Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The Election in California and the Democratic Supermajority

There was a bad moment, as the crowds celebrating President Obama’s bittersweet re-election dissipated, when Prop 30 was behind in the polls and some were bemoaning the defeat of the measure meant to shield California’s schools and universities from another round of brutal, damaging cuts.  But for those of us who stayed up the extra hours, there was redemption as votes from urban precincts began to roll in and it became clear that, by whatever dishearteningly small a margin, Californians were backing the Governor’s initiative.

If the best moment on the national news was seeing even Fox News dismiss Karl Rove’s disingenuous histrionics in favour of their pollsters’ rigour, the passage of Prop 30 marked the moment at the state level when I could breathe a little easier and head off to bed.  To be sure, Prop 30 doesn’t fix anything (a subject for another post), but it averts disaster, protecting the material well-being of many Californians, particularly children and students.

It’s hard to decipher much in the way of coherence in Californians’ votes, but voters also endorsed shutting down tax loopholes for multi-state corporations (voting Yes on 39), rebuked efforts to diminish the political voice of working people (No on 32), and were able to see the good in reforming one aspect of the criminal justice system (Yes on 36), even if they balked at extending that reform to ending a practise as inexcusably immoral as it is prohibitively costly (No on 34). 

Our senior Senator, the increasingly-powerful neoconservative Dianne Feinstein, cruised to a re-election victory as effortless as that in her un-democratic primary, meaning that the military industrial apparatus in D.C. will continue to have a powerful patron shielding it from scrutiny, egging the generals on, and endorsing a distasteful array of short-sighted policies.

The reckoning for Prop 30’s agonisingly short horizon and lack of forethought will come another day.  So perhaps the most immediate impact of the election in California will be the seismic shift in power in the legislature—something largely un-discussed in the days before the election.  It has recently emerged that Democrats have taken majorities in the Senate and Assembly in California.  The shift in the number of seats was small, but the power that went with that handful of seats considerable.  It has tilted power in the state away from Republicans who ran California by virtue of the veto conferred on them by our retrograde supermajority rules, towards Democrats.

It is unclear that most Californians—who sometimes appear to understand their democracy about as well as I understand Newtonian physics—will grasp the significance of the shift, but they should.  For years, Democrats have taken heat for the deadlock in the state although there was nothing they could do, their considerable majorities in both legislative houses giving the appearance of control.  Now that they’ve shattered the glass ceiling, and with it, in the short term, the power of California’s fundamentalist GOP, they will have a real opportunity to advance a progressive agenda along cohesive lines.

But there is a real danger lurking in the power this shift has conferred upon Democrats.  There is some question as to whether their comparative discipline will hold, or whether some members will begin demanding petty concessions after the manner of their D.C. brethren by way of increasing their power.  Then there is the worry that real power in Sacramento, however fleeting, will generate amnesia amongst progressives on the subject of reform, making them withdraw from an issue that is not only of great importance to all Californians, but which should be of particular interest to progressives.  

Finally, one has to wonder how good a party which has been coasting—caught between complacency and inconsequence—will be at articulating a progressive agenda in broad strokes rather than driving through minutiae (which however important in their cumulative significance don’t actually represent a vision with which voters can easily identify and sympathise) on a case-by-case basis.  This agenda, after all, will have to withstand the potential backlash that might come from actually being implemented in a context where elections are becoming more competitive and where, because of their novel power, Democrats suddenly have much more to lose.  Moreover, Democrats will now have to take ownership of the state and of their ideas for improving it in a way they haven’t in the recent past. 

For the sake of our state, I hope the Democratic Party begins to talk, in an intelligent and thoughtful manner, with an eye to the long-term, about how what a progressive California should look like, and the manifold ways in which our political structure is crying out for rational, thoroughgoing reform.

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