Thursday, June 07, 2007

Be careful what you ask for

We are often reminded to be careful what you ask for, as you just might get it. There may be no other sphere of activity where that warning is more pertinent and less heeded than American politics. Many would agree that our current political system is broken and most of them have some idea of how to fix it. The choice of fix all depends on the particular evil that you see in the current system. I would like to expand this with a few observations from California's political history. (which you can skip if you understand the importance of unintended consequences.)

When Hiram Johnson was running for the office of Governor of California (1910) he based part of his progressive campaign on a Constitutional Amendment to create an Initiative Process in California.

The intent of this amendment, now the way of life in the Golden State, was to break the connection between such monied, pro-growth and development, interests like the Southern Pacific Railroad and the State Legislature in Sacramento. There was a belief that giving the people of California the capability to override the Legislature, to make the will of the people the ultimate source for legislative action, would deter further ethical lapses by legislators and give the people the ability to correct to most egregious of those actions.

The unintended consequences of Johnson's Folly, as the Initiative Process has been called in some quarters, is the fact that the same monied interests have just moved their funds from outright bribery of legislators to the manipulation of an ill-informed, disinterested populace through sophisticated (or not) media campaigns.

Slogans and code words have replaced analysis of facts. A case in point have been the recent "takings" initiatives in 8 Western States. While these efforts were advertised as protecting private property from eminent domain abuses, they were really aimed at destroying the ability of local governments to use zoning or environmental regulations to control growth or the quality of life in the community.

You can make a similar case about term limits in California. The term limit legislation was passed to curb the control of one man, Willie Brown, arguably the most powerful politician in California in the 1990's. However, even though Brown was forced from his role as Speaker of the Assembly, we have all paid a price for this as uninformed newcomers to the legislature take time to understand how things really work and the history behind various legislative agendas. As a result they have come to rely more and more on the assistance of outside activists, often legislative staffers who have lost their position when the boss was term limited out and who are now paid lobbyist. Those with money to pay the lobbyist salaries are now in a position to write the legislation. This was unintended consequence of term limits.

The Green Party has a fundamental belief in the decentralization of power. Along with that comes the Jeffersonian notion that the only "safe depositary of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves."
Every government degenerates when trusted to the rulers of the people alone. The people themselves, therefore, are its only safe depositories. And to render even them safe, their minds must be improved to a certain degree.Notes on Virginia Q.XIV, 1782. ME 2:207
It is questionable that the people are being educated. Most of what you hear or see in the media is mis-information, slanted or only a partial story. A significant amount of television coverage is the result of producers determining what the story is before they gather the facts and so they only gather the facts that fit the story. The rest of is worse. The two talking head format that gives two interpretations of a question without any ability to marshal the facts that says one, or both, are wrong. So, the media is complicit in the propaganda war.

The only participants in the General Assembly of the Green Party are those with the time, money and energy to become deeply involved in the processes. They are self selected, just like the members of the CC and just like our candidates. There is no draft for service to your community.

If we are to rely on the wisdom of a Standing General Assembly, if we are to rely more on local structures based on county boundaries to do the work, then we need to invent a lot of information infrastructure to go with it. In the month of May, we actually had 45 different people contributing to the Green Cal-Forum Email List. This is up from earlier months. Reading through the lists, there is a general lack of agreement on the interpretation of our history, of the meaning of our past actions, of the probable results of future actions, and these are the well informed, committed activists.

I will expand this into a series of posts, because I firmly believe in the Jeffersonian ideal. We need to have a well informed membership if we are to have an impact on society. We need to have a well informed citizenry if we are to be able to bring others into the party. If these goals for political freedom are to be maintained, we must begin to do more than we currently do.

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