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When It Comes to Democracy, Do as We Say, Not as We Do

If there is one thing Iraqis receive in abundance, it’s advice. Americans are falling over themselves to explain the challenge and difficulties of getting a democracy going. I’ve just taken a spin up the West Coast. From the looks of things, getting started is only half of it.

We all know that our states are going broke and the economy is to blame. But the bursting of the jolly, boom-time bubble has revealed something else. Here at home, we’re losing our grip on the very thing that experts agree will determine the success or failure of democracy abroad. That’s a government that we can rely on to account for differences among people as well as their common concerns.

For more than a generation now, states’ rights -- republicanism, in the original use of the word -- has been a resurgent idea in our democracy. Lift Washington’s bootheel off our necks. Devolution. Pass power down from the federal government to institutions closer to the people.

Unfortunately, this 18th century concept does not recognize the 21st century reality. Our news media, our think tanks, our most important political voices, our most telling debates, our biggest tax burdens -- the things that are at the heart of our process of self-governance -- remain overwhelmingly Washington-centric.

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Closer is not dearer, no matter what the theory says.

If it were otherwise, we would have seen rising interest and participation in state and local affairs. But state elections continue to attract far fewer voters than presidential contests, and municipal turnout is downright scandalous, with barely one out of 10 people bothering sometimes.

Do we blame ourselves? We could. But wouldn’t it also be reasonable to expect a system of focused governance that recognizes how busy we are and how little time we devote to public policy choices? As it stands, shrill partisans and others of narrow interest command a disproportionate say in our statehouse affairs. We find ourselves deprived of the give and take of accommodation, and we lose the essential of faith in the ability of government to hold us together.

Washington, a state that relies primarily on sales taxes for its services, has a budget deficit approaching $3 billion. Tens of thousands of people stand to lose state health coverage, and plenty more besides. Oregon, which relies on an income tax, has a deficit of more than $2 billion. It has the shortest school year in the nation, it curtailed prosecution of criminals and its one-of-a-kind health-care experiment is being unraveled. California, which levies both sales and income taxes, is staring at perhaps $35 billion in promises that cannot be met. Just last week, The Times reported that people were dying needlessly in Southern California’s hospital emergency rooms during 30-hour waits for medical attention, while administrators plan even deeper cuts in services to make ends meet.

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Some conservatives, I gather, are delighted to see governance in crisis. Grover Norquist was quoted recently as saying, “I hope a state goes bankrupt.” He’s the right-wing foghorn who supposedly has the ear of the White House. That’s how those privileged people think -- that we are lab rats for their experiment in gladiator governance, where only the strong and the righteous deserve to survive.

Devolution is an idea that’s gotten carried away with itself.

Not to mention that, in important ways, the states never had a chance. E-commerce, global trade and immigration, to name just three, have significant consequences on state budgets but they are matters over which states have no say. In the tawdry politics of short-term advantage, states are perpetually instructed by Washington to produce results on the cheap. To wit: raise school standards and “leave no child behind,” as if saying it will get it done. States, in turn, impose the same kind of impossible decrees on local governments.

Wonder why the caliber of our governors and legislators and local officials has waned? Who in his right mind wants to wade into this mess?

The ideas weighing heaviest on our state politics no longer arise from people entrusted with governance and leadership anyway. They are the simple-minded legacies of outsiders opposed to government, the anti-tax zealots: Washington’s Tim Eyman, Oregon’s Bill Sizemore and, from the grave, California’s Howard Jarvis.

Precious thing, democracy. And the experts are right. It’s not an easy process to get started. But for those of us who have -- and depend on -- one, it’s not enough to sit back and congratulate ourselves either.


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