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Wednesday, July 23, 2003
Newsweek's cover story on California this week absolutely nails it. I've got to give a lot of respect to them and the authors for writing a piece firmly grounded, for once, not in conventional wisdom but in strongly established public policy scholarship--although in this case, the two may finally have dovetailed. Here are the key paragraphs, which I think I might have cheered out loud at, following an analysis of how fucked Gov. Davis is:

Davis isn’t entirely to blame. He is the perfect distillation of the dysfunctional California political system that produced him—a system that itself is a laboratory specimen of the iron law of unintended consequences. For a quarter century (since Prop 13 [which put a cap on property taxes and is regarded as the start of the "tax revolt"]) California voters, following a tradition that stretches back to Hiram Johnson, have been trying (or so they thought) to place more power directly in the hands of the people. Through the increasingly obsessive use of ballot initiatives, they have imposed strict term limits and rigid budgetary-spending caps, and have written rules on everything from the rights of crime victims to the use of state pension funds to the legal rights of immigrants.

The ironic result, however, hasn’t been more democracy, but less; not more trust in government and leadership, but less. The elected legislature and the governor are often bystanders in a system on “autopilot,” says author Peter Schrag. When they run for office they face spending limits. But initiatives do not, which of course makes them a lucrative source of income for consultants who dream them up...Ballot measures are where the real action is—except that the governor and the legislature still have responsibility for fashioning a budget.

And the legislature, observers say, is composed of people who often, quite literally, don’t know what they are doing. Under the state’s strict term-limits law, none can amass the experience necessary to understand even the rudiments of governing a state with an economy bigger than that of France. “It’s frightening how little these people know,” says GOP consultant Sal Russo...

All the ignorance and churn leaves someone else with all the power: not the people, not the pols, but the consultants and lobbyists who fill the plush office buildings that surround Capitol Park in Sacramento, or who work out of San Francisco or L.A. Amid the coming and going, they are the immutable ones, plucking candidates from obscurity (as long as they have cash upfront or rich friends); lobbying for or against legislation (usually the latter); hauling in their rake-off from placing TV ads in a state where media are everything and door-to-door campaigning is impossible.


As a result, the activist fringes are in control, since they can turn out the vote in low-turnout elections. The result is even more apathy, even lower turnout—and even more power for the unelected powers that be. Predictably, Davis blames the budget mess and his own problems on antitax Republicans. The GOP, for its part, blames greedy public-employee unions. The voters despise them all. “I’m afraid the whole political system here has lost its credibility,” says Dr. Gloria Duffy, head of the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco.

I hate referendums. They're the political equivalent of letting a five-year-old make the rules for professional baseball. "There should be lasers! And trampolines!" Sure, they make the political process more exciting, but they don't really result in greater control by the people; studies show that something like 95% of referendums are won by whatever side spends more money. And referendums are often financed--as many California ones were--by one or two rich individuals. And the rich overriding the political system is not my idea of democracy.

It just reveals an absolute inability to tell the difference between democracy as a kneejerk concept and American democracy, which is inevitably placed in the context of the Republic. Look, the founding fathers were smart guys. They didn't create the Senate or the Supreme Court in order to protect their riches or to oppress the working class. They did it because they had a justified fear of the mob. The collective will of the people can be pretty dumb sometimes. For an easy example, think about a referendum that said the tax rate would have to be lowered to 0%. I bet that would pass, because who wants to pay taxes? But then the state would have zero money, and they wouldn't be able to pay for...well, anything. And sure, I guess we could all organize our own private police forces and drive our garbage to the nearest cliff and dump it off, but we don't really want to, nor should we. America is founded on the idea of collective governance, and if you don't like that, well, why don't you move to Russia, you goddamn post-capitalist. If you don't understand that one of the purposes of government is to make responsible decisions for the good of the republic that the people wouldn't make given pure individual self-interest, well, then you probably shouldn't be voting.

And I hate term limits. Yeah, it sounds like a good idea at first, because it can be so hard to get bad incumbents out, but there are better ways around that. Because then you think about it for a second. And you think: hmm, well, government can't really function if it has to completely reinvent itself every, oh, 4 years. That's not gonna work; programs and initiatives and departments have to be continuous to be effective. So if we're kicking out the elected bastards every four years, who is going to govern? Well, obviously, the unelected bastards. And me, I'd rather have the power rest with someone I can oust. I'm glad that movement seems to have lost momentum, but it sucks that it's so firmly implanted in some states.

Look, I'm not arguing this from a leftist perspective. I'm arguing this from the perspective of someone who believes in the American system. And I'll admit it: these measures have become popular and effective because the system itself seems to have some major blockages in it (much like how litigation seems to have superceded legislation as a means of forcing social change because the legislative process itself seems far less responsive to a sense of justice). Hell, you can see all the leftist/libertarian medical marijuana initiatives as a good sign that most of us have decided that pot should be legal and we'd really like the legislatures to get on that, please. But, like so many neo-conservative ideas (c.f. "drown it in the bathtub"), the supposedly "populist" combo of initiatives and term limits is a deeply cynical one that only makes the system worse. Want to argue with me? Well, then tell me what else fucked up California besides cynical systemic demagoguery.

So I'm glad to see this idea get some mainstream traction: "The ironic result, however, hasn’t been more democracy, but less; not more trust in government and leadership, but less." If we can start with debasing initiatives, then maybe we can move on to a greater understanding of how the system should work, and really make it better instead of just wrecking it.