Friday, August 31, 2012

Democrats, Why So Shy About Reform?

California, in case you haven’t noticed, has become the national GOP’s newest punching bag.  But as much as they love to hate the state (Mitt Romney thinks it’s so awful that he bought a great big house in La Jolla), they just can’t manage to either correctly identify the source of California’s problems or devise any reasonable solutions.

But it must be said that they’re in good company.  Our Governor, Jerry Brown, who we elected because he supposedly knew state politics like the back of his battle-scarred hand, is of the school of thought characterised by manic optimism rather than considered action: “the breakdown paves the way for a breakthrough” was his brainless refrain while running for office in 2010, accompanied by a no-taxes pledge designed to tie his hands and pass the buck. 

Reform is only the part of the answer, and as our state’s history proves, it can go very, very wrong indeed.  The top-down reformist group California Forward, in the guise of Prop 31, is pushing a disjointed, un-democratic measures designed to further constrain our political process rather than free it up.  What we need is well-considered and comprehensive reform.  For the best account of the problem and the most thorough outlining of solutions, see (yes, I’m predictable) Mark Paul and Joe Mathews’ California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It. 

It’s understandable why the Republican Party refuses to tackle the reform question...they’re actually largely responsible for implementing, as part of a larger conglomerate of irresponsible interests, our dysfunctionality, which empowers their destructive agenda.  But it’s a slightly different story for Democrats.  Sure, if the reform package included a fair voting system which empowered third parties, they’d probably lose legislative seats and have to compete more seriously for people’s votes.  But as things stand, even with their huge legislative majorities, they’re unable to accomplish anything of substance in the state.  In the long-term, Democrats have a real interest in grasping the nettle of reform. 

Nor is it the case that they don’t understand that California’s ills lie in our broken system of governance.  State party chairman, John Burton, went viral after his turn on Jon Stewart’s Daily Show, when he described the problem in language more vivid than articulate.  Even given his limited vocabulary, Burton was able to convey the basic truism about California: that there’s a real design flaw in our state government.  But if he is deficient in eloquence, his irony-meter is similarly rusty: he’s leading a party which knows the problem but has been steadfast in refusing to tackle said problem. 

Sure, getting wholesale reform right would be difficult, even for muscle-men and billionaires.  But surely the cost of not tackling the source of our political paralysis is high enough that the Democrats should begin working at the process.  At the moment, Democrats are content to coast in California, taking their large majorities for granted.  In so doing, they forego the opportunity to do some real and lasting good in the state, to free up the political process so that we can have a serious debate about our priorities, and to close our democratic deficit.  They are taking the easy path out: complaining about the very real and very destructive Republican obstructionism, but not doing anything about it.  Maybe I’m wrong, but as someone who has no connection to the state party, I get the impression that Burton’s leading a rather lazy organisation that’s content to rely on California’s currently-favourable demographics to win victories that are out of proportion to the party’s commitment to creating conditions that would allow them to tackle the state’s big issues in a progressive fashion.

Voters in California need to begin pressuring Democrats to explain why they’re so shy about real reform.

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