Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The Left Needs to Grasp the Nettle of Reform in California


California is a mess.  We all know that.  There are specifics about spending which have no business being enshrined in our constitution as they are.  Our state requires a supermajority to raise taxes and a minority to shred its social system.  We are haunted by the Ghost of ’78, Proposition 13.  Voters whine endlessly when legislators are forced into contortions to implement the initiatives passed by those voters.  Money plays an increasingly troubling role in deciding elections.  And the two main parties are steadily foreclosing debate by pushing third parties out.  Between the structural morass that comprises state politics, and the impervious to reason state GOP which has embarked on a search-and-destroy mission, in our public sphere, we are in total deadlock.

The answer to the democratic deficit that these various problems pose is reform.  But not the piecemeal variety that has actually contributed to digging the hole in which we find ourselves.  We need comprehensive, thorough, and thoughtful reform which takes account not only of each challenge individually, but also of how they relate to one another, the better to control the consequences of overhauling the state (for some very concrete and well-reasoned examples of what reform might look like, read Mark Paul and Joe Mathews’ California Crackup). 

Advocates of reform have largely avoided the ‘how’, but the two methods which have been discussed in passing are a constitutional convention (and the ‘how’ of that raises its own series of questions) and a ballot initiative (either one big one, or a raft of them).  The latter seems to be the more palatable of the options, but the generation and promotion of such an initiative would require a sustained effort.  And that effort, I believe, should be made by the political left in California. 

This is not to say that all Californians wouldn’t benefit from the rationalisation of our politics.  But the political right isn’t going to act, because as things stand it can implement its agenda without lifting a finger, having managed to write privatisation and disinvestment into the fabric of state government (Prop 13 plays a significant role here).  Yet progressives, liberals, social democrats, Democrats, Greens, whatever the various constituencies of California’s Left might want to call themselves, have been irritatingly unwilling to acknowledge the need for reform.  There are, I think, several reasons for this, none of them good.

Firstly, the Democratic Party would be threatened.  The introduction of more parties would eat into its support.  Furthermore, its legislative majorities are inflated in relation to the number of voters who support the party in the current political system (though not nearly as much as Prop 13 inflates GOP power).  Finally, reform is complicated, and political parties and their leaders do not, as a rule, do complicated.

I suspect that there are also historical reasons for the mistrust that many on the left have for reform.  In the United States, reform is associated with early twentieth century progressivism, which sought to rein in capitalism and give people a fair deal (in part to head off the ‘threat’ posed by the rising popularity of communism).  Reform is thus seen as a half-way measure for more dogmatic left-wingers, a poor substitute for a democratic revolution (not something likely to materialise in California given the current right-wing temperament of many voters).

Others, I believe, fear that focussing on reform would be tantamount to announcing a kind of undesirable ideological truce during the course of an election cycle that they believe could be better spent on promoting progressive policies.  But the fact is, only one ideology is getting a hearing in California today, and it is the most right-wing, radical economic libertarianism that this state has ever known, and which veers well into fundamentalist territory.  The accrued constraints on California’s budgeting and legislative process means that a social democratic agenda is impossible to implement so long as the state continues to grow, in terms of either demographics or complexity.  So activists on the left should be the first to realise that their agenda was permanently stalled in 1978, and that the gains made during the first three quarters of the twentieth century will be annihilated if they don’t create a fair playing field that allows them a fair shot at making their case and implementing their policies.

The passage of Proposition 14 in 2010 is another good reason why the left should embrace reform.  While the rightward shift of the Democratic Party has been far less precipitate in California than nationally, voters are increasingly being asked to choose candidates who line up along a political spectrum skewed ever farther to the right.  2010 and 2012 are good examples of what this, combined with the increasingly saturation of our politics by money (much of which comes from some pretty sordid places), means for progressives.  In 2010, our Gubernatorial candidate was if not quite a right-winger, at least a processualist, which in California translates into more or less the same thing.  In 2012, we’ll be presented with the neoconservative Dianne Feinstein and whichever oath-taking, anti-tax fanatic the Republicans choose on our ballots.  Prop 14, a “top two” primary, means that there will be no third parties represented. 

The same will be true of all state-wide elections from here on out, meaning that barring a celebrity run a la Arnold in this money filled environment, we’re unlikely to see anything other than a Democrat or Republican make it to the general election, meaning that progressives tend to find themselves disenfranchised.  Some fair media attention could potentially help to close the gap, but people generally aren’t paying that much attention during the primary season, and most Californian political commentators continue to labour under the delusion that ‘partisanship’ and ‘polarisation’ are our problems instead of recognising that clear ideological divisions are not a problem if they are allowed to yield results in a rational political system (unlike California’s, in which Democrats can take 62-65% of legislative seats and the Governor’s office without being able to implement their agenda). 

In some respects, Molly Munger’s tax proposal, aimed at securing funds especially for schools, is representative of the problem we face in the absence of rational reform.  For starters, she is continuing to push her reform against that promoted by the Governor and a collection of unions, meaning that, in the ballot-box legislating war that currently defines California’s finances, both are likely to fail.

In many respects, Munger’s proposal tugs at the heart-strings by prioritising schools and children.  But we already know what progressive principles are, and we need to be using our heads to elucidate them.  Part of the problem is already the fact that we have a habit of being too prescriptive in the allocation of funding, denying the legislature and Governor the flexibility they require to develop a progressive policy framework: you simply cannot have coherent policymaking when it is done by voters through disjointed initiatives.  Munger’s proposal is, like Brown’s, a short-term fix that sets California up for another round of hard-nosed negotiations and heart-breaking cuts a few years down the road.  But the Governor’s has more backing, so for this round, in the absence of serious reform, Munger needs to get off her ego trip and jump on board with Brown and the interests who are supporting his measure.

Finally, the Democratic Party has begun to coast.  Its leaders are altogether too sanguine for my taste in the aftermath of the 2010 election during which they swept every state-wide office.  They’re relying on the endurance of a fortuitous coalition (without doing any work to make the case for its entrenchment), one which could break up given only slight modifications of the Republican Party’s madness, or even the continuing drift towards self-absorption that characterises the electorate’s mentality today.  The party is stagnating, and is taking its current levels of support for granted, and if something goes wrong, the left will be without an institutional vehicle in the state.  Progressives desperately need a chance to implement their agenda so that they have something to offer voters besides being less crazy than the Republicans.

The moment for a campaign based on reform would have been 2010, and current Governor Jerry Brown would actually have been an ideal person to lead such a campaign given his (to my mind inexplicable and ill-deserved) positive brand with voters.  In such a campaign, his knowledge of the mechanics of state politics might have benefited him more than they did in attempting to negotiate with the rabid, feral GOP.  But Brown, never one to take political risks, missed his moment.

Nevertheless, progressive Californians should put aside their historically-grounded discomfort, their dogma, their complacency, and their party political self-interest to work on reforming the state.  Such reform would even the playing field, allow for a rational discussion of our values as well as a chance to implement progressive policy, and would open the door to a plurality of ideas from the left which are not currently available thanks to the ever-more restrictive conditions imposed by two-party politics. 

The speed at which our public sphere is being trashed makes the question of reform urgent, so a coalition of labour, environmentalists, Democrats, education advocates, and other proponents of the public good should get started laying the groundwork for reform which will both rationalise California’s politics as a whole, and allow the views of those proponents of the public good to get a fair hearing.

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