Governor Cameron?

Pete Peterson
Dean, Pepperdine University Graduate School of Public Policy

Let me be the first one here to issue the call to the current leader of Britain’s shadow government, David Cameron, that if his current quest for prime minister fails, we have a nice little state for him to run. I can see the bumper stickers already: “Cameron for Governor: A funny accent, but we’re used to that”. The reason I am proffering the British MP to lead the Golden State, though, is less about how he speaks than what he has been saying.

In an interesting essay he wrote recently in the Guardian newspaper, entitled “A New Politics: We need a massive, radical redistribution of power”, Cameron demonstrates a grasp of two of the major policy challenges facing this state: devolving decision-making power to regions and cities, and calling on civil society to play a stronger role in governance. Of course, Cameron is responding to the current expense scandal that is racking parliamentarians from all parties, but it is not a recent epiphany – he has been pushing his “New Federalism” (to borrow a slogan from a past California governor) for years.

In words eerily reminiscent of the current situation in the Golden State, Cameron describes the relationship between citizens and their government in the UK: “when it comes to the things we ask for from politics, government and the state, there’s a sense of power and control draining away; having to take what we’re given, with someone else pulling the strings.” To this scenario, Cameron proposes a “new politics”, which will involve nothing short of “a massive, sweeping, radical redistribution of power: from the state to citizens; from the government to parliament; from Whitehall [UK’s Executive Departments] to communities.” Along with this shift in power and responsibility to local governments, also comes an empowerment of civic organizations.

This is not a “new politics”, of course; in fact, this is very old politics. For centuries, political philosophers have bemoaned a republic’s tendency to centralize power. The battle between Federalists and Anti-Federalists at the creation of our own Constitution was founded on this question. At a time when states were printing their own currency, and skirting their Revolutionary War obligations, the necessity of creating an “energetic” (Federalist No. 1) central government could be understood. But even as the government grew – often understandably given population growth – there was something unique in the American experience: the devolving of executive power to local governments and civic associations. Tocqueville was the great chronicler of this distinctly American way of governing. In Democracy in America (1835), he observed: “the salient characteristic of public administration in the United States is to be enormously decentralized.”

As California wrestles over its next steps, many have posed reforms that focus on the ways Sacramento governs itself – from majority vote budget passage to term limits. But a growing chorus has begun to cast a spotlight on the state/region/local relationship. One of the recent salvos in this discussion was launched by California Forward’s co-chairs, Tom McKernan and Bob Hertzberg, in an essay they penned for the SacBee. Finding that Californians “have more say about, and more confidence in, local services they can see for themselves,” they perceive, “California government has grown in just the opposite direction – with dollars and decision-making focused in Sacramento – from funding for police to deciding the length of the school year.” This bi-partisan team concludes: “It’s time to admit our state’s long-distance micromanagement is a failure and to turn things on their head.”

As McKernan and Hertzberg prove, this question is more about process than outcome; it is not necessarily a partisan political effort. It is about allowing regions, cities, and school districts to define themselves – whether they want higher tax/higher service levels or lower tax/lower service levels. As they propose, “Does your community want more police officers on the street? Bigger parks? A new senior center? Let’s give communities a greater opportunity to chart their own course – and less need to lobby Sacramento for a budget earmark.” At the same time, those communities with robust civic participation should have greater freedom to determine the levels of government involvement in responsibilities ranging from education to public safety.

What would a decentralized California look like? Well, it would certainly be “messier” – with more responsibility falling on regional and local governments, not to mention non-profits and Californians individually. This is to be expected. As Tocqueville wrote almost two centuries ago about diffuse governance: “One must therefore not seek in the United States uniformity and permanence of views, minute care of details, perfection of administrative procedures; what one finds there is the image of force, a little wild it is true, but full of power; [the image] of life accompanied by accidents, but also by movement and efforts.”

Are Californians ready for a localized political life on the “wild” side? It certainly seems that we’re exasperated with the gridlocked, distant dullness that is centralized governance, which continues to pull monies back from cities and counties. But no current gubernatorial candidates (or rumored ones) have been talking about it. So, until they do, I’m supporting Cameron.

Pete is also Executive Director of Common Sense California, a multi-partisan organization that supports citizen participation in policymaking – his views do not necessarily represent those of CSC.

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