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Pat Brown's California takes a beating in Sacramento

Forty-two years after Pat Brown left office and 13 years after he died, his California took quite a beating last week.

The visionary governor swept into office in 1959, and by the time he was swept out eight years later, he had created the 16-dam, multiple-aqueduct state water project, devised the three-tier college and university system, constructed nine major campuses and built more than 1,000 miles of freeways to connect regions of his burgeoning state. To this day, much of what gets us where we are going -- literally and figuratively -- stems from what he did in his two terms.

It was hard not to think of that era last week as his successor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and the Legislature agreed to a plan to deal with the state's $26-billion deficit, mostly by cutting the kinds of programs Brown championed.

The current governor looked buoyant as he greeted Twitter fans via video after the budget deal, wielding a very large knife as if to dramatically underscore his plan to whack government programs.

But it was less a victory for him than for a mind-set that stands in dramatic contrast to the spirit that abounded in California in Pat Brown's day. Much has been made of the recent shift by state voters toward the Democratic Party, which has caused hand wringing and despair in national and state Republican circles. But even as they have conceded that battle, conservatives have won another sharply important one.

In Brown's California, there was a broad consensus that government was a competent force for good. Now, among Californians of all political ideologies, there is the opposite: a repudiation of government and, even more, of any confidence in the governor and the Legislature to act competently. On that matter, at least, California as a whole has shifted to the right.

It is tempting to think of those days as less fraught with the kind of drama that attends state budget matters now, but that is not the case. Brown took office in a recession and soon was forced to raise taxes. But the atmospherics were almost entirely different, according to Ethan Rarick, the author of "California Rising: The Life and Times of Pat Brown."

"It was easier to mount the argument that government by and large did good things, and we ought to pay for it, and the people who benefited the most should pay the most," said Rarick, now the director of UC Berkeley's Robert T. Matsui Center for Politics and Public Service.

One reason was the sheer visual impact of government-sponsored growth.

Californians used the new freeways to course to work from their just-built homes in the suburbs; their children went to school in new, nationally recognized and reasonably affordable colleges and universities; jobs and towns erupted, driven by the new availability of water.

Tony Quinn, a longtime political historian and demographer, agreed with Rarick that the New Deal-style consensus that powered Brown has eroded over time, with last week's budget deal as just the latest blow.

"There is very, very little confidence in the Legislature among the people now," Quinn said. "In the Pat Brown era, there was a feeling that government was getting things done; people just don't have those positive feelings now. The budget crisis is just a part of it."

Both men see similar causes. The state's conservative activists, drumming on the issue of taxes, have gradually succeeded -- with more than a little help from politicians -- in convincing Californians that where government is concerned, smaller is better.

The sharply anti-tax feel of today's Republican Party -- in evidence throughout months of budget negotiations -- did not exist 40 years ago. When Brown raised income and other taxes to deal with his recession, Rarick noted, he received more Republican legislative votes than the measure needed for passage.

His successor, Republican icon Ronald Reagan, also raised taxes but got nowhere near the grief that later GOP Gov. Pete Wilson got for doing so in the 1990s or that Schwarzenegger got for his tax hikes.

But both Quinn and Rarick also cite pressure from the left, particularly the environmental movement that erupted here in the intervening years. Growth now brings with it roiling battles over effects that were not considered when the state was booming. Broad agreement has given way to single-issue wrangling as interest groups fight for preeminence.

"There was a consensus then to do these things," Quinn said. "Nobody worried about environmental things; just build a freeway so I can get to work. Now it's 'don't put it in my backyard,' 'don't build new dams.' "

Added Rarick: "Today's Republicans are better environmentalists than Pat Brown ever was."

History's judgments often need to ferment; Brown is generally acknowledged now as one of the state's greatest governors, but that appellation came with time.

In 1966, after all, he was booted from office by Reagan in a landslide. So perhaps views of this era, too, will be revised upward.

But it is harder to imagine that views of government, pummeled over the course of four decades, will reverse any time soon.

"People make a huge mistake in California and nationally as a whole when they conflate Democratic and liberal," Rarick said.

"The whole spectrum has shifted so far to the right that today's Democrats are yesterday's Republicans. Yes, the state is more Democratic, but it is by no means liberal."

cathleen.decker @latimes.com.

Each Sunday, The Week examines implications of major stories. It is archived at latimes.com/theweek.

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