A Deliberative Poll for CA's Future :: Summer 2011

The Three Faces of California Politics

It's been noted repeatedly, on this site and by many others, that California's policy challenges are compounded by the system of politics and governance that is "outmoded" and "broken."  But what, exactly, does that mean?

There are any number of ways to answer that question, and probably hundreds of specific bugs in the system that warrant attention.  Ultimately, though, the blame can be placed squarely on California's inherent schizophrenia.   As my New America Foundation colleagues Joe Mathews and Mark Paul wrote in California Crackup, "California is governed not by one system but by three."

The first system, Mathews and Paul argue, is that of single-member legislative districts, elected by plurality – which grants ruling power to the majority, however narrowly it is obtained.

The second system, superimposed on the first, is "a constitutional web of rules requiring super-majority legislative agreement on the very subjects – spending and taxes – over which the parties and the electorate are most polarized…. In practice, let minority rule."

The third system, of course, is California's initiative process – "another majoritarian institution, to override the consensus principle, which was itself put in place to check the majority-rule principle."

The result is that California's politics "are the most explicitly democratic of any state, but too much of the government seems beyond the reach of democracy."  Gridlock, debt, and a dangerous mix of citizen apathy and anger are the result.

Can three days of deliberation in Torrance untangle this Gordian knot of dysfunction?  Of course not – but we have to start somewhere.  By bringing voters together to really dig into questions of state-local reform, taxation & fiscal policy, the initiative process itself and the best means of representation -- and forcing everyone to face the tradeoffs and contradictions involved – we can begin to learn what Californians really want for their state. 

Troy K. Schneider is Director, Media & Communications at the New America Foundation.