California: The First Domino?

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.

13 thoughts on “California: The First Domino?

  1. Right Maha, makes perfect sense. And on the bright side ….????…?!!!

  2. It sure looks like the golden state will fall into the ocean, and it will not be the “fault” of St. Andreas.Oh, the irony…………..

  3. It’s utterly infuriating. My district (CA-50, San Diego) was deep red till recently, and my local family is about 85% wingnut. During the Davis recall, they’d literally shove Arnold buttons in my face, giggling maniacally.

    Most people don’t understand or care about policy. This is politics as tribalism.

    Witness also the recent jackbooted tactics of pepper-spraying middle-aged Democrats for the crime of fundraising while liberal at a lesbian’s house.

    It’s all about hippy hatred. Still. Almost 50 years later. Being 35, I just don’t understand it, but that’s what it is, as far as I can tell. Arnold is doing his job as long as the girly men / hippies are whining.

    And my several family members who depend in varying degrees on state support are already blaming Obama for the declining services (and they ain’t seen NOTHING yet).

    Pardon the rant.

  4. Gary Kamiya has a lot of good stuff in his article, and he certainly hits it a lot closer than most analysts I’ve seen recently. Califoenia is really too complex to boil down to a single “Salon” article, though, and I think he misses a couple of major issues.

    First among them is gerrymandering and the closed primary system. That is first and foremost what creates our polarized government, and is by far and away the biggest source of our fiscal problems. Legislators have to face party loyalists in primary battles, and they can be sunk by one single vote in the legislature in that primary race. When a budget bill comes up the party machinery is threatening legislators with primary challenges if they do not vote the party line, and that machinery can and absolutely does sink legislators who do not comply. They do it in the primary elections, where only party members vote, where turnout is small and consists of party loyalists, and where districts boundaries are carefully drawn to allow parties to control outcomes.

    Prop 13 is a bit overstated in his article as well. Property taxes have increased since that proposition passed, and they have increased in far greater degree than has population, since the limit on taxes does not apply to new construction (of which there have been a great plenty), nor to any property which changes ownership.

    The real problem in budgeting has been the dramatic swings in income taxes and the irresponsibility of government with respect to that. When incomes went up, and tax income increased along with it, the legislature went on a spending spree and did so in a fashion that did not allow ending the spending when state income dropped. So as incomes have declined and taxes have declined, the legislature is bound up by party machinery dictating a deadlock in responding to that fact.

    Not that Gary Kamiya is wrong in anything he says, I think he is correct in most respects, other than a slight overstatement on the tax limitations of Prop 13. I’m also inclined to think that a 2/3 majority for budgeting would be tolerable if it were not for the closed primaries and gerrymandering, but maybe not. There are just a whole lot of things contributing, and I don’t think there is a “magic bullet” that can kill the problem and set Californis free.

  5. People in CA right now are dealing with the stuff of recessions: high unemployment, how to make ends meet. Everyone has some idea of how broken (bankrupt) the state is, but so far, we haven’t really seen the effects. And so life goes on. The prescient ones – and I know some teachers who fall into this category, some have even commented on this site – left years earlier.

    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.

    You’re mistaken on this count. There is a huge number of wingnuts who, whether they use those words or not, want a dictatorship. “Someone to keep order” I’ve heard them say. These are the 25 percenters, the ones who buy Sean Hannity’s line that things were just great when Bush left office. They actually believe Bush left the country in better condition than before. They’re completely impervious to facts and reason. These are the same idiots who gave away their power in Germany to Hitler. They’re found in every society. They need Daddy.

    And here I get conspiratorial. Arnold came in with many promises, among them, a promise to rollback the vehicle licensing fee, which I’m told netted the state $7 billion a year. Several years of this deficit almost equals the amount the state is in the red today. Like the far right’s tax cuts (giveaways) in the Bush years, done in order to cripple the federal government down the road (“to drown it in a bathtub”), if this data is correct, it certainly seems like a plan designed to sink California a few years later. I’d like to read someone correct me on this point (Arnold and the vehicle tax rollback), I’m not sure I have the facts straight.

  6. And on the bright side ….????…?!!!

    The governor of Alaska has just resigned.

    Now if Ahnuld would only follow her lead….

  7. True, we Californians have to accept responsibility for trying to BE progressive. I think the common theme here is – that the Republicans will choose politics over everything. Even their own States well-being. Same as we have seen in National Politics. The entire ‘system’ is corrupt and is collapsing. California is once again leading the way. We will show the rest of the Country what is in store for them (all of you) as well. You can thank us later.

  8. I was born in California because my Dad was stationed there during the war. I just retired and moved back home to Tacoma, Washington, which is truly God’s country. However, I decided I wanted to get a passport because that is needed just to go to Canada now. I wrote to California in early February, enclosing the required $14, requesting a copy of my birth certificate. I presently have a postcard dated April 15, 2009, and it says birth certificates take 12 weeks to process. The postmarked date is June 16, 2009. Which date do I use for calculating the 12 weeks?????? I have I get my passport before I get my walker.

  9. Kamiya’s piece makes many good observations, but “California’s citizens seem weirdly oblivious, or resigned, or numb.” WTF? Did he talk to any? Head on over to Calitics, or even just read the newspapers out here, watch the local news… CA probably needs another constitutional convention or something, because the budget and tax system right now is completely dysfunctional, especially with the zealots currently in power. Some big demonstrations are also needed to help dislodge the stogie in the governor’s mouth.

    Your paragraph with “What the Right can’t get is that tyranny doesn’t come from government; it comes from the concentration of power” is very sharp, except many conservatives know this damn well, and are actively working to concentrate more power.

  10. Batocchio — point taken about concentration of power, but I think the Right doesn’t consider such concentration “tyranny” if they’re the ones with the power.

  11. Okay, fair enough, especially since I agree with you! Thanks for clarifying. I think some of it’s authoritarianism, and the good and the bad being defined by tribal identity (torture is bad when done to us, good when done to the dusky-hued scary furriners). Related to that, there’s the attitude that America is theirs alone, and anyone not in their group is a dangerous interloper. I think some of them do get the game, and just don’t care, while others don’t really reflect on it – it’s core dogma.

    Seeing the same right-wingers scream about tyranny under Obama who attacked anyone who criticized Bush’s abuses of power has been both surreal and sadly predictable.

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