Attack of the goo-goos

Share via
Joe Mathews, a contributing writer to Opinion, is California editor of Zocalo Public Square.

Hollywood produced “Ishtar” and, more recently, Disney’s “John Carter.” But it has never made a bomb quite like Tuesday’s California elections.

Expectations were high. California’s political reformers told us that this would be the year everything changed. After a decade and a half of reform efforts, a new system of less partisan elections was finally in place, and fairly drawn legislative districts and a new top-two primary system would usher in a new era of democracy. Voters would be engaged, competition would be spurred, independents would get a boost and California would see the kind of big policy debates necessary to find solutions to the state’s persistent governance crisis.

Oh, well.

But give the reformers credit; they did make change. In place of our old system, we got something that preserves many of our worst political traditions -- while making things a little bit worse.


Turnout, never high in California, was even lower than the low-end predictions. About 18 million of the 23 million-plus Californians eligible to vote didn’t participate, making “This Isn’t Worth My Time” the only popular mandate to come out of this election.

Strong independents such as San Diego mayoral contender Nathan Fletcher and congressional candidates Linda Parks and Anthony Adams failed in campaigns against partisans who received far less positive publicity.

And instead of producing debates about how to solve California’s big structural problems, the legislative campaigns under this new system kept to narrow talking points. Democrats of all varieties said they were for middle-class college scholarships (which require tax changes that Democrats can’t enact because of the two-thirds supermajority requirement on revenue). Republicans talked about reducing the size of bloated government (even though state government is smaller on a per capita basis now than any time since Ronald Reagan was governor). Looking through campaign websites and fliers from around the state, I found only a handful of candidates who directly addressed the state’s governability, and they were, with a couple of exceptions, Democrats in overwhelmingly Democratic places.

The combination of the top-two nonpartisan primary and newly drawn districts was a disappointment even on mechanics. The theory of the top-two primary is that it will produce more moderates because in heavily partisan districts, two candidates of the same party will advance to the general election. And those candidates will have to compete for the votes of independents and the other party. But in practice, few districts produced two of the same party: 14 of 80 in the Assembly, according to the latest returns, and just two of 20 state Senate races. Ironically, there might have been more top twos of the same party, but the new redistricting process made districts slightly less partisan than they were, making it harder for the top-two primary to work its magic.

Of course, a top-two race that produces two candidates of the same party is hardly an unalloyed good. In November, we’ll get expensive reruns of races between similar characters, like Brad Sherman and Howard Berman.

But even if the mechanics had worked slightly better, the entire philosophy behind the California political reforms relies on two related assumptions. The first of these is that it’s possible to -- and that you’d want to -- scrub politics and partisanship out of politics. The second is that there are legions of wiser, better, more moderate people than our current elected officials who would do a better job if we could somehow design a system to get them elected.


Those are both fantasies. I’m a proud moderate and an independent voter, and I can assure you that as a class we are smarter and better looking than you grubby partisans out there. But as the Pew Research Center has shown, we true centrists are shrinking in numbers (most unaffiliated voters in California, and elsewhere, vote just like partisans), and we do not participate in elections at the same rates as partisans.

We also are not magicians. Simply electing us to office won’t do any good because California’s governing system has robbed all its elected officials of discretion, especially on fiscal matters. The big decisions in state government are made not by people but by a giant algorithm, made up of funding formulas that come from ballot initiatives, the long and bizarre California Constitution, the courts, the federal government and decades of legislation. The hard truth is that we Californians over the decades have scrubbed the politics and people out of decision-making, and now we find that we can’t use politics to make decisions.

Restoring democracy requires a redesign of California’s entire system: elections, budgets, Legislature and the initiative process. That’s constitutional convention stuff, of course, and exactly the sort of thing that California’s good-government industry of think tanks and foundations and billionaire donors will tell you is terribly unrealistic. Sadly, the good government industry’s own hold on reality is rather flimsy; after this disaster of an election, the goo-goos have already launched into their usual self-congratulation and happy talk about the progress they are making.

The folly of their thinking was apparent to anyone who turned on a TV in Los Angeles on election night. The most visible politician on L.A.’s local news broadcasts was not from California. It was the governor of Wisconsin, Scott Walker.

This journalistic choice made all the sense in the world. Walker, unlike California legislators, governs a state where elections matter because Wisconsin doesn’t have all the rules and the big algorithm that render our own elected officials so powerless.

As a result, the Wisconsin election produced what California’s reformers say they want: deep civic engagement, big turnouts from every community around the state and major policy debates about the state’s future. It was no accident that the Wisconsin election was a profoundly partisan race, with bitter differences in a real contest for real power.


Maybe we’ll try that sort of thing here some day.