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Getting at the roots of California’s deep political schizophrenia

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 disgust.   

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 moment.  

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