Transform Society at Age 74? If Deng Could Do It, So Can Jerry

Is Jerry Brown too old to lead the big transformation in governance California needs?

If you look to China for evidence, the answer is no.

Brown turned 74 last month. As I learned in reading Harvard Professor Ezra Vogel's powerful new biography, Deng Xiaoping, the Chinese leader, was 74 when he finally came to full power in 1978 -- and launched the revolution that modernized China and made it the global power it is today. Deng's era in power extended until 1992, when he was 88.

Your blogger was reading the Deng biography because Vogel is in Sacramento tonight (Tuesday night, May 8) for a free, public event (sponsored by the California Council for the Humanities) I'm moderating that asks the question of whether democracy is too slow for this fast-moving age.

Countries with authoritarian governance -- from China to Singapore -- have made enormous progress, while democratic places -- like California -- often seem stuck, paralyzed by gridlock and partisanship.

This may seem like an academic debate -- California is supposed to be a democracy after all -- but it isn't.

One of the biggest, most persistent policy debates in California over recent years has been whether -- in the face of crisis -- certain leaders should get more power to act unilaterally.

Many of the proposals for budget reform, for example, have suggested giving the governor more power to break stalemates and balance budgets himself. (That was true of both Schwarzenegger-era initiatives and of a new measure from the California Forward Action Fund).

And the recent report of the Think Long Committee for Calfornia, convened by the billionaire Nicolas Berggruen, argued for empowering a committee to think long-term, with term limits.

One reason China has made a decision is that it too is largely governed by a committee whose members are not elected by the public, but are subject to term limits. The argument for this undemocratic set-up is that it encourages long-term decisionmaking.

As for Brown, he doesn't have Deng's power, and that's a good thing.

But it is striking to see how Deng drew on a lifetime of work -- a lifetime that included study and work overseas, underground work for communist causes, fighting, leading troops in battle, conducting purges, being purged -- to make big, determined decisions.

He let no one stand in his way in modernizing China (most tragically, Chinese citizens who protested corruption and one-party rule), and embraced science, technology and the best thinking of countries around the world in his effort.

For Californians, his example ought to be food for thought, and a reminder that 74 isn't too old to turn over a new leaf.

Lead Prop Zero blogger Joe Mathews is California editor at Zocalo Public Square, a fellow at Arizona State University’s Center for Social Cohesion, and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (University of California, 2010).

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