THE BROWNS OF CALIFORNIA
The Family Dynasty That Transformed a State and Shaped a Nation
By Miriam Pawel
Illustrated. 483 pp. Bloomsbury. $35.
After the United States pulled out of the Paris climate accords, California’s governor, Jerry Brown, became the nation’s unofficial climate change ambassador. In this age of Trump, his leadership won him accolades. But not long ago, Brown’s ideas about sustainability were deemed far-out and flaky. In his first term as governor in the 1970s, his backing of new technologies to solve human and environmental problems led one journalist to label him “Governor Moonbeam.” With over 40 years in California politics, his once visionary environmentalism has now gone mainstream.
Miriam Pawel’s fascinating book “The Browns of California” charts four generations of the Brown family, focusing on the political careers of Edmund (Pat) Brown — the two-term California governor from 1959 to 1967 — and his son, Edmund (Jerry) Brown Jr., governor from 1975 to 1983, and again from 2011 to the present. The Browns’ collective 24-year political domination of California has spanned an astonishing 60 years. Pawel, the author of “The Crusades of Cesar Chavez,” bills her family saga as a “lens through which to tell a unique history of the 31st state,” but it does much more. Her engaging narrative of the politics, ideas and policies of the two Edmund Browns illuminates the sea change in the nation’s politics in the last half of the 20th century.
Pat Brown was an old-style liberal when he was catapulted into office in 1958 during the golden age of the American Century. He believed that government was responsible for providing a strong social safety net, spent millions of dollars to expand the state’s system of higher education and backed a state anti-discrimination law. He also supported the war in Vietnam. When California was rocked by antiwar protests, inner-city turmoil and a backlash against the state’s fair housing law, Brown lost his re-election bid to Ronald Reagan in 1966.
Jerry Brown was steeped in his father’s political world, but like many of his generation he was repelled by what he saw as the “confusion and hypocrisy of government.” Coming of age in the 1960s, he opposed the Vietnam War, supported Cesar Chavez’s farmworker movement and campaigned for the antiwar candidate Eugene McCarthy in 1968. He was a nonconformist critical of “the oligarchy, the power establishment elite.” Even after he joined it, winning his race for governor in 1974, he canceled the inaugural ball, drove a Plymouth to work, slept on a mattress on the floor of his austere apartment and made E. F. Schumacher’s 1973 countercultural manifesto “Small Is Beautiful” required staff reading.
Brown’s countercultural ethos shared some common ground with traditional conservatives’ hostility to the governing class. During his first term as governor, he exhorted students at Santa Clara University “to depend on your own energy and your own creative potential.” He slashed the budget of the state’s sprawling university system: Faculty members, he said, should accept lower salaries because their work brought them “psychic income.” Berkeley’s high-paid president should look to Gandhi’s example: “He didn’t make any money and he was pretty successful.”
But Brown’s calls for reining in state spending took a consequential turn during his re-election campaign in 1978. He decided to accept Howard Jarvis’s Proposition 13, a referendum initiative to slash property taxes. Declaring himself a “born-again tax cutter,” he rode the tax revolt wave to a landslide win for a second term. In the wake of the referendum’s passage, however, state budgets were eviscerated. California educational spending per pupil dropped from near the top of all states’ to near bottom.
Jerry Brown’s liberalism has centered on the environment (a problem he deemed more pressing than concerns about “whether or not you have the capacity to buy a second car”), women’s equality and minority rights. But his policies have hurt poor- and working-class Americans left behind by fraying social safety nets, ailing cities and failing schools; they are ever more likely to land in the state’s exploding prison system.
Pawel portrays Brown as a thoughtful visionary whose faith in the emancipatory potential of the free market helped usher in the nation’s second Gilded Age. Neoliberal economic policies, often associated with conservative Republicans, appealed to iconoclastic Democrats like Brown, who were hostile to bureaucracy and skeptical of establishment institutions. But Jerry Brown’s counterculturally-inflected distrust of government has helped make liberal California the poverty capital of America.
Lisa McGirr teaches American history at Harvard. Her most recent book is “The War on Alcohol: Prohibition and the Rise of the American State.”