California As A Lab: Refining Governance and the Constitutional Convention

We complain a lot about the national media not really understanding what’s going on in California. Other than an occasional column by Paul Krugman, the national coverage of the California crisis has been almost universally off target. It’s been either “post-partisan” drivel about Arnold Schwarzenegger or Gavin Newsom or some other governor past, present, or future, or it has been so blatantly wrong on the issues facing the state as to be laughable.  For a good example of both, you can see the New York Times article from July.

But there is no reason it has to be that way, a journalist could take a few hours, do some research, and figure out a pretty good idea of what’s going on here. While Hendrik Hertzberg misses some of the nuance of the issues facing our Golden State, he does grasp the big pitcture in the August 24 issue of the New Yorker.

California, it turns out, is ungovernable. Its public schools, once the nation’s best, are now among the worst. Its transportation and water systems are deteriorating. Its prisons are so overcrowded that it has to turn tens of thousands of felons loose. And its legislature has spent most of the year in a farcical effort to pass the annual budget, leaving little or no time for other matters, such as-well, schools, transportation, water, and prisons. This is “normal”: the same thing has happened in eighteen of the past twenty-two years. But the addition of economic disaster to legislative paralysis may have brought California to a tipping point.

… The nadir, some would say, came in 1978, when Proposition 13 essentially capped property taxes and made California the only state that requires a two-thirds vote of the legislature both to adopt a budget and to raise a tax. The decline in public services was one result. Another has been a distortion of the state’s politics. Conservative Republican legislators have little incentive to compromise or even to broaden their appeal; to prevail on most of what is important to them, all they need is one-third plus one. (New Yorker 8/24/09)

He doesn’t sugar coat it, or try to provide some sort of bipartisan spin on what’s really happening. We have a cult that is masquerading as a political party that is dead set on pushing social services and all but the richest among us off the cliff. And for whatever criticisms you can levy at him, you have to give Hertzberg credit for recognizing the issue.

The article goes on to deal with the now prominent question of a Constitutional Convention. He’s a fan.  Big-time.

The genius of Repair California’s approach is twofold. First, it steers clear of “social issues”: no gay marriage, no abortion, no affirmative action. Second, the delegates would be chosen randomly from the adult population. (Appointed delegates, Repair California reasons, would be beholden to whoever appointed them; and if the delegates were elected, the elections would inevitably be low-turnout affairs dominated by money and the organized clout of special interests.) The convention itself would be an exercise in what is called “deliberative democracy.” The delegates would spend months studying the issues, consulting experts, debating among themselves, and forging a consensus. The result would be put to a vote of the people, yes or no, in November of 2012.

To have faith in such a process requires a faith in the good sense and sincerity of ordinary people-a faith that just about everybody professes. The beauty part is that no one can know what the delegates would come up with-which is why the idea has won such broad support.  … If California has the courage and imagination to become a true laboratory of democracy, the experiment will be something to see.

You can’t blame Hertzberg for his optimism, the whole thing does sound very exciting. And, truth be told, it is very exciting.  Of course, the problem here is that when the lab is your home, it is easy to get cold feet about the whole thing. But, when you talk about fundamentally changing California’s governance, you really can’t help but be excited. Think of all the cool directions you could go – a unicameral legislature, some sort of proportionate representation, heck, we could even look at a parlimentary system. The world is our oyster in that we could pick and choose good aspects of governments from around the world.

But there is a down side, namely that we could very well end up with something crazy in the Constitution. As Jean Ross pointed out during the Netroots Nation panel, the last time we had a Constitutional Convention we ended up with the Chinese Exclusion Laws.

The suggestion so far is to create a random selection in order to decide the delegates. It is an intriguing suggestion, as perhaps the people would come without the preconceived biases of current legislators.  We would avoid the campaign finance issues and all the issues of special interest money. But biases can be built back up quickly enough, and getting a completely clean slate would be difficult if not impossible.  Depending on the process, we could easily end up with a similar problem to that which we have now: a minority holding up the whole system.

I suppose that after writing about California politics, the cynicism and pessimism can’t help but be strong.  But that cynicism is there for a reason. The Republican Party in California has blossomed into a full-on Zombie Death Cult, and that has spread from some of the grassroots base of the party to a general mistrust of the system.  We are now in a period of vast mistrust of the government, and to expect citizens to simply re-empower a functional government is to be almost foolishly optimistic.

That all being said, the process does slightly work in the favor of experimentation.  If we do get a constitutional convention called, we can play with the house’s money to an extent. If we get something solid out of the convention, great we have a working system.  If we don’t get anything, well, all we’ve wasted is a bit of time and some money to pull the convention together.  And if we get a document that isn’t an improvement, well, it has to be put up for a vote once again. While it may seem odd for organizers and supporters of the convention movement to then oppose its output, the option of defeating the thing is still there.

Is the whole thing risky? Of course. But it just might be worth doing. After all, it’s not like the status quo is really anything worth holding on to.

13 thoughts on “California As A Lab: Refining Governance and the Constitutional Convention”

  1. statutory vs constitutional, is what i mean.

    it’s certain that people there will have a lot of ideas, some of them very good ideas, that would benefit the state greatly if they were adopted, but that have no place in the actual Constitution itself. that leads to really ugly arguments – “Oh, so you WANT to kill dolphins, then?”

    if there was some kind of channel for them, so that those ideas don’t have to be ignored or shot down for process reasons, that might help keep things a bit saner.

    something like two reports, here’s what we think the Constitution should be, and here are some things we think we ought to also do? obviously i am not a lawyer so i’m out of my depth here.

  2. Is that California faces not a crisis of budgets and finance, but a crisis of democracy and governance. The solutions therefore must be fundamental in their nature. Only a Constitutional Convention can accomplish that.

    Yes, it is risky. We live in risky times. I have greater confidence that a Con-Con can produce good results than the present situation. And the present situation WILL produce much more horrific outcomes.

  3. For those who weren’t at the NN09 panel, the point is this: Cal’s 4 contributions to national politics over the last 50 years have been Nixon, Prop 13, Reagan, and Prop H8.  We could end up with a good new constitution — or we could end up with a Latvia-style flat tax, gay exclusionary laws, and a prohibition on public services to anchor babies.  

    It’s risky, and it’s too risky.

    Instead, I propose a 58 county, 80 district strategy.  Register the people who aren’t voting.  I will expand on this in a diary in my copious spare time, so tell me what’s wrong with that idea now.

  4. Why is Repair California’s website so completely opaque? Who are the individuals and what are the organizations of this “broad-based coalition” that is “decidedly a people’s movement” and why are their names not listed on the site?

    What are the principles of the initiative language being developed? Who actually sat at the table to design it?

    Who is paying to gather the signatures?

    Whe decides which experts get invited to advise the delegates?

    If term limits are bad for California because it gives us a legislature without deep experience, why do we think reliance on average citizens (perhaps including some who don’t even vote?) To overhaul our whole system is such a good idea?

    Is the attraction of a Constitutional Convention just another California-style grand gesture? A wish-and-a-prayer attempt at an end run around the hard work of actually building consensus among California voters about the need for good government and of what it should consist?

    To me the ‘Constitutional Convention as solution’ proposal has the scent of the same get-rich-quick booster-type mentality that has been rampant in California since 1850.

    Trying to find a ‘one fell swoop’ solution to a complicated governing system based on deep cultural biases doesn’t inspire me with confidence.

    – Janet Stromberg

  5. Seeing how well corporate-sponsored fearmongering works to define a public policy debate, I’m particularly jaded today.  And I can’t help but think that the same strategies are going to be used to shape the constitutional revision debate and, if the result is not to the special interests’ liking, to blow it up.  It’s been confirmed that we live in a time when any special interest with enough money can turn even the most innocuous and society-benefiting provision into a Nazi “death panel.”  And I’m sure there will be a death panel or two in the revised constitution.  

    I’m convinced that if you do anything to stop the corporate interests from feeding at the trough of government, they’re happy to blow up everything that’s good and righteous.

    Told you I was jaded.

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