The California Democracy Act Tragedy

UC Berkeley Professor George Lakoff (BAP photos)

Author and UC Berkeley professor George Lakoff recently attempted to get an initiative on the ballot that would overturn California’s  minority rule in the state regarding revenue and budget. Minority rule is an insidious feature of Prop.13 , mandating that we get get at least two-thirds of the vote in Sacramento to raise revenue for a program or to pass the budget. Unfortunately,  Lakoff came up short.

Lakoff’s campaign began at the last party convention. Against the advice of the party leadership, delegates voted overwhelmingly in favor of Lakoff’s proposal. He then came up with a simple 14-word initiative, which said “all legislation action on revenue and budget must be determined by a majority vote.” The concept was brilliant in its

simplicity but not according to the party’s “powers that be.” Democratic Party leadership was feeling very hopeful about electing a Democrat in the Governor’s race, having registered over a million new Democrats during the “political irrational exuberance” of the Obama campaign. Party Chair John Burton even quipped “It’s like having five sets of twins!”

With Lakoff’s initiative,the leadership feared that Republicans would jump on Democrats like “white on rice.” painting them as “tax and spenders.” As it turns out, Meg Whitman will spend more money in the Governor’s race than any gubenatorial candidate in U.S. history and probably more than most presidential candidates. And you can bet you she’ll play the tax card to death.

Lakoff stubbornly shook off the leadership’s advice and started a campaign to get the initiative on the ballot. After a few false starts and no help from Attorney General Jerry Brown, Lakoff with a small group of activists did some signature gathering. Brown structured the information on the initiative since it was under the jurisdiction of his office. He phrased the initiative to ask if voters would support a law which would allow legislators to raise taxes.

The petition was structured to have room for only four signatures per page, which was also unusual and required printing many more petitions than is normally the case. The campaign didn’t get into actual signature gathering until January. The hope was for the petitioning to go viral and people would download petitions over the Internet, but the strategy didn’t materialize as planned.

Another misstep in the campaign was to over value speaking at local Democratic Party organizations. Local party organizations are usually made up of progressive Democratic Party activists but they almost always represent less than one percent of registered Democrats.

We live in what could be called a “candidate-centered no party system” where 99% of the resources go to political ads a system where the interest groups who contribute to campaigns, are like investors in a corporation. Most local party organizations are a P.O.Box and a web site with little contact with party members except during election time. At election time that communication is also mostly done through political consultants who use the mass media and not party members to contact voters.

Lakoff would give a speech filled with flattering statements about how wonderful our state once was and how competent Democratic legislators are , hitting a chord with the audience of true believers, warm thoughts and a warm reception, preaching to a choir of progressives.The idea was that the campaign would spread the word from group to group, but in reality people are no longer joining many groups. He was envisioning a speaker series, which didn’t jive with the fact that most people are no longer socially active but are home watching TV as argued in the Robert Putnam “Bowling Alone” theory which many social scientists adhere to.

Overthrowing minority rule is a major problem in the state. So is winning the governor’s mansion in Sacramento . In my opinion this can only happen if we stop masquerading as a political party and put some serious resources into building precinct networks. It wouldn’t take much; easily over 10% of registered Democrats would be willing to talk to their neighbors about important Democratic legislation even in a “Bowling Alone” world. Those same potential activists would also be able to contact neighbors who are swing voters for things like a “majority rule” initiative or a governor’s race.

In a sense the Golden State is now a near corporate dictatorship, between an executive office that can be bought and usually is, minority rule in the legislature and underfunded local party organizations masquerading as party organizations, party organizations that don’t responsibly communicate and mobilize their members. Most registered Democrats are for all practical purposes ex-communicated from the party, except at election time.

If five percent of money that went to political ads in primaries went to party building, the rewards of that investment would be tenfold. We are now like a pro football team that pays it’s running backs millions and its linemen minimum wage. Lakoff and the Democratic Party leadership may have been involved in a pissing contest but the real problem is the “candidate-centered no party system,” that masquerades as a real party system.Unless we confront this problem we will be hard pressed to solve other problems facing our state and our country for that matter.

We can pretty easily figure out what a solid party organization would be. We could ask, how could we create something for the rank and file rather than just the office seekers? Roughly speaking we need a good precinct network that can communicate not only about money and candidates but can periodically go door to door and speak face to face about important Democratic legislation.

CraigWe can complement that personal contact with an Internet system that communicates with members on a statewide and national but also a local level, and that doesn’t only send out emails that are disguised fund raising requests. .We also need to bring people together both on a social community level as well as mobilize people on issues.Lakoff’s failed effort should start a dialogue about the real problem which is our democracy and political parties which unfortunately are based on organized money instead of organized people.

Craig Williams
Developing Democracy

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