- This Week
The voters are furious -- but are they madder at government or big business? That question could define the next political era
ILLUSTRATION BY DANNY HELLMAN
But the anti-incumbent message isn't necessarily an anti-government message. Most Californians are willing to put more of their cash into public-sector programs, even during this deep recession. When asked to name the most important issues facing the state, 53 percent mentioned jobs and the economy . The state budget, deficit, and taxes only got the top billing of 15 percent.
And contrary to the conventional wisdom espoused by moderate politicians and political consultants, most voters say they are willing to pay higher taxes to save vital services. "Californians tell us they continue to place a high value on education and want education to be protected from cuts. And they're willing to commit their money to help fund that," PPIC director Mark Baldassare told the Guardian.
The survey found that 69 percent of respondents say they would pay higher taxes to protect K-12 education from future cuts, while 54 percent each say they would pay higher taxes to prevent cuts to higher education and to health and human services programs. In other words, voters seem to recognize where we've cut too deeply — and where we haven't cut enough: only 18 percent of respondents would be willing to pay higher taxes to prevent cuts to prisons and corrections.
Baldassare said the June primary results also showed that people are willing to pay more in taxes for the services they value. "Around the state, there was a lot of evidence that people responded favorably to requests by their local governments for money, particularly for schools," he said.
Both the California Legislature and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger are held in very low esteem with voters, according to the PPIC study, and Schwarzenegger's 23 percent rating is the lowest in the poll's history.
Barbara O'Connor, political communications professor who heads the Institute for the Study of Politics and the Media at Sacramento State University, told us that voter unhappiness with elected leaders is no surprise. Right now, most people are afraid that their basic needs won't be met over the long run.
"The common narrative is fear, and fear channels into anger," O'Conner said.
And that fear is being tapped into strongly this year by the Republican candidates, who are trying to scare voters into embracing their promises to gut government and keep taxes as low as possible.
"If there's any lesson to be learned from Meg and Carly's early ads, it's fear-mongering, fear-mongering all the time — and that doesn't create a very positive narrative," O'Connor said of gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman and U.S. Senate candidate Carly Fiorina.
O'Connor noted that Barack Obama's campaign had great success in using a positive, hopeful message and said she believes the right leader can also do so in California. "I talked to Jerry [Brown]'s people about it and said you can't just run a negative campaign because that's what Meg is doing."
Despite the tenor of the times, O'Connor said she's feeling hopeful about hope. She also believes Californians would respond well to a leader like Obama who tried to give them that hope — if only someone like Brown can pick up that mantle. "I think the environment is right for a positive message. But the question is: do we have people capable of delivering it?"
She said the no-new-taxes, dismantle-government rhetoric has started to wear thin with voters. "The real fiscal conservatives are badly outnumbered in Californian," O'Connor said. As for the corporate sales jobs, O'Connor said voters have really started to wise up. "They aren't going to be scammed."
The results of the June primary election showed that voters across the spectrum were also disturbed by big special-interest money. Proposition 16, backed by $46 million from Pacific Gas and Electric Co., went down to defeat — even in counties that tend to vote Republican.
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