Broken Government? Blame Your Readers

Stuart Leavenworth is baffled. Editorial editor page editor of the Sacramento Bee, my old stomping grounds, Leavenworth says he’s read all the recent literature on California’s governing disfunction, including California Crackup (“radical, but well-argued,” he calls it) and The Economist’s recent special report on the Golden State. And he wonders why none of the things he’s read explain why Californians, faced with that disfunction, seem so disengaged. “How has California changed in ways that limit civic participation?” he asks.

Which only goes to show that you can give a newspaper guy a book but you can’t count on him to read it.

Why might a typical Californian be cynical about the prospect of successful engagement in governing the state? Let’s consider what she faces if she were to get involved, say, in improving the state’s underfunded and underperforming public schools.

She might think to start in her own community and engage with the local school district and board. But she would quickly discover that the school board doesn’t have much to say about the big issues facing the school down the street. In fact, if she’s a young mother of school-age children, she would find that the biggest decisions about schools were made before she was even born or when she was still a child. Thirty-three years ago, Prop 13 took away the school board’s control over revenue and shifted all the power to the state Capitol. Ten years later, Prop 98 came along and put school funding on statewide auto-pilot. The school choices that matter most—funding levels, achievement standards, curriculum, testing, categorical uses of dollars—get made in Sacramento. School boards are for dividing up the scraps and transmitting the pain delivered from on high. Why would any smart young woman wanting to engage and improve the schools waste her time there?

Since the Legislature is now the School Board of the Whole, she might consider getting involved in legislative politics. But she would find few ways to effectively engage in that arena. There are few competitive election contests for the Assembly and Senate. Even where there is competition, the districts are so big (nearly a half million people in an Assembly district, nearly one million in a Senate district) that most campaigns are decided by money for media, not armies of involved citizens. Because of the success of “good-government” types like Leavenworth in weakening political party structures and ending party nominations for office in California, the normal channels by which Americans typically engaged in the past and people around the world continue to engage—through partisan political activity—barely exist here. Our young woman, desperately seeking engagement, would be well-advised to look elsewhere.

That leaves the initiative process. It was set up to 100 years ago to put citizens in charge, but it doesn’t offer many opportunities for engagement. It’s increasingly rare for groups of dedicated voters to band together to gather enough signatures to put measures on the ballot. In a state of nearly 38 million, money drives the process. The initiative is a world of paid signature gathers, high-priced political and media consultants, and million-dollar television ad buys. It’s no place for a nice young woman hoping to improve her children’s schools.

Leavenworth thinks Californians have checked out of politics because of our divisions and a lack of civic glue. But California’s history is a chronicle of division—Anglo vs. Chinese, labor vs. capital, Progressives vs. the railroad machine, Protestant vs. Catholic, white vs. black—often expressed in violence. As we tell in California Crackup, many of the big governing changes in the state’s past, from the 1878-79 constitutional convention to Prop 13, were products of those fights.

What’s changed is the way we try to govern ourselves. We’ve piled reform on reform, many of them directly aimed at keeping ordinary people from engaging in their own governance. The result is a strange and radical system, hostile to citizen involvement and too inflexible to be run by elites, the government version of the Winchester Mystery House.

There’s a good reason so few citizens want to engage with it. Having jobs to do and families to tend and lives to live, they can’t afford to waste their time on a system they know doesn’t work. And for making that rational choice, they get called “insular” and “cynical” by newspaper guys who get well paid to stroke their chins and blame their readers for California’s gridlock.

Is it any wonder that we’ve stopped reading newspapers too?