Monday, June 4, 2012

De-Politicising Politics in California

Mark Paul described last week how the recently-created Citizens Compensation Commission has usurped still more functions of the legislature in determining the rates of legislative pay in the name of some kind of technocratic best-practise.  It’s all fairly arbitrary, and represents a growing tendency for Californians to seek the solutions to the state’s political problems in turning powers over to boards and commissions.

This predilection for asking political decisions to be made by boards of faceless bureaucrats stems from a mis-diagnosis of the state’s problem.  People are forever trotting out the claim that our politics are too politicised, that we’re hamstrung by partisanship, and that what we need is a politically-uniform legislature comprised of “moderates”.

California’s ‘top-two’ primary is another illustration of this brainless tendency.  Primaries are designed to allow parties to choose their candidates, but this ‘reform’ of primaries in California is having the effect of further entrenching the already-undemocratic two-party system, and denying voters of many political persuasions their rights during general elections.  For example, voters in California will likely be faced with choosing between the neoconservative Dianne Feinstein and some right-wing Republican in November.  There is a fair chance than in one northern Californian Congressional Districts, there will be two Republicans on the ballot...and no-one else.  Left-leaning voters, of whom there are a few in the state, will have no candidate at all.  In left-leaning Bay Area or Los Angeles districts, right-leaning voters will find their rights similarly violated.

The ‘top two’ primary system, we are told, is designed to elect ‘moderates’, whatever those are.  But it is actually a form of election rigging as pathetically dishonest as anything you can find in oligarchies around the world. 

It is at least partly this espousal of anti-politics which looks to have driven the Record Searchlight’s endorsement of Michael Dacquisto for the first Congressional District seat left vacant by Wally Herger.  In endorsing Dacquisto, the Searchlight commended his approach to the federal budget, which they characterised as “make across-the-board cuts, and let the paid staff figure out how to implement them.  If the legislative and executive branches actually did this, it would be amazing the sorts of efficiencies that would ‘miraculously’ appear”.  There are two significant problems with this approach that stem directly from the attempt to de-politicise the practise of politics.  Firstly, across-the-board cuts just don’t make sense to me.  This isn’t some game.  People will suffer from cuts, and so if cuts do indeed have to be made, you should pick and choose and think very hard where they should fall rather than carelessly slicing across the entire budget. 

Next is the question of putting off responsibility to paid staff.  We elect our legislators according to the moral framework they espouse.  We expect them to operate according to that framework.  So handing the baton to a staffer or civil servant is a violation of the basic democratic compact between voter and representative.  There is no a-political way to make cuts—even cutting evenly across the board is a political decision, and one which sends the message that, for example, spending on education or federal investment in job-creation programmes are no more important than the Pentagon’s newest missile system. 

Moreover, determining what qualifies as ‘waste’ is not a neutral, a-political act.  Most Republican representatives, for example, ascribe to the breathtaking belief that a classroom full of 45 students can be just as effective as one of 20 students.  If you follow this line of logic, spending on more teachers qualifies as ‘waste’.  Yesterday I was talking to a Department of Agriculture employee here in Lusaka who described how Republicans in Congress have been cutting back his agency’s ability to send its members to local conferences, which are seen as ‘waste’—in spite of the directives the same Republicans gave to federal agencies to engage in conferences and consultations with communities.  The same people, depending on which side of the bed they rolled out of, can’t even agree from day to day what is waste and what is accountability!  I’m horrified by the global arms trade and the waging of war, and our government’s contribution to it, and so from my perspective, most defence spending is ‘wasteful’.  Needless to say, many people would disagree. 

For another example of the wrong-headedness of efforts to depoliticse politics, take a look at the fate of Americans Elect—the organisation which was supposed to transform the 2012 election cycle by putting a third candidate, basically one endorsed by ‘moderates’, into the race.  This effort imploded spectacularly, despite the lavish funding and wide publicity, and there will be no Americans Elect candidate on the 2012 ballot. 

No organisation that eschews viewpoints, that is, ideology, is ever going to gain traction.  Because the existence of partisanship in the U.S. shows that people care about ideology.  And that’s no bad thing.  It is difficult to even imagine what a political debate devoid of ideology would even look like, or whether such a thing is in fact possible.  The California Moderate Party, which recently lost its head, is still another case in point.  There was no philosophical basis for the party.  Its members talked about Good Governance, but ‘good governance’ describes the ‘how’ and not the more important ‘what’.  Besides, as any English teacher would tell you, ‘good’ is a pretty weak word anyway, and doesn’t enlighten us in the slightest about what such a party actually believes.


My efforts to vote from central Africa have been stymied by my failure to secure a permanent address a few months ago, but I would certainly have voted for Jim Reed in the hopes that Doug LaMalfa will have a progressive challenger in the general election.  I would also have voted against Prop 28, which in tinkering with term limits proposes the half-hearted kind of reforms which yield unanticipated consequences down the road and encourage Californians to think that piecemeal meddling in our constitution is the route to democratic solvency.  I’m sceptical of Prop 29, the cigarette tax, for similar reasons: yes, in our current state, higher taxes on tobacco and the revenue which would come with them would be a good thing, but locking the resulting funding into a particular section of the budget doesn’t make much sense.  Nor is it a good idea to encourage Californians in their delusion that this kind of small-fry tax on ‘someone else’ is the answer to our dilemma (I have to admit I’d be tempted to vote ‘yes’ just to put a finger in the eye of the appalling tobacco industry). 

Our predilection for investing un-elected boards and commissions with very political powers, our unwillingness to look at the consequences of voter ballot-box budgeting, our willingness to criticise legislators for failing to exercise powers that they don’t actually have, and our general conviction that what we need is less politics—when actually what we need is simply to rationalise the political structure—are all having serious consequences.  We’re doing in our democracy, initiative by initiative, and in mis-diagnosing the state’s ills, are passing up an opportunity to pause and meaningfully reform the structure of our politics.

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