In my new book Liberalism and Its Discontents, I deliberately shied away from coming up with a laundry list of policy ideas that would make our contemporary liberalism more functional and appealing. I wanted to stick to the ideas underlying liberalism, and remind people why this set of ideas remained an important and necessary framework for societies going forward.
This does not mean, however, that I lack for nitty-gritty policy ideas. I have been participating in a project called California 100 run out of the Goldman School at Berkeley that is focused on the enormous governance challenges the state of California will face as we proceed into the current century. My Stanford CDDRL colleague Mike Bennon and Henry Brady from Berkeley will be participating in an online presentation of our report on “Governance, Media, and Civil Society” on Wednesday June 1 that you are welcome to watch on a livestream.
California is facing enormous challenges, like the effects of global warming that is threatening its water supply and a housing crisis that is driving people out of the state. Fixing our governance institutions will be critical if we are to survive and prosper in the coming decades, yet making basic decisions has become harder and harder in the state over time.
Let’s begin with the national level and problems that affect every state in the union. The United States has become severely polarized, and the fight between the red and blue sides of this polarization has led to gridlock in Congress and failure to deal with a range of problems from immigration to gun violence to health care reform. This polarization reaches down to a state level, where local races (like that of GOP House leader Kevin McCarthy) take on national significance. Decisions on issues like school curricula and policing that were once firmly under the authority of local communities have been dragged into broader controversies over critical race theory and defunding the police.
Trust in institutions has been declining for fifty years, and this has decreased their authority across the board. This is particularly true on the right, which has waged a systematic campaign to undermine citizen confidence in mainstream media, the fairness of elections, and public health authorities.
Finally, there has been a huge decline in local media, according to statistics kept by the University of North Carolina Center for Media Law and Policy. The rise of internet platforms has dramatically reduced the flow of advertising dollars into local news organizations, which have either been taken over by national networks or driven out of business entirely. Between 2004 and 2020 the number of newspapers in California has declined from 481 to 366. This decline then cuts off the flow of information to citizens about local issues, thereby decreasing informed participation and further nationalizing perceptions of local issues.
Beyond these national trends, California has created its own governance mechanisms that empower stakeholders representing small minority views, which can then veto collective action. The state pioneered the use of direct democracy in the early decades of the 20th century, including initiatives, referenda, and recalls. These measures were put into the state constitution to overcome the perceived corruption and capture of representative democracy, but have had the perverse impact of further entrenching special interests. Recalls of elected representatives, for example, went from under 10 per year before 2008 to over 100 annually in 2021. Governor Newsom survived a recall vote last year; had his vote share fallen just below 50 percent, he could have been replaced by a conservative talk show host who never polled higher than about 25 percent statewide. Initiatives can be put on the ballot with a very low signature threshold, and a simple majority vote is sufficient to modify the state constitution in a way that cannot be undone by the legislature.
As political scientist Bruce Cain has pointed out, efforts to increase citizen participation through direct democracy institutions is based on a faulty premise. Direct democracy assumes that a large number of citizens have the time, interest, and knowledge to pass judgment on complex public policy issues. The fact of the matter is that they do not; the public sphere is occupied instead by well-organized and heavily resourced interest groups that usually represent views more extreme than those of the majority of ordinary citizens. Every election year, California voters are sent a booklet the size of a small town telephone book with information on ballot initiatives, covering big issues like levels of taxation (think Proposition 13, which limited property taxes and created the state’s long-term fiscal crisis), to whether actors in the state’s pornography industry should be required to wear condoms. As a concerned political scientist, I do not have the time or interest to read through the material I’m given; initiatives usually pass on the basis of whether their sponsors can afford enough television advertising to make their cases.
Beyond these original direct democracy institutions, there is CEQA, the California Environmental Quality Act, which I have written about previously and will cover again in my next post. (You can listen to my podcast with Mike Bennon about the difficulty of reforming CEQA here.) CEQA empowers all forty million of the state’s residents to anonymously sue any given project, public or private, on the basis of purported environmental harms. In a recent case that received national attention, UC Berkeley had to roll back plans to expand its student enrollment on the basis of a CEQA lawsuit by homeowners in the neighborhood surrounding the campus. In the words of one commentator, students were seen as “industrial pollutants” under the law. The City of South Pasadena has successfully used CEQA to block a four-mile extension of the 710 freeway to connect the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles to the broader LA County freeway network. This project was begun in the late 1960s and has not broken ground in the succeeding fifty years, despite the efforts of virtually every successive governor to get it done.
On top of the problems of national polarization and decreasing distrust, California has saddled itself with direct democracy institutions that make collective action extremely difficult by spreading out veto power far and wide. Rather than empowering ordinary citizens, they empower organized interest groups to protect their narrow causes. A law designed to protect the environment ends up making it extraordinarily difficult to undertake initiatives designed to adapt to climate change.
The difficulties in governing the state of California will not be solved by shifting to a more authoritarian form of government. They can be addressed in a democratic manner simply by rolling back some features of direct democracy and returning powers to elected representatives. Whether this can be done remains an open question, since the abuses of the current system have been widely understood for years and reforms defeated at many turns.
American Purpose newsletters
Sign up to get our essays and updates—you pick which ones—right in your inbox.Subscribe