Would California Politics Be Better Off If Real Punches Were Thrown?

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

American politics are pugilistic in the metaphorical sense. Actually throwing a punch and hitting someone is still rare.

Taiwan is a different story. Throwing punches in Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan is a longstanding tradition. It’s also part of the political culture at the local level.

As I arrived in the country to serve as co-president of the 2019 Global Forum on Modern Direct Democracy, an international conference on initiative and referendum and similar tools, the news in the papers was about a fistfight in the city council in the southern city of Kaohsiung.

It started when opposition party members attempted to hand a mock resignation letter to Kaohsiung Mayor Han Kuo-yu, the KMT party’s nominee for Taiwan president in January’s coming elections. The suggestion was that he was to buy campaigning to serve as mayor. Soon fists flew.

That may sound outrageous, but it’s really par for the course. Newspapers here run graphics listing memorable brawls past and tell readres how the latest fights stack up against fisticuffs of yesteryear. Who can forget the blows and subsequent food fight of 2004, when the opposition and ruling party battled over the purchase of military hardware? Or a 2006 brawl touched off by an opposition lawmaker swallowing whole the text of a transportation bill to prevent its consideration?

Some fights have descended into chair-throwing, which has produced hospitalizations.

More interesting than the fighting is the Taiwanese acceptance of it as part of the democratic process.

Fights are typically used for two reasons, political people here say. First, to slow down the rapid passage of bills. Second, to show constituents that you’re really fighting for them.

In other words, the winning side starts fights, following the logic of many hockey fights. 

When you’re losing, send your thugs onto the ice and turn game into a fight.

This can be healthy because it protects the losers, who can say they didn’t roll over.  Taiwanese journalists suggested to me that there is something worse than fighting: gridlock. In the process, the fights make it possible for legislation to move forward and changes to be made. 

In other words, it’s better to do a little short-term violence to other lawmakers than to do long-term damage to politics and civil society with endless delays and obstructionism. Better fights than, say, California-style supermajorities and the carnage they inflict on our budgets and schools.

Better to have fistfights in the legislature than to never duke it out and get to a resolution on the biggest issues.

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