Friday, February 3, 2012

Missing the Point about Democracy in California


I’ll say up front that I’m not a huge fan of Dan Walters, Sacramento Bee columnist and one of California print journalism’s self-appointed wise-men.  A moderate, if you will, in the most stripped-down, meaningless sense of the word.  (The upside of a Republican victory in the 2012 Presidential race would be that Walters and Co would have a comfy new perch on the border fence Mitt Romney wants to build.) 

Walters spent his 3 February column complaining about the “trailer bills” included in Prop 25 that voters passed in 2010.  Prop 25 allows for a two-thirds vote on the budget, but does nothing about the two-thirds vote still required for taxes (increases, mind you...a bare majority can slash them as much as they like)—taxes which happen to be important for the budget if we want to live in a state that doesn’t gut what remains of its public services on an annual basis.  The trailer bills, in Walters’ phrase, act as “political Christmas trees—ways for the majority party to bypass procedural rules and jam into law things that had nothing to do with the budget”. 

Imagine Walters’ shock, then, when “last year [Democrats] used their newly won authority to pass a budget without Republican votes”.  Shock, horror!  The party with a majority of seats passing a budget!!  Tyranny!!!  Jamming a budget into law! 

Let’s face it though, that’s what the voters probably wanted.  And it’s not like the Democrats are doing this with 51 or 52% of the legislature.  They hold between 62% and 65% of seats.  Sounds like a mandate to me.  Disclaimer: I say all of this not as a Democrat (I’m not one), but as someone who would love to live in a state that wasn’t a functional laughingstock with a democratic deficit you could drive our fiscal deficit through without flinching.

And this is my beef with the hawkers of moderation and centrism as the antidote to California’s ills.  Walters wastes his column complaining about how a party with nearly two-thirds of the vote uses a procedural measure to jam through a measure to reconstitute the Board of Registered Nurses, having just praised other procedural rules as the nitty-gritty of democracy.  He misses the point that, if California’s public, its politicians, members of its civil society took on Proposition 13 and the other manifestations of our ills, we wouldn’t need to have this silly conversation.

Sure, Democrats abused the spirit of the rules, just as Republicans have done during Obama’s entire Presidency, and as Republicans in California have been doing since 1978, during which time hardly any responsible figures have cried foul about the ill that is Minority Rule.  But the Democrats’ abuse is representative of the unsustainable snapping of the political seams which threatens to do real damage to our state, while the tactics of the Republican Party are those maliciously contrived by a minority party which has been trashing our democracy and is now shredding our society in the service of their small-minded, deep-pocketed corporate paymasters.

One, in other words, is a symptom, while the other is the cause, and California’s public would be better served by thinking about the fundamentals instead of wringing our hands about paltry changes at the margins of our political lives.

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