Thursday, November 14, 2013

Denial...the California State of Mind

I just began reading a copy of Mark Baldassare’s book, A California State of Mind: the Conflicted Voter in a Changing World (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002).  Baldassare’s thesis is that distrust—voters’ distrust of government—is the defining feature of our polity.

“Trust in government”, he writes, “is an attitude reflecting the sum total of experiences and knowledge the public has towards its government institutions and its elected officials at any given time...distrust in government as measured in public opinion surveys is largely a rational response to people’s experiences with government and their interpretation of all the information they are receiving from the media and other sources” (7). 
That seems reasonable, and I’ve only begun reading.  But I’m struck how in his introduction and in his outline of his argument, chapter by chapter, Baldassare treats “the voters” and “government” as two separate things.  This blind spot is particularly egregious given his observation that “in California, the trend was for voters to take decisions about growth away from their local elected officials” (13).  Through the state’s “direct democracy” tools—recalls, referenda, and particularly initiatives—voters have become arguably the state’s most formidable policymakers.
The “California State of Mind” of Baldassare’s title is whatever allows voters to demand that legislators spend money on given projects with one vote while refusing to open their wallets to pay for the project.  It is the unintegrated political complex which allows what is effectively a whole branch of government to make demands of another without granting the second branch the tools to do the job demanded of it. 
In focussing on distrust, Baldassare omits the critical role played by fear in the governance of California.  I’m by no means saying that we need to feel sorry for California’s legislators as individuals, but there is no denying that as a group they have been conditioned by voters to be fearful.  Fearful of embracing the range of possible public policy options around a given issue because of the tendency of voters to aim unconstructive swipes at their efforts.  Fearful of being ambitious in their governance on behalf of our state, because they know voters don’t like to contemplate big projects or serious commitments.  And fearful of being honest about long-term economic, social, and ecological challenges because they have learned the hard way that voters don’t appreciate being told hard truths. 
Baldassare notes that California is a “state where policymaking for the past twenty years has been guided by the political principle ‘smaller is better’” (2).  This tendency, he seems to argue, has been detrimental to the ability of California’s government to tackle the problems which are important to its citizens.  But it is simultaneously a tendency generated by the hammerlock which the voters—through their punishment of politicians as much as their ballot-box constitution-writing—have imposed on Sacramento. 
When Baldassare writes about “Californians’ distrust in government, their perception that the state is unprepared for its future, and their desire to take lawmaking into their own hands” (17), he is describing a culture which was deliberately cultivated by the Republican Party from Reagan’s years as Governor onwards, in which one political party tried to persuade people that government couldn’t work, and that if they were elected, they would make sure that it didn’t.
The story has a particular twist, because over the last hundred years, Californian voters have been some of the foremost architects of a system which makes consistency difficult, discourages determined government, and prohibits political breakthroughs. 
What does it mean when voters don’t trust their political apparatus, but when they are also a critical component of that apparatus?  On the one hand, voters assert themselves at the polls.  On the other, they do so with a distinct lack of confidence and coherence.  It is almost as though we don’t trust ourselves.  Or perhaps, as though we live in fear that we might fail—as we have long argued politicians themselves have—if we tackled the problems which plague our state.
Jerry Brown, our current Governor, has talked about our problems as “conditions” of an inherent variety.  While he is personally well-known for what he calls “creative inaction”, it seems that a similar fatalism has possessed our state when it comes to addressing the balance between ends and means; the education of children and students; our relationship with our land; the durability and sustainability of our infrastructure; even our basic social contract. 
There is a further observation from A California State of Mind which should preoccupy our public officials.  One of his central findings is apparently that people change their priorities—crime, education, budgets, etc—very quickly, leaving decision-makers only very narrow windows for intervention (xi). 
Today, polls suggest that Californians recognise that our political structure is broken, and that it needs an overhaul.  We are increasingly aware that before we can address any economic deficit, there is a democratic deficit which demands our attention.  Our civic and political leadership should move quickly to address this issue while the public is so attuned. 
But it is not enough to demand better of our politicians, who only bear partial responsibility for our ills.  It will be impossible to address the economic equality which is no longer a byproduct, but today a defining feature of our state and our country, if we do not have a democracy equal to the task.  Such a democracy requires that citizens shoulder the responsibility for their own actions, take their participation seriously, and take part in fashioning institutions commensurate with the idealism that should define our community. 

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