How to do reform is the billion-dollar question in California these days. There are the tinkerers, the convention callers, the head-in-the-sand types, and those calling for a removal of power from elected institutions. And if these aren’t dilemmas enough, there is the question of what reform is supposed to achieve—a particular ideological policy framework, or a particular structure of government in which people and representatives then work out which ideology best serves their policy ends.
George Skelton, LA Times columnist and moderate extraordinaire began one of his recent columns with these condescending lines: “Good reform ideas are a dime a dozen. Look in any faculty lounge. But successful strategies for implementing those ideas are rare. Espousing sweeping reforms that can’t be enacted because it’s politically unacceptable is a common habit of profs, pols and pundits”. Written, presumably sans irony, by a pundit.
This is Skelton, and much of California’s political establishment, in a nutshell. Small imaginations, small ambitions, and a warped sense of how social change comes about. If people were content with what was “politically acceptable” at a given time in a given place, we’d be in a very sorry state indeed—or at least a rather sorrier one than we are now. This kind of thinking requires that we satisfy ourselves with mediocrity, because doing something well is harder. It requires that we keep our minds small, because we might otherwise be disappointed. And it requires that we think in politically strategic terms rather than in moral ones, forestalling innovation and hamstringing any aspirations to change.
It’s no wonder then that in departing from this worldview, Skelton finds much to like in the proposals of California Forward, a think tank that is conservative both in the small- and large-‘C’ sense. Skelton cited Leon Panetta, who chaired California Forward in the early days as saying “the principal dysfunction of Sacramento is similar to what’s happening in Washington: the inability of the elected leadership to come together and arrive at necessary compromises for solutions to the problems we face”.
I disagree. I think that this analysis is wrong. Compromise isn’t an end. It’s a method. And to use a method properly, you have to have a goal. You have to have structures. You need rules. And in California, the problems are the structures and the rules. By its very nature—writing the tax code and the ‘how’ of social policy into the constitution, relying on minority rule, embracing the role of money in politics—California’s politics are destined to exist in a state of permanent gridlock, unless it becomes a one-party state. Clearly, neither of these things is desirable. Clearly then, we need to address the structure and stop whining about compromise.
Skelton performs the sly old trick of caricaturing the arguments of others and then engaging with those caricatures rather than with the substance of the actual arguments. For example, he targets the “idealists” who are “unwilling to compromise, who’d rather strike out than bunt the runner to the next base”. In the Skelton Political Taxonomy, I suppose I’d be such an idealist thanks to my opposition to many reform measures. But I’m not opposed to most of these on “purist” grounds. I’m opposed to them because I think this sort of piecemeal reform, the well-meaning but rather blinkered tinkering, will actually have negative consequences, or even no consequences at all (more on this below).
This summer, Californians will vote on new term limits laws which will achieve, so far as I can see, absolutely nothing of any use. Prop 14, another reform effort, means that as a comparatively left-wing progressive, I’ll very likely be left with no choices by California’s new law which only sends the top two candidates to the November ballot, virtually extirpating what little influence third parties and their ideas might have had and dealing a severe blow to democracy. We’ve passed silver-bullet redistricting measures that are designed to produce cookie-cutter politicians rather than people with strong beliefs who can represent voters of different viewpoints.
Skelton quotes Hertzberg, California Forward’s new chair, as saying “The secret to reforming is understanding incrementalism and not trying to be so big and bold”. He’s performing the same trick as Skelton. People who want comprehensive reforms aren’t doing so on the principle of “bigger is better”. They’re arguing that we have to pass interlocking reforms in concert, or else we’ll simply be further mangling the system. But Hertzberg is arguing for incrementalism on principle, committing the same sin he’s wrongly accused other reformers of committing.
Now California Forward is trying to further tie the hands of legislators when it comes to crafting social and economic policy, while doing nothing to address the democratic deficit we face thanks to Proposition 13. It would also “empower the governor to unilaterally cut spending in a fiscal emergency”, a clear blow at a principle of democracy, and a version of the coup against democracy proposed by other technocratic reform lobbies.
In a recent blog post, Mark Paul, co-author of California Crackup (you’ll read it if you know what’s good for you—or if you want to know what’s good for the state—there’s a review here), argues that clean money isn’t a solution to the crackup. He and Joe Mathews argue, and cite a study which also argues, that public financing has in some cases “promoted the election of more ideologically extreme legislators”. Paul is right, in one sense to say that “once again, a ‘reform’ touted as a solution to our problems turns out to make them worse”.
But this raises the question of what reform is supposed to accomplish. There is a school of thought which thinks that partisanship or strong ideological viewpoints are a problem, and that we need to rig the political system so that it promotes the election of politicians who are of the fantastical breed of Moderates and hail from an imaginary place called The Centre. Therefore, any reform measure which leads to “the election of ideologically extreme legislators”, is problematic.
Now for one thing, being ideologically extreme is in the eye of the beholder. On the one hand, I’d say that many Republicans in California are extremists today inasmuch as they are working to overturn decades of comparative consensus which have established that the state has a moral responsibility to its citizens. However, that’s just my opinion, and whatever high regard I might have for my opinion, I would never presume to seek to engineer an electoral system that prevented people who I regard as extreme from being elected. If people voted for ‘extremist’ Republicans in large numbers, we should abide by that decision, and not try to recreate a system that promotes ‘moderates’. I’m not saying that I wouldn’t also move to New Zealand, but if you respect democracy, you should at least treat its outcomes as legitimate so long as they respect people's rights, even if you work to reverse outcomes you see as deleterious.
What I would like to see, however, is a political structure which respects people’s choices. That is, if this extremist Republican Party becomes a fringe party, as it is on its way to doing today, it should have to behave like one, and should not be able to wield a veto over each and every question of revenue.
The problem, in other words, is not whether people are ideologically ‘extreme’ or ‘moderate’, whatever either of those two terms might mean. It’s that we have a structure which defies major tenets of democracy in empowering minority parties and playing havoc with the government’s prerogative to raise revenue, and which actually stifles difference of opinion by allowing two parties to predominate, meaning that when you consider the spectrum of beliefs available to people, only a fraction of them will find their way onto the November ballot, no less find representation in California’s legislature.
One of the reasons why broadly liberal ideologies predominate (and by ‘liberal’, I mean market capitalism, growth-oriented ideologies) is that those ideas have the financial backing of interests which swamp our elections with their cash (although as Meg Whitman’s ill-starred campaign in 2010 demonstrated, there’s a limit even to the power of money in the perfect storm which pitted her against a popular shape-shifter who had many of the advantages of incumbency). This is the reason why ‘clean money’ would be a good thing. There’s a moral case for mucking out the Augean Stables which are our politics today, as well as a practical, reform-minded one. And Paul is absolutely correct to say that anybody who would expect ‘clean money’ to fix California is dreaming. He is also correct to write that such a reform, passed on its own without reference to the multitude of other structural oddities which plague California’s politics, might very well make things worse. But he’s made it sound as though ‘clean money’ rather than this process of mangled reform is the problem.
Which is why Skelton and other cheerleaders for California Forward are very wrong in their criticisms of those who are calling for wholesale reform. It is only through diagnosing and treating the system as a whole that we can remake California’s politics. But when we remake them, I hope it’s with an eye to levelling the playing field, making elections and majorities matter, and promoting a plurality of ideas, and not in an effort to engineer particular outcomes.