Wednesday, March 30, 2011

A Californian conundrum

On the same day that negotiations on California’s budget broke down, the legislature passed a bill to keep California at the forefront of the nation’s slow move towards large-scale sustainable energy use. 

The stalled budget talks mean that it will be more difficult for Governor Jerry Brown to place his budget fix—which relies on damaging cuts to the public sector and the temporary maintenance of current tax levels—on a ballot before voters later this year.  This raises the spectre of an ugly slog before voters are even able to decide whether to accept the budget.  And bad as Brown’s proposals are—they would both push people out of work and hurt people who depend on state-provided social services—they are nothing to what the Republicans would wreak on California should they prove able to press their agenda, from their extreme minority position, on the state.

Several state Republican Party politicians used the fact that Brown needs their votes for the absurd supermajority that California law requires to place a measure on the ballot to blackmail the democratic political process.  They issued a list of demands that would have to be met before they would be willing to vote to place the budget before the public. 

Republicans’ demands would have exacerbated the budget deficit by granting a corporate tax-break, crippled the flexibility of California’s government to adapt to circumstances by instituting a spending cap, eroded teachers’ and workers’ rights by carelessly re-writing seniority rules, and entrenched short-termism by preventing the possibility of extending current tax rates for five years—a reasonable amount of time given the state’s economic difficulties.

Brown is probably right to break off negotiations.  The Republicans here, as in Congress, are not interested in an accord.  They have an inexhaustible, and tangentially-relevant at best list of demands that they will continue to make come what may.  Their strategy is to repudiate constructive governance altogether, and to replace that with a state of moral anarchy in which social bonds between people are steadily replaced by cynical economic relationships which privilege the powerful and wealthy.

And the comments that people leave on stories about California’s political paralysis never cease to amaze me.  I’m hardly one to defend politicians as a breed, but too many people clearly possess a desperately feeble grasp of how our system works, ascribing to politicians, as they do, the power to drag the state out of its enfeebled situation.  Yet these same people have reserved for themselves the right to veto—incredibly inconsistently—the remedies that politicians proscribe. 

We expect the Governor and legislature to deal with the budget, and yet are part of a political process which is premised on engaged, informed and critical participation. 

The other side of the story is a more heartening one.  Senate Bill X 1 2, passed by Senate and Assembly, raises the percentage of electricity that private and public utilities would be required to obtain from renewable sources from 20 to 33.  Californians, in our comparative receptiveness (in a national context) to renewable energy and emissions restrictions (under fire at the federal level), in their protection of our coastline, in the historic commitment to the preservation of natural spaces, and in our cultural nurturing of the environmentalism that emerged in the 1970s and has become one of the most powerful grassroots forces in national politics, are possessed of an environmental idealism.

This environmental idealism is mirrored by our political structure.  I have very little time for those who suggest that the version of democracy in place in California is somehow inherently dysfunctional because it involves a greater degree of political participation and responsibility on the part of the public than we are accustomed to.

But this does take us back to the conundrum posed by these two events, occurring side-by-side: the budget mess and the progressive environmentalism.  We are faced in California by a gap between the high-minded idealism of our political structure and the apathetic materialism of our political culture.  Our democracy calls for a commitment to informed participation; our culture resents being asked to take the short trip to the ballot.  Our democracy asks that we think of each other as a community within a moral economy; our culture demands a calculus based on individualism within a market economy.

What is missing are forums, institutions and frameworks for bridging that gap and engendering a the democratic culture that our democratic system requires.  To close the space between our aspirations and our inadequacies, we need both to add to and reform our political structure, something in which neither our elected representatives nor we, the public, have much interest in doing.

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