Monday, May 3, 2010

Take the Initiative...Please!

OK, I apologize for the subject line.  But:

Kevin Drum points to an LAT article on the upcoming California elections and blames the mess out there in the Golden State on "how completely screwed up the political culture in California is."

I think that's wrong.  The problem in California isn't political culture; it's the rules of the game.  Government by initiative is just a very foolish form of democracy, one that is very good at providing excellent career opportunities in electioneering but very bad at producing sensible government, or even in the sorts of collective decision-making that democracy is supposed to have.   Of course, it's fair to say that California's initiative process is an artifact of its long-ago progressive political culture, but now its just a mess that no one likes or wants.  Last I heard, constitutional reform efforts in California were going nowhere again, but as reluctant as I normally am to support radical rules changes, the state really needs radical rules changes.


  1. Professor, could you recommend some seminal articles that make the point about I&R falling short of facilitating the "collective decision making democracy is supposed to have"? I am a cultural anthropologist working on the (equally insane) initiative system in Oregon, and have been searching far and wide to find political science writing that deals with I&R politics from this point of view.

    Thanks for your amazing weblog, and any advice you might have to offer on this topic.

  2. Yes, as a native Californian it is heartbreaking to see what has become of the state but it is basically ungovernable under the current system. Harper's Magazine did a really excellent piece on the ills that plague California, it ran in the September 2009 issue and it's called "Golden State Fever."

    You need to subscribe to read it but on the off chance that some folks here are subscribers the link is here.

    I have to say, Harper's is the best magazine out there, as far as I'm concerned. Anything else is a waste of time, IMHO. But that's just me.

  3. I agree, but the evolution of the initiative process is part of what I meant by California's "political culture." There's also the two-thirds requirement to pass a budget. (Which was mandated by an initiative.) And a few other things as well. But our love of initiatives and their capture by special interests is definitely a part of my state's political culture.

  4. Kevin,

    I guess what I'm trying to get at is that I don't really believe that Californians still love the initiative. Is there any polling on it? I only lived there for about ten years, and obviously my experience (in political science grad school) is far from typical, but outside of a few LWV types most everyone I knew seemed to hate initiatives. As far as the 2/3 for the budget thing (which I agree is a disaster), I'm even more reluctant to call that part of the political culture. But if there's polling or other evidence to the contrary, then I'm wrong.

  5. I'm not so sure that the initiative process began as a progressive idea. My understanding of the history is that the process was championed by big money interests (especially the railroads) as a way of overriding the legislature. They recognized back then that in politics the person with the biggest megaphone ususally wins, and they have been using the process to hamstring state and local governments ever since. Of course, it's been 25 years since I lived in California and had to deal with these things, and my memory may be fuzzy.

  6. TGAO,

    I wouldn't be surprised if you're right, but I'm going to have to defer to someone with a lot more California history than I have, I guess (Kevin? Seth? Anyone else lurking out there?). I would say that I learned a good deal of Arizona history, but alas I was probably thinking about baseball at that point in my education career. Or other things. Not Arizona history.

    (Although I bet I know more than John McCain about it).


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