Thursday, September 29, 2011

Remaking California: Review

As some of you will know, I’ve been raving about Mark Paul and Joe Mathews’ California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It.  An excellent supplement to their detailed account of California’s structural problems and solutions-heavy contribution to often-vacuous debates about our state’s future is Remaking California: Reclaiming the Public Good, edited by R Jeffrey Lustig.

Part-way through the volume, which features contributions from the likes of Mark Paul, Dan Walters (Sacramento Bee Capitol Correspondent), and former California Librarian Kevin Starr, I realised one of Remaking California’s prime contributions:  if Paul and Mathews explain to us what it is we might do if we’re seriously interested in the kind of structural reform that would make our state governable, Lustig and his contributors discuss how this might happen.  And the how raises some sobering questions about whether any of this is possible.

California Crackup was a better and more hopeful read.  It was written with one narrative voice, by two scholars who are, to all appearances, in nearly complete agreement with one another (or at least they settled in agreement on their key points for the purposes of their publication).  It ends on a hopeful note with the recommendation of a detailed set of solutions. 

Remaking California, on the other hand, is less cohesive volume.  The contributors don’t always agree with one another (some say we need a major overhaul, others say that piecemeal reform is better, others rejoin that piecemeal reform got us to our sorry state).  Each tends to re-invent the wheel at the beginning of their chapter by outlining the state’s major problems, wasting space that could have been devoted to fleshing out their ideas.  Some chapters are good at explaining the background to their topic (and the book serves as a good primer for aspects of California’s governance), others assume too much knowledge (that on water in the state).

But the premise is strikingly idealistic.  Contributors largely identify the same ills and the same basic solutions:  reform to the electoral system, to our form of governance, to budgeting and taxation—with an aim to injecting them with a badly-needed dose of democracy.  And the how of it, to their way of thinking, is in the form of a Constitutional Convention (our last was in 1879, although there were major reforms to the constitution in 1911 and in the 1930s).  The book emerged at the tail end of a year (2010) in which many hoped that measures to call such a Convention would be on the ballot (barring an initiative to empower voters to call a Convention, two-thirds of our legislators would have to agree to one).  No such measures materialised.

California’s public, which as Barry Keene puts it, “tie the hands of legislative representatives by initiatives, then complain that legislators are acting as if their hands are tied, then punish them by tying their hands tighter” (224), hardly seems up to the task, no one knows how delegates would be chosen, and there are a thousand dark alleys and check-points along the way at which special interests (economic and party-political alike) could drag any proposals that emerge from the scrum a Convention promises to be aside and beat them to death.

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The issue of the Convention aside, contributors make a number of worthwhile points. 
Most effectively, Witko, Lustig and Schmidt point out that ours is a state blighted by Minority Rule twice over.  Most obviously, we are governed by a legislative minority.  Less obvious is the danger inherent in the ridiculously low election turnouts.  White Californians make up some 40% of the state’s population and two-thirds of those who cast their votes.  Hispanic and Asian-American voters are seriously under-represented. 

We can’t just blow this off by saying, “Oh, people can choose not to vote, and it’s their own fault if they’re adversely affected by what happens”.  Lustig identifies the “public good”, as central to our Pacific Republic’s politics.  If that public good isn’t guarded, we aren’t doing our job.  If people feel unable to participate meaningfully, disenfranchised by skewed single-member districts elected through plurality systems, as though their concerns aren’t even a part of the political conversation, that is a problem for all of us.

Minority Rule is exacerbated by the economic inequality that is growing so severe as to, combined with the increasingly low rates of participation in democracy (which bespeaks a dangerous alienation), in the view some, transform us from citizens to subjects.

Lustig identifies the deregulation and the privatisation which have been occurring since the1980s (although as Governor, Ronald Reagan presided over very considerable tax increases that were necessary to eliminate state deficits after Proposition 13 destroyed the enormous surplus accumulated by a much younger Jerry Brown) as central to the diminishment of the public good (16).  These trends impair the ability of our state government—the most accountable set of institutions around, which are focussed on our well-being—to perform.  As multiple contributors point out, California doesn’t even have a proper industrial, energy or jobs program.  Indeed—how could we?  Our government has been stripped of its ability to make meaningful change in our state.

Even our political parties are increasingly powerless.  Unable to afford the spiralling costs of fighting elections, they turn to what Dan Walters calls the Third House—lobbyists—and sell their souls accordingly.  Not only will parties be making promises and concessions, and allowing their policies to be shaped by unaccountable, irresponsible monied interests, they also lose control over their own message, given that much advertising, marketing and framing of candidates and their platforms is undertaken by surrogates who operate outside of the semi-accountability imposed on those formally involved in the political arena.

Not only is there a gap in wealth, there is a gap in commitment to sustaining our civic and social system.  In California, the older generation which dominates the actual voting public is essentially violating the social contract, dispensing with the public good, and trashing the public space that they or their parents voted into being during the ‘50s and ‘60s. 

What is striking is how the democratic reforms suggested would be good for people everywhere—those on the political left and right alike stand to be more effectively represented, and to be able to choose representatives who better reflect their political views (and the advent of more parties might even make for less total polarisation).  Multimember districts with representatives elected through Proportional Representation, for example, would benefit those on the right as much if not more than those on the left in the sense that in huge swathes of California, Democratic-dominated districts leave multiple political minorities un-represented in their locality (see pages 176-182 for examples of how representation would be enhanced).

But in other respects, Republicans are grossly overrepresented thanks to supermajority requirements.  True...theirs is a destructive dominance of our state politics, and their power lies in the negative—the ability to say ‘No’—but so is their political program, so it’s a match made in heaven, or possibly somewhere warmer. 

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The Epilogue contains short contributions—ranging in length from one paragraph to three pages—from a range of Californians (an attorney, a former State Archivist, authors, teachers and school administrators, academics and an historian). 

Some contributions are thought-provoking.  Ernest Callenbach writes about how public campaign financing could remake our politics.  Rodney Kingsnorth points out that part of our crime problem stems from our state’s method of appointing judges.  Gary Snyder talks about the need to foster a sense of place, potentially rooted in watersheds and bioregions.  And William Vollman suggests a lottery system through which we send high schoolers off to experience the Capitol, to understand the urgency of politics, and how politics have ramifications for our daily lives far beyond the pettiness of campaign commercials and editorials.  There are even suggestions that we should look at a parliamentary system, given the failure of “checks and balances” to provide secure governance.

Kevin Starr’s contribution was one of those which was disappointing in its myopia and mis-reading of the problem.  The noted historian and former State Librarian called for the return of cross-filing, which once allowed any candidate to run in any primary (or indeed, in many of them), and which heavily favoured incumbency and political ‘centrism’ (whatever that is).  Cross-filing, Starr believes, would pull us all towards the centre.

But the problem is not passion and partisanship—as is often suggested—but rather paralysis.  And passion and partisanship do not, as the likes of Kevin Starr, Dan Walters and George Skelton often suggest, induce paralysis—the fault is with a broken system, a faulty structure.  Another way of thinking about it...the problem isn’t the Tea Party (I wish the organised political left could match their mobilisation in passion and numbers), it’s that a small and unrepresentative group (as in California’s legislature) is empowered by an arcane an un-democratic system, and by the backing of minority monied interests, in order that they virtually run our country and state by default.

There is nothing wrong with believing something passionately, arguing for your beliefs fiercely, and standing steadfastly for those beliefs.  Uprooting ideology, which with a basis in material conditions is the impetus behind all passion and meaningful change, is not the answer.  We want a reinvigorated politics, as Paul and Mathews and Lustig argue, not the neutered version that the scions of conventional opinion who are the Capitol Correspondents for the Sacramento Bee and Los Angeles Times call for.

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The strangest omission of Remaking California  was the absence of any serious discussion about what we consider to be the Public Good, how we define this, how we defend it, and why it should be at the forefront of any political debate.  I suspect that the absence is due to the contributors all taking it for granted.

But it’s precisely the point that in our contemporary political world, nothing can be taken for granted.  The modern Republican Party, and many of its supporters, would fiercely contest the notion of the public good.  These are the people, after all, who are probably the first in human history to take the question of taxation and revenue, universally conceived as an instrument in the political toolkit—to be used to achieve a set of morally-defined aims—and transform it into an end in itself. 

This is the party that cheers when its candidates talk about executing hundreds of people or letting the uninsured die, boos a gay serviceman, and evinces a noxious and racist worldview where the question of immigration is concerned.  The Republicans and their supporters are busy having a serious debate that will have scary consequences.  But although they might be having it right here amongst us, they are debating a fantasy world, in which the government plots to steal its citizens freedoms by ensuring them healthcare, in which cleaning up water and air and fining the polluters whose run-off costs lives and ruins health is an infringement on personal freedom, in which the middle- and working-classes are threatened by taxes on people raking in hundreds of thousands of dollars, in which a public university system that educates 3.6 million of our citizens, preparing them to participate in and remake our work-force and economy imperils our well-being... 

This bizarre narrative, utterly alien to the experiences of people in our state and country, might be worked out on Planet Zarg, but it will play out here in the United States and in California—the dismantling of the public sphere, and all of the protections for those weakest, poorest and most vulnerable among us, together with the destruction of any meaningful ties that make it possible for people in West Oakland and Walnut Creek, Santa Ana and Irvine, Modesto and Marin, to live an associational life and think of each other as citizens and partners in a common endeavour. 

We desperately need the kind of reform that the contributors to Remaking California discuss, but we need to be prepared to have a simultaneous conversation about the basic principles of democratic, associational and public life. 

I have serious doubts as to whether a Constitutional Convention could be called.  And if it were called, the selection of delegates and the drawing up of a serious agenda pose real hurdles.  And if we cleared those, it would remain to be seen whether delegates could summon the better angels that so elude voters and elected representatives in our current state of mind and hammer out transformative proposals.  And if, by some miracle, we got that far, we would still have the ratification process to overcome...

It seems unlikely...a utopian pipe-dream.  But our politics cannot, after all, sink much lower than they are today, and if they remain at these levels they will do incalculable damage to our society.  So maybe, in spite of its implausibility, it would be the kind of dramatic, participatory (if done right), idealistic endeavour that, with the aid of new technology (over one and one-quarter centuries after the last Convention, after all!), would capture people’s imaginations, bring us back to basic principles, and star the kind of conversation that could save our state.  Maybe even thinking about how California—that Shangri-La on the Pacific, as a Berkeley librarian recently put it to me—could pull off the ultimate experiment in twenty-first century state-building would do us some good.

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