Thursday, July 19, 2012

A Warning to California Democrats


Political commentators in California have made much, in the last year or so, of the gradual demise of the Republican Party in the state.  Fewer and fewer Californians describe themselves as ‘Republican’ as opposed to ‘Democrat’ or ‘independent’, the party holds not much over a third of the seats in the state legislature, and its highest-profile politicians, in spite of spectacularly high-spending campaigns, were unable to capture a single statewide office in 2010. 

But California’s Democratic Party needs to be wary, because the same commentators think that they have picked up on something else. 

George Skelton has cited Democrats’ blatant abuse of Prop 25 to get Brown’s tax measure at the top of the ballot, as well as some dodgy vote counting that gave it priority over other measures, including a rival tax measure being pushed by Molly Munger.  Prop 25 was meant to allow a budget to be passed by a majority of the legislature, not to manipulate the ballot.  In one of his more absurd moments, Skelton bemoaned the fact that the “far left” had replaced Republicans as the second major bargaining force where the California budget was concerned.

On 3 February, Dan Walters wrote a column accusing Democrats of “distort[ing] their majority-vote budget power”.  A range of commentators, some more honest than others, have joined this chorus, suggesting that California’s domination by Democrats has, as a matter of either principle or policy, gone too far and that Democrats are beginning to abuse their authority in a manner that might be characterised by some as simply playing hardball, but by others as corrupt.

There are some interesting parallels that might be drawn with developments in different parts of Africa.  Zambia and Tanzania—I pick them because I’ve spent time in each, not because they’re unique—have both been one-party states during moments of their post-colonial history, and leaders in other African countries urged Western observers to understand that multiparty democracy might not always be the best kind of democracy.  In Nyerere’s case, the idea was to create a party movement (akin, perhaps, to Congress in India and the PRI in Mexico) which could encompass all Tanzanians.  Nyerere (with more than a little justification) was partly driven by a fear that former and neo- colonial powers would use their enduring influence and the Cold War to sew divisions between parties, using more malleable parties as fifth columns. 

In Zambia, Kenneth Kaunda’s United National Independence Party did much the same, and in many cases the effect was not so much to stifle debate as to internalise it, making it something which occurred within one big-tent party rather than between parties, and thereby was more easily controlled by the party leadership (which, when you get right down to it, isn’t so different from the rationale that people use to defend the two-party system in the U.S.). 

But South Africa is probably the best example of a state almost totally dominated by a single party, because that dominance emerged organically rather than by decree, much as is occurring in California.  Since the first free elections after the end of apartheid, the African National Congress has dominated the ballot box by means of its liberation struggle credentials and the loyalty bordering on faith that this engendered in many South Africans, the undeniable force of its elite’s very real intelligence, its incredibly well-honed grassroots structure, and voters’ knowledge that its task is no easy one.  The party encompasses a wide spectrum of opinion, but that opinion is hashed out within the party, in what is actually a fairly dynamic fashion (the ANC is, organisationally and ideologically, a far more sophisticated institution than any of its counterparts in the U.S.). 

Other parties have foundered for a range and combination of reasons (and I’m writing as someone fairly ill-informed about South Africa and would be happy to be corrected): their membership or appeal is too niche; they have fallen into the trap of being regionally or ethnically defined; they’re running on technocratic rather than philosophical grounds; and they have simply been woefully unable to match the ANC’s sophisticated organisation.

Each of these could also describe the state of California’s Republican Party which embraces a unnecessarily nasty xenophobia that is alienating a growing chunk of the electorate, crusades on social issues which have precious little purchase with most voters, and is confined by the inexorable logic of demography to a large if sparsely-populated chunk of territory.

But commentators in South Africa say that there is another, more troubling reason for the ANC’s dominance.  The ANC, they say, confuses its status as just one party among many with the state.  In too many ways, they suggest, the ANC has intertwined itself with the apparatus of the state, and is using them to its unfair advantage.  They cite, fairly convincingly, the ANC’s efforts to suppress public criticism and inhibit rival organisations, its ability to ‘buy’ votes by directing services to potentially marginal constituencies, its control of state security, the corruption and self-enrichment of some of its leadership and membership, and its willingness to conflate party, state, and nation to create a gargantuan megaphone which, in the hands of ANC youth leader Julius Malema and to a lesser degree President Jacob Zuma, has been serially abused.  ANC leadership, plagued by factionalism, has also been working overtime to suppress internal dissent, a troubling development.

Which takes us back to California, and the columnists’ criticisms.  There is undoubtedly something unseemly about some of the Democratic Party’s manoeuvrings: its misuse of initiatives, its proximity to some unseemly corporate interests, the uncompetitive primaries and high-handed coronation of its leading luminaries who represent the status quo rather than voters, and so on.  But are these things new?  And do they stem from hubris born out of wielding too much political power?

Others will have to answer the novelty aspect of the question, but it’s curious to me that commentators who pride themselves on understanding the mechanics of the state’s politics rather than on having anything that resembles a point of view fail to see why the case of the Democrats in California is different.  Because, as so often in California, the problem lies with the state’s structure.  I think that it is frustration rather than hubris that leads Democrats to take some of these unsavoury routes.  In most countries (or states), controlling 62-65% of the legislature plus the executive branch would provide something resembling a mandate (it certainly does for the ANC in South Africa).  In fact, in many places, 51% would do the trick just fine. 

But not California.  The Democrats’ power, based on the size of their majority, exists mostly on paper.  They have just about zero ability to implement their vision or to enact policy based on their philosophy within the confines of California’s pseudo-democracy, in which you need two-thirds of the legislature to raise revenue and one-third plus one to shred the state’ social system.  Democrats feel like they have a mandate, but are deprived from following up on any of their promises by the state’s irrational political structure.  In fact, thanks to the Republican Party’s willingness to blackmail the state by wielding power without taking responsibility, the Democrats are being forced to implement policies diametrically opposed to those which they espouse.

So it’s no wonder they might begin to twist the rules a bit.  I’m not saying that’s a good thing—far from it.  But we are in a dangerous place.  Our state government is tailor-made to fail, one party is in serial decline, its back against the wall, but still wielding overwhelming power from its minority position thanks to its nihilistic philosophy and outlook.  The other party is frustrated, disempowered even though it wins spectacular majorities, and is increasingly facing the temptation to play dirty politics to enact the policies voters have endorsed. 

The Democratic Party should exercise some caution and avoid engaging in any shenanigans which would give the irresponsible political right any reason to complain.  Instead, it should focus on protecting schools, universities and other public institutions from the Governor and the fundamentalists in the Republican Party on the one hand, and on the other to promote the kind of rational reform that would actually enable it to carry out the measures it was elected to promote.

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