his smile a little bit crooked, and little bursts of air come out through the nose and mouth at the same time.  It’s the laugh of knowing an enemy has been totally ruined, or sometimes it happens in the planning stages of ruining someone. For a while, I lived for that laugh, as did many of the people around me. It, sadly enough, is what that part of my life was about. And it is also, I fear, what politics — and California politics in particular —  is about.

Kimberly Nalder has an op-ed in SFGate this morning called “Maybe it is time to stop scapegoating legislators.” It’s about the California financial crisis. From the piece:

“Voters want a high level of services – prestigious universities and a flawless freeway system. We expect environmental protection and top-flight firefighting. But we don’t want to pay for it. Instead, we want tax cuts and leaner state budgets. It’s impossible to have both. If you think about it, Californians are like someone who hires a personal trainer in order to get in shape and lose weight, but tells her first thing, ‘There are two things I refuse to do: I won’t exercise, and I won’t eat less.’ Six months later, when we are asked if we ‘approve’ of personal trainers, we’re livid. Look at us! We can barely climb a flight of stairs! We’ve gained weight. We need to throw those personal trainer bums out!”

She’s right, of course. She cites all sorts of statistics showing how little the Californian populace knows about budgets and governing. Yet we Californians pass ballot measures all the time lowering taxes and increasing services. And then we don’t understand why our economy is collapsing and banks won’t take IOU’s from the state. Stupid Californians.

But to torture this metaphor, shouldn’t the personal trainer be able to tell her customer it doesn’t work that way? Isn’t that part of her job?

You can blame Californians all you want, but politicians left and right tell people they can have it both ways in order to secure their own political power, to screw over their enemies first and to actually govern the state second.  You don’t have to look far to find evidence: Schwarzenegger’s hidden “fuck you” in his recent letter to Alioto, whether he knew about it or not, really sums up today’s politics in a brilliant way.  It’s about that gotcha, that laugh. (For more examples, see this and this and this and this).

The problem is that Nalder’s metaphor isn’t quite right. A personal trainer’s prime motivation isn’t necessarily to screw over other personal trainers so they can secure power for themselves.

It would be more accurate to say that the politicians are corrupt preachers who tell people they’re going to heaven in order to run all the other preachers out of town. The blame, in that case, falls first to the politicians and second to the people desperate enough to fall for their schtick. It’s not that the people are blameless. There is no way out of this until we assume responsibility for the mess we’re in. But “scapegoating” would mean that the politicians are innocent. And they are anything but that.

Seth Fischer’s writing has twice been listed as notable in The Best American Essays and has been nominated for The Pushcart Prize by several publications, including Guernica. He was the founding Sunday editor at The Rumpus and is the current nonfiction editor at The Nervous Breakdown. He is a Dornsife PhD Fellow at USC and been awarded fellowships and residencies by Ucross, Lambda Literary, Jentel, Ragdale, and elsewhere, and he teaches at the UCLA-Extension Writer’s Program and Antioch University, where he received his MFA. More from this author →