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Roadmap for Reform

A New Book Explains Why California Is Broken—and Proposes How to Fix It


On the morning of Monday, March 3, 1879, the 135 delegates to the California Constitutional Convention at the state capital in Sacramento were in a foul mood.

Drawn from the young state’s ranks of miners, merchants, bankers, brewers, and a dozen other professions, the all-male delegation had signed on for a 100-day confab, but were then in their fourth week of working without pay. When a clerk began reading aloud the hundreds of pages of text that had been assembled from a host of committees only a few hours before, a motion to suspend the process quickly arose — even though none of the delegates had ever read the full document themselves.

Capitol Letters

“It carried overwhelmingly. Moments later the delegates voted to adopt the constitution, unread, by a count of 120-15 … With that, the convention — California’s second and, to date, its last — was over. The delegates were on their way home by lunchtime.”

This intriguing and little-known bit of California history is recounted by journalists Joe Mathews and Mark Paul in their recently published California Crackup, a smart, good read that closely analyzes and traces the state’s political dysfunction, from the short attention spans of its constitutional framers to the intractable knots of political gridlock that bind it 131 years later.

While the victors in the 2010 statewide election this week triumphantly proclaim their confident intentions and plans to fix Sacramento, the veteran political writers clearly show how the political malpractice, conflicting ballot propositions, and fierce partisanship that now define Golden State governance have been baked into the state’s structure for decades. Unlike most political science tomes on the subject, however, their take also sets forth a practical, if at times radical, agenda for reform that could begin to break the stalemate that defines the status quo.

“The whole system must be rethought with an eye to the sheer scale of California, a place grown too large and too various to be successfully governed from the top,” they write. “Democracy and accountability would be the buzzwords. Windows must be opened so Californians can see in, peer out, and keep an eye on each other. This will require a Great Unwinding of old rules.”

Both Mathews and Paul have been in Santa Barbara in recent weeks, as featured speakers on a couple of panels, one sponsored by UCSB’s Capps Center and the other by the Museum of Natural History, that attracted several hundred solid citizens with a serious concern about the steady erosion in the quality and quantity of crucial services — public schools, highways, and parks, for starters — that have accompanied the decline of public discourse in Sacramento. (Full disclosure: I participated in both panels.)

Perhaps the most valuable information in their book is the positive, prescriptive framework they provide about ways and means to begin to address the overwhelming sense of where-do-we start despair that many would-be reformers feel when confronted with the dysfunction in the Capitol.

“The civic moment is defined by more than bad news,” they write. “What makes this moment seem different — makes it feel like what Californians call ‘earthquake weather’ — is that California seems unable to talk about the crisis in a way that gets to the bottom of things and points to a better day. … At the heart of the civic moment is the fear that California lacks even a language, and an understanding, equal to its calamity.”

What Mathews and Paul attempt in California Crackup is to provide such a language, an effort in which they largely succeed.

Examining political procedures and processes that at first glance seem too sweeping and impractical — instant runoff voting, proportional representation, a unicameral legislature, reforming initiative, and referendum law, streamlining the executive branch — they show how the current broken system of elections and governance is not only not written in stone, it is in many ways an exception to best practices elsewhere in the country and the world.

“The state’s current stalemate, while a formidable obstacle, is no more formidable than that faced by those who framed the state’s constitution in the 19th century, or than that confronted by the Progressives a century ago, when they elected a governor in the face of opposition from both parties and the railroad,” Mathews and Paul argue.

“And the changes we propose are far less radical than the Progressives’ push for direct democracy,” they add. “The fall of 2011 will mark the centennial of the 1911 special election in which the Progressives remade the state government’s operating system. It is long past time for an update.”

Amen.

You can find more information about California Crackup at californiacrackup.com.

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