Okay, so one night last week, I was driving home and as usual, I had on KPFA but the fund drive pitching was annoying me – I already gave so I felt justified in turning it off, so I switched to KALW, and they had on that boring legal show – well, it’s not always boring, but their guest was condescending, so I switched to KQED. I was just in time to hear a debate from Intelligence Squared US on the proposition “California Is the First Failed State.” I was riveted to the radio, such that when I got home, I sat in my car until it was over (Brian Edwards-Tiekert taught me to call that a “parking lot moment,” the epitome of good radio.) The team in favor won by a landslide.
The first thing that was interesting about this debate was who was arguing against the proposition. The team included Lawrence O’Donnell of MSNBC, former governor Gray Davis, who was ousted by the right-wing recall that brought us the Schwarzenegger disaster, and Van Jones, former Green Jobs Czar and erstwhile revolutionary youth leader here in the Bay. Says something about where Van might be, or at least thinks he is, headed.
The second thing that was so intriguing about this debate was that everything the yes team had to say simply proved their opponents’ points. Gray Davis emphasized the fact that Californians are using the initiative process, the one that brought us Proposition 13 and ultimately the huge budgetary quagmire we find ourselves in now, not to mention 3 Strikes, English-Only, the anti-immigrant Prop. 187, and don’t forget the all-important (not) anti-gay-marriage Proposition 8, to call for a Constitutional Convention to, presumably, reform this initiative process. Okay, we won’t even get into the convoluted logic of using the tool that created the failure to solve the failure. Instead, I’ll just mention that one, the Con. Con. probably won’t even be on the ballot because it’s been put on hold for lack of funds, and two, as the debaters on the “pro” side kept pointing out, the fact that we need to “Repair California” – the name of the organization formed to promote the Con. Con. – proves that we’re broken. Not to mention broke.
The crux of the Van Jones-Gray Davis arguments was, “We Californians are good, creative, smart people, who want to fix our state, so don’t give up on us.” Van used the word “optimism,” I can’t remember exactly but it was something like “don’t kill our hope,” by voting for the motion. Now first of all, it’s not people voting for the motion that’s killing our hope, it’s the brokenness of our failed state. The fact that kids have no art supplies or music classes in school, that college students can’t get the financial aid or classes they need to graduate, that there’s a generation of young people who have never had a job, that people are getting thrown off of the inadequate General Assistance that was keeping them in their SROs – those are the things that are destroying hope. No one is saying that Californians are not good, interesting, hard-working, smart, talented people, any more than we are saying the people of Zimbabwe are not all those things. That doesn’t disprove the fact that our state is not fulfilling the functions of a state, which is to nurture and protect, house and promote the health of those creative, smart, talented, hard-working people.
It’s more of that magical thinking that conflates believing in something with the ability to make it happen. (Okay, reading this over, I realized that I shouldn't dis magical thinking. I'm a witch, at least some of the time, so I am supposed to believe that believing in something means we can do it. But I guess I would say magic can help create the conditions under which change can happen but it doesn't make change on its own.) Do Californians have the ability to turn our political system around? Of course. But having the ability doesn’t get it done. We have to have the will, and we have to have the movement, and right now we don’t seem to have either, although we have the kernels of them. Notably, while the Con. Con. is on hold, the campaign to repeal the 2/3 majority rule to pass a budget or raise taxes, is gathering signatures and has a chance to make it onto the ballot if EVERYONE who supports democracy signs it at www.californiansfordemocracy.com. DO IT TODAY AND TELL ALL YOUR FRIENDS.
The other interesting thing about the debate (which in my opinion spent too much time on the question of what “first” means) is that many people seemed to accept that the mess the initiative process has led to in California proves that direct democracy can’t work. I argued when Hamas won the Palestinian elections and I’ll argue in the face of the Tea Parties and the Taxpayer Revolt that there’s no such thing as too much democracy. There is such a thing as false democracy. Unfortunately, none of the debaters pointed out that that’s what we have in California, as we do in the U.S. as a whole. Just because you can vote doesn’t mean you have a democracy. Not in Iraq, not in Afghanistan, not in Iran and not in California. To have a real democracy, we need a level playing field, and we’ve never had that because all our elections are financed by corporations. Every election season, I fantasize about putting up a billboard that says, “If they can afford a billboard, they’re not on your side.” But of course, then people would assume that I’m not on their side.
So what do you all think? Does the “failed state” analysis do anything to help us find a way through?