Over the weekend a new reform organization, What’s Next California?, held a deliberative poll to discuss fixing the broken system of government we have here in California. Viewing it from afar, mostly via twitter stream, the whole thing appears to have been utterly fascinating and, I would suggest, a generally useful exercise in getting a deeper understanding of Californians’ views on their state government and what might be done in order to fix it.
But this exercise has two inherent limitations. The first is its center-right lens, which blinds the organizers to the true breadth of opinion in California. Related from that is the second limitation, which is an unwillingness to acknowledge that California’s problems are not merely structural, but ideological, and only ideological solutions will show the way out of this mess.
What’s Next California? appears to be an exercise in promoting center-right solutions for California. For example, on taxation and fiscal policy, the proposals are generally center-right. A higher income tax on the rich, or a higher tax rate on corporations, both of which poll well, was not included as one of the possible options for fixing our revenue problem. Given the central nature of this problem to California’s budget issues – rising wealth inequality and the lowering of tax rates on the rich (which helped produce that inequality) have gutted the state budget – any solution to the state’s budget problems needs to address this fundamental inequality. Any solution that doesn’t address it is inherently flawed.
But they don’t address it because like so many other constitutional reform exercises, What’s Next California? is not willing to admit that the problem is not just structural – it is ideological. California is a progressive state with a progressive electorate that wants progressive policies. But conservatives have been able to shape the structure of government to prevent that progressive impulse from being expressed. That is the California constitutional and structural problem in a nutshell.
Of course, as a center-right project What’s Next California? ignores this in the service of their own ideological lens, which holds that the right is usually right and the left is crazy. In other words, maybe the state does need structural impediments to the realization of a progressive agenda even if that’s what a majority wants.
What’s Next California? seems to want to find the place where Californians can agree on a governmental structure that works for all, to find majority support for specific reforms, and assumes that people will want those things because they either want good government or because they share the view of What’s Next California? that neoliberal technocrats know what is best for California government.
Again, while I think the data-gathering aspect of the deliberative poll is quite valuable, I don’t see any actual movement happening on a reform agenda as a result of the deliberative poll. That is because constitutional change only happens because of a mass desire for ideological change.
How did Prop 13, the most important constitutional change in the last 60 years in California, get put into place? Not as a result of careful deliberation, but as a result of a right-wing reaction against the realization that they were losing their grip on California. It was an ideologically-driven change. So too was the adoption of the initiative, referendum and recall 100 years ago this October, although that time it came from the left.
The fact is that Californians, like most other human beings, do not view constitutions as abstract documents the way supposedly independent and nonpartisan analysts do. They see constitutions for what they actually are: a blueprint for producing a specific kind of government that will ensure ideologically-specific outcomes.
We can see how this works when it comes to the key issues of the day. Let’s go back to taxes. If you are a conservative, you want to make it as difficult as possible for government to raise taxes, so you will never ever support weakening the 2/3 rule. If you are a progressive, you are highly motivated to support majority vote on budget and taxes because you realize that government spending is essential for prosperity. That divide is unbridgeable. Californians have to choose one.
Let’s take the legislature. If you’re a conservative, you don’t like the legislature because as a democratic institution it represents a majority whose values are very different from your own. Its leaders are liberal, are diverse, and in the Assembly at least, are LGBT. Conservatives view the legislature with contempt because it embodies – literally – the new reality in California, and can make laws that reflect it. So conservatives have every reason to weaken the power of the legislature, whereas progressives have every reason to want to increase it.
Would conservatives support massively increasing the size of the state legislature to 300, 500, or even 1000? Not if it meant that the new California majority, which is diverse and progressive, would be given more power. Would conservatives support things like multiple-member districts, proportional representation, or instant runoff voting? Again, not if it diluted their power. And let’s face it, progressives like these things because we believe it will make it easier to govern a state that has already chosen us to lead it.
Further, there won’t be any momentum to change the status quo except from one ideological base or another. Constitutions change not because a bunch of smart people decide the system should change (if so California’s constitution would have changed LONG ago) but because a bunch of motivated people decide the system should change.
All these groups that are sponsoring What’s Next California? seem to be trying desperately to avoid having constitution-making become an ideological exercise. But that’s what it is and what it has always been. There’s nothing wrong with that. An ideology, after all, is merely a worldview that provides coherence, sense, and stability to a set of similar ideas and shared values. Constitutions that are produced for ideological purposes are better and stronger. Constitutions that are the result of compromise tend to fail, as the 1787 Constitution failed in 1860 and as it appears to be failing again today.
We know how this debate over constitutional reform will end – the same way the Constitutional Convention proposal ended in 2010. The wealthy backers will shy away because they will perceive the process as having too much risk to their bottom line. The right will see no need to change because the main reason we need a convention or any other kind of reform is because the 2/3 rule broke state government. And the left will want to see a lot of change, but will rightly walk away if the reform agenda is rigged to prevent their goals from being satisfied through the process.
I look forward to seeing the results of the deliberative poll. Not because I think it will show consensus answers, but because it will help us progressives have a better understanding of what we need to do to achieve our own constitutional changes.