Gary Kamiya has a great piece at Salon called “Californians are sinking themselves.” He makes a similar argument I have made in the recent past, that while California’s politicians are the ones directly responsible for the fiscal mess its in, the ultimate responsibility is with the citizens of California. Kamiya catalogs the causes of the state’s governmental dysfunction, and adds,
Yet as their state prepares to go over the cliff, California’s citizens seem weirdly oblivious, or resigned, or numb. Like inhabitants of a corrupt third-world country who have utterly lost faith in their government and in politics itself, or ostriches sticking their heads in the sand, Californians are behaving as if the whole thing is out of their control. Or even that it isn’t happening at all.
The immediate problem is that a minority extremist right faction is able, because of the supermajority requirement, to prevent California from governing itself. But of course, that’s the problem everywhere, isn’t it?
The extremist right hijacked government by exploiting weaknesses in government designed to prevent tyranny. As I wrote recently in “The U.S. as a Failed State,” the result of the Right’s undermining of legitimate, representative government has been the slow takeover of government by oligarchic special interests. Something like that happened in California, too, by exploiting the initiative process.
The initiative process was originally passed by voters in 1911 to circumvent the power of the oligarchic railroad trusts by restoring direct democracy. And it still offers citizens a chance to take control of important issues. But it has gone out of control, abused by powerful interests who hire people to collect signatures and ram through bills that no ordinary citizen can be expected to comprehend. By sidelining elected officials, it achieves the worst of both worlds: It gives ordinary citizens, who lack requisite expertise, institutional memory and accountability, too much power, and then forces legislators to clean up their mess — except that because of ideological gridlock and the supermajority requirement, they can’t.
What the Right can’t get is that tyranny doesn’t come from government; it comes from the concentration of power. It makes no real difference whether the concentration is public or private. When power is concentrated in government, private interests become its puppet. When power is concentrated in private hands, government becomes its puppet. Either way, the people lose.
The U.S. federal government was set up so that power would be diffused through the three branches and among Washington and the states, and in this way power in government wouldn’t concentrate in any one place and become too strong for citizens to control.
But in their monomaniacal quest to destroy government in the name of “liberty,” the Right left government vulnerable to takeover by non-governmental powers that are not answerable to citizens at all. By fighting a phantom tyranny they have gone a long way toward creating a real one.
Of course, for some, especially for the wealthy extremists who bankrolled the Movement, this was the plan all along. But I don’t think the enormous majority of the tools who show up for “tea parties” and Palin rallies have any idea they are, in effect, begging for dictatorship.
The results of the last two national elections show us that a majority of U.S. citizens want progress, and they want functional government is that responsible to them and which can address issues in a way that makes a difference in their lives. Watching the helpless flopping about in Washington has tried even my faith in American democracy. In spite of their minority status, in spite of the fact that a crushing majority of Americans disagrees with their agenda, the Right still is dictating policy. I’m beginning to wonder if our form of government can survive at all.