These days I care more about the results of local sporting events than I do national or out-of-state elections, but I was pleased that Golden Staters put Jerry Brown back in the governor’s chair.

Brown’s austere unhipness has always appealed to me, despite the soporiferous Linda Ronstadt, despite his “explore the universe” vapors, despite his failure as attorney general to defend his state’s electorate in the Proposition 8 case, even despite the Dead Kennedys’ hilarious “California Uber Alles,” in which President Brown unleashes the Terror:

Now it is 1984

Knock knock at your front door

It’s the suede denim secret police

They have come for your uncool niece!

Jello Biafra, who yawped that lyric, changed his mind about Brown, as did the great Chicago columnist Mike Royko, who dubbed Brown “Governor Moonbeam” but later realized that the Californian’s eccentricities masked—or maybe revealed—a curious, undogmatic, and bold politician.

To me, the California governor is redolent of those politically halcyon mid-1970s, when Democratic primaries were dominated by pious peanut farmers, pro-Second Amendment exposers of CIA skullduggery (Frank Church), and the quicksilver Brown, while neocon dreadnoughts like the SS Scoop Jackson sunk blessedly of their own terrible weight.

Jerry Brown was the last populist to make himself heard in a Democratic presidential primary, when in 1992, advised by the wise old republican Gore Vidal, he thumped the tub for a flat tax and peace and against NAFTA. Later, as mayor of Oakland, Brown encouraged local poets and painters and dancers to render their city in all its peculiar glory.

He was ridiculed for such pronouncements as this: “I want to emphasize place. Re-inhabit, going back, learning what was before, what is, what isn’t, what could be because of its physical location, its place in the economy, its fauna, its flora, its racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity.” A syntactic smashup, perhaps, but what’s so funny about Brown’s meaning?

Jerry’s dad Pat Brown was a boring New Deal Democrat whose lone service to the republic was the temporary sidelining of Whittier Dick Nixon in the 1962 California gubernatorial race, but we might hope that father taught son a lesson in division.

Disgusted by the Orange County troglodytes whom he blamed for electing Ronald Reagan governor over his incumbent self in 1966, Pat Brown unloaded on Southern California in his querulous book Reagan and Reality. Brown confessed that as governor he had been “inclined to support a bill in the legislature to split California into two” but held off in the interests of “conciliation.” His tongue loosened by forced retirement, ex-Governor Brown declared, “I have reluctantly concluded that California should be divided legally into two states, north and south.” Division was “at least ten years off,” he wrote in 1970, but he foresaw the “ultimate establishment of two states.”

He was not the first such visionary. No sooner was California dragged into the Union in 1850, over the protests of the Spanish-speaking agriculturalists of its southern region, than hoppers were filled with bills to carve the massive state into more easily governable pieces bearing names such as Shasta, Columbia, El Dorado, and Alta California.

Assemblyman Andres Pico’s 1859 proposal for a referendum on fissioning the state at the Tehachapi Mountains was passed by both houses of the state legislature and signed by the governor. The referendum was overwhelmingly approved by the citizens of the would-be Territory of Colorado, as southern California was to be denominated, but the terrible swift sword of the Civil War intervened, and California, unlike so many young men of the day, was not severed.

By the early twentieth century, northern Californians didn’t need a demographer to know which way the population boomed. The largest city in the south, teeming with prohibitionist newcomers hostile to the mining industry and its seamy overbelly, was reviled by San Franciscans as “Puritangeles.”  Bills to halve the state kept coming, and the bills kept dying, though they achieved highwater marks that are the envy of other split-state movements. As recently as 1992, voters in 27 of 31 mostly northern California counties affirmed an advisory ballot question asking if they wished California to beget two states. (I go into all this in mind-numbing detail in my opuscule Bye Bye, Miss American Empire. Buy it for Arbor Day, won’t you?)

During last fall’s campaign, Jerry Brown mused about a “design change” in California government. The state is inhumanly large, its bureaucracy inscrutably dense. The steroidal Austrian who preceded Brown could no more imagine a radical alternative to Big California than he could plausibly imitate an American. Pat Brown’s notional son, on the other hand, just might avenge the old man’s defeat. C’mon, Jerry: think small.

*This column first appeared in the April 2011 issue of The American Conservative ( Subscribe!

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Bill Kauffman was born on November 15 (also the birthday of Bobby Dandridge) in the otherwise forgettable year of 1959. He was an all-star Little League shortstop for the Lions Club Cubs but soon thereafter his talents eroded. After an idyllic childhood in his ancestral home of Batavia, New York, birthplace of Anti-Masonry, he was graduated from Batavia High School in 1977. He earned, more or less, a B.A. from the University of Rochester in 1981 and went therefrom to the staff of Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the only dairy farmer in the U.S. Senate. Two and a half years later he left Moynihan’s staff a bohemian Main Street anarchist who loved the Beats, the New England transcendentalists, early 20th century local colorists (Sarah Orne Jewett his Maine gal), cowpunk music, and the crazy old America. Neil Diamond and Karen Carpenter, too, but don’t tell anyone. He bummed around out west for a while, sleeping in bus stations and writing derivative poetry in Salt Lake City flophouses (nah, he’s not a Mormon, just a BYU fan) before an ill-starred year in graduate school at the UR. He took a seminar with Christopher Lasch and thought on it. In the spring of 1985 he flew west to become an assistant editor with Reason magazine. He had great fun in Santa Barbara with that crew of congenial editors drinking far into the night at Eddie Van Cleeve’s Sportsman’s Lounge, but in ’86 he flew east to become the magazine’s Washington editor. Always homesick, Kauffman persuaded his lovely and talented wife Lucine, a Los Angelena, to move back to Batavia in 1988 in what he called a “one-year experiment”—the year to be measured, apparently, in Old Testament terms. They’re still there—or, more accurately, five miles north in Elba (apt name for an exile!), where Lucine is Town Supervisor. She may well be the highest-ranking Armenian-American elected official in the country, at least until the voters of California send Cher to the U.S. Senate. Take that, Turks! Lucine and Bill have a daughter, Gretel, 17, who writes and acts and plays piano and French horn. Their lab mutt, Victoria, whose tail graces the accompanying photo, is now departed, to their sorrow, but a cat, Duffy, darts in and out of the house when the mood strikes. Bill is the author of nine books: Every Man a King (Soho Press/1989), a novel, which was recently rescued from the remainder bin by a New York Sun article proclaiming it the best political satire of the last century (the Sun thereupon set); Country Towns of New York (McGraw-Hill/1994), a travel book about God’s country; America First! Its History, Culture and Politics (Prometheus/1995), a cultural history of isolationism which Benjamin Schwarz in the Atlantic called the best introduction to the American anti-imperialist tradition; With Good Intentions? Reflections on the Myth of Progress in America (Praeger/1998), his worst-seller, a sympathetic account of critics of highways, school consolidation, a standing army, and the Siren Progress; Dispatches from the Muckdog Gazette: A Mostly Affectionate Account of a Small Town’s Fight to Survive (Henry Holt/2003; Picador ppb. 2004), a memoirish book about his hometown which won the 2003 national “Sense of Place” award from Writers & Books; Look Homeward, America: In Search of Reactionary Radicals and Front-Porch Anarchists (ISI/2006), which the American Library Association named one of the best books of 2006 and which won the Andrew Eiseman Writers Award; Ain’t My America: The Long Noble History of Antiwar Conservatism and Middle American Anti-Imperialism (Henry Holt/ Metropolitan/2008), which Barnes & Noble named one of the best books of 2008; Forgotten Founder: Drunken Prophet: The Life of Luther Martin (ISI/2008), a biography of a brilliant dipsomaniacal Anti-Federalist who warned us this was gonna happen; and Bye Bye, Miss American Empire (Chelsea Green/2010), a cheerful account of dissolution. Bill is a regular contributor to the Wall Street Journal and a columnist for The American Conservative. He has written for numerous publications, including The American Scholar, the Los Angeles Times Book Review, The Nation, Chronicles, the Independent and The Spectator of London, Counterpunch, Orion, University Bookman, and Utne Reader. He is vice president of the Genesee County Baseball Club, which owns the Batavia Muckdogs of the New York-Penn Baseball League. Come summertime, he can be found in the 3rd base bleachers at Dwyer Stadium. He is also active in the officerless (of course) John Gardner Society. Bill is more handsome than the photo on this site would suggest. See books written by Bill Kauffman.


  1. Congress (i.e., the other states) would have to approve any split, even if Californians were to want it. Which makes Gorentz-type objections pretty potent barriers against any serious Kauffman-inspired split-em–up movement.

    Fun history though–particularly liked the tidbit about “Puritangeles,” which hints at how it could be that Azusa St., is in terms of cultural impact upon America, the second-most momentous street in the basin after Hollywood Blvd.

  2. Though a Dead Kennedys fan, I supported Brown in ’92, and had cut my political teeth on Pat Buchanan’s Crossfire in the ’80s. Thanks to fellow Western New Yorker Mr. Kauffman’s books and articles, I now realize there is nothing incongruent about this.

  3. I would like to see the State of Jefferson come into full bloom, as somebody from Mount Shasta can attest, Northern Cali is way WAY different than Southern Cali. Nor Cal has got a different outlook on life and culture being more rural. So Cal usually rules the roost because it has a bigger population margin, but their way of life is way different and they don’t understand Nor Cal at all. They only understand it as the place they get their bottled spring water from, their water in general, a vacation destination or a haven for a bunch of right wing red necks who marry their sisters, and hide behind trees with their guns ready to shoot down black helicopters and big foot.

  4. The split won’t happen as long as the unconstitutional “all-or-nothing” technique prevails in the Electoral College. With “all-or-nothing”, California controls national elections. If the technique ever goes away, splits may be conceivable.

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