While the long-predicted tsunami of voter anger is about to break across the national political landscape, oddly enough this may just be one cataclysmic event that California won’t experience. Yesterday the New York Times has pronounced the House of Representatives all but lost to the Democrats, but today’s Los Angeles Times reports that Jerry Brown’s lead over Meg Whitman doubled over the last month.
That might have something to do with Whitman’s obscene spending for the post – Californians have a tradition of rejecting the candidacies of people who treat high office as a new found hobby – and it couldn’t have helped that Whitman hired (and then cruelly fired) an undocumented housekeeper.
But wait. The Times’ polling also showed that in California, “Democrats have gained strength and GOP motivation has ebbed slightly in the last month.”
So what’s up with California voters? People elsewhere might attribute it to the weather, or our mythical blessed out state. But that’s not it: 81% of Californians told the pollsters that the state is “seriously off on the wrong track.”
I have a theory to explain why California voters aren’t reflecting the national trend, and it’s based on a political safety-valve unique to California: our often-maligned ballot initiative process.
This year, as in most elections, California voters will not only fill over a dozen federal, state and local elective offices. They will get to decide some major public policy issues, including legalization of marijuana, reapportionment, climate change, and majority rule in the state Legislature – a total of nine ballot propositions.
Californians rightly complain about the initiative process – that it’s increasingly invoked by the powerful special interests, that we shouldn’t have to do the politicians’ jobs for them – but the fact is, we love initiatives. Ballot measures empower Californians, giving us the opportunity – for better or worse – to shape our own destiny.
For many Californians, politicians are already a lost cause. What excites and inspires people to pay attention to politics here is the dynamic, creative and often chaotic opportunity to sidestep the political establishment and take matters into their own hands.
“For all the problems ballot initiative politics present today, the ballot measure offers the best part of modern politics,” says California citizen leader Jamie Court in his new book, “Raising Hell.” That’s “the ability to directly change injustice, without the main problem with politics today, politicians who are too corrupt or inept to make changes.”
In most states, angry voters can only vent their frustration by choosing from an often deeply unsatisfying list of candidates, a desperate exercise in the “lesser of two evils.” When politicians are the only available target, the electorate’s outrage is by necessity narrowly focused. And it also gets amplified, like when you pump water through a fire hose. So it’s “throw the bums out” – as is likely to happen next week throughout the nation, whether or not they deserve it. Then the voters get to welcome a whole new bunch of bums.
Ballot initiatives offer a much more precise weapon: for example, an initiative to roll back auto insurance premiums, like I wrote in 1988, in the middle of public indignation over skyrocketing insurance premiums, when California lawmakers were too afraid of their industry patrons to do anything about it.
I’m as angry as everyone else these days about how Washington and Wall Street got together and betrayed us. If we had a national initiative process, I’d propose a cap on the interest rates banks and credit card companies can charge us for borrowing our own money from them.