Maybe we Californians have such a hard time figuring
out how to fix the state because we are too close to
the problem. How might an analyst sent here from another
world– think of him as an extraterrestrial Alexis de Tocqueville,
well read in California history and deeply versed on
political practices elsewhere on this globe– diagnose California’s ailments?
Like many homegrown seers, he would surely note California’s polarization. This is no longer Earl Warren or Pat
Brown’s California, when liberals were sometimes Republicans
and conservatives were often Democrats. Californians
have swung their partisan identities more in line with
their ideological preferences and clumped themselves
into communities of the like-minded, creating a new political geography, with a
solid Pacific sea of Democratic blue lapping a red
inland of valleys and mountains. But our analyst would
be quick to remember that the same polarization has
occurred in states across the nation without producing
the same governing paralysis as California’s.
So he would look deeper, to factors unique to California.
He would see that California has outgrown its inherited
political institutions. Its population has soared– 40-fold since the 1879 constitutional convention molded state government
into its current shape; 16-fold since Hiram Johnson gave birth to the initiative
process; two-fold since the last major constitutional revision in
the 1960s. He would also note the century-and-a half-long flood of immigrants to the state, from all corners
of the nation and earth, turning California into a
society of unrivaled human variety. These demographic
upheavals have distanced representatives in Sacramento
from the represented and strained the ability of old
institutions like the state’s tiny legislature to accurately reflect the richness
of California’s tapestry.
On closer examination, though, he would come to a more
troubling diagnosis: deep political schizophrenia.
On one hand, he would see a system of single-member legislative districts elected by plurality,
a system well known to restrict representation to the
two major parties, exaggerate the majority party’s strength, empower the ideological bases in each party,
and render the votes of millions of Californians essentially
moot in most legislative elections. The system’s driving principle? Create a majority and let it rule.
On the other hand, he would see, superimposed upon
the first system, a second political system: a constitutional web of rules requiring supermajority
legislative agreement about the very subjects, spending
and taxes, over which the the parties and the electorate
are most polarized. The driving principle of this second
system? Do nothing important without broad consensus.
The collision of these two contradictory governing
principles– one majoritarian, one consensus– has produced gridlock, rising debt, and deep public
And then on the third hand (here’s where you really need an extraterrestrial Tocqueville), he would see that, in response to gridlock, voters
have repeatedly used the initiative process, another
majoritarian institution, to override the consensus
principle, which was itself put in place to check the
majority-rule principle. This political schizophrenia has led
to all the expected symptoms in California, including
apathy, delusions, disordered thinking, and the kind
of citizen anger that marked the May special election.
California doesn’t work because it can’t work.
How can California cure itself? Not with weak reform
medicine administered to address only symptoms. It’s necessary to get to the cause. In place of a system
in which we clamp shackles on a legislature we do not
believe to accurately represent our views, and then
grow furious at the inevitable gridlock, our Tocqueville
would tell us to substitute a system that actually
makes our government more representative and responsive,
so the shackles are no longer needed.
The world offers many proven examples of such democratic
electoral systems, which use multi-member districts and proportional representation. (My colleague Micah Weinberg and I have offered one
possible model). These systems make every vote count, give all sides
a say in government and a fair share of seats, and
allow voters to change who controls the legislative
branch when the majority does not deliver results.
They also make the citizens happier with their governments
and more involved in civic life. No reformer could
ask for more.
That kind of big political overhaul is hard, because
it requires overcoming tradition, habit, and the power
of vested interests. But it does happen, our Tocqueville
and history tell us, especially in times of repeated
crisis and deep voter dismay. It happened a hundred
years ago with Hiram Johnson and the Progressives.
If it’s going to happen again, today’s confluence of crisis and centennial seems the perfect