The governor of California, who remains popular, turned 73 this year. The chairman of the state’s most popular political party, the Democrats, is 79. The junior senator from California, Barbara Boxer, is 71. The senior senator, Dianne Feinstein, is 78, and faces what looks like a cakewalk to re-election.
All of them are secure. None of them seems likely to lose their position or standing. Because hey, who would want to make a change in leadership when California is doing so well?
(A brief break while someone whispers in your blogger’s ear).
I’ve just been informed that California faces a huge budget and governance crisis.
So what gives? How have our elderly rulers held on?
Here’s a news flash. No matter what it says on the flag, California isn’t really a republic, ruled by its elected officials. (Our politicians are too hamstrung by our maze of laws and broken constitution to get much done). And California isn’t quite a democracy (though we do have a ton of elections).
California is a state ruled by the old, of the old, for the old.
We’re a gerontocracy.
If you haven’t heard the word, gerontocracy means, according to the dictionary, “rule by elders.” There are all kinds of gerontocracies, but in general, it’s a form of oligarchy in which older people rule an entity that is mostly made up of younger people.
Gerontocracies have long been associated with two kinds of governments. The first is dictatorship, particularly of the communist variety. Think Deng Xiaoping and China’s various aging leaders, or Yugoslavia’s Tito; or Cuba’s Fidel Castro. The other is theocracy. Think of Iran’s ayatollahs or The Vatican. (Of course, the Holy See has more recently imposed an age limit of 80 for voting in the College of Cardinals – a reform that California, if trends continue, might consider adopting for itself).
California fits the political science definition of gerontocracy – septuagenarians occupy its highest offices even though it’s one of the country’s younger states. (The median age here is 33). But the state is a special case of gerontocracy.
That’s because of our direct democracy – and its peculiar inflexibility. Since successful initiatives are so hard to change (we’re the only state where an initiative statute can’t be change except by another vote of the people), past voters – in other words, older voters (and dead voters, may they rest in peace) — have far more power than today’s voters.
For example, the property tax system was locked up by initiative more than 30 years ago. School funding rules were put in place by voters more than 20 years ago. And there isn’t much today’s voters can do about it.
What was most remarkable about this year in California politics was how little changed. Schools were cut, higher education tuition and fees took another big hike, and programs that serve the young took hits. Everyone says action is required. Action would seem to be required. But action doesn’t happen – the gerontocracy won’t budge.
The old always come first here. Pension obligations can’t be touched or altered, we are told, no matter what it means for schools. Old people and old businesses must not pay any more property tax—the massive discount is a right, screw the kids.
Yes, there are some fools and naïfs out there who suggest remaking the entire system so that the young and middle-aged can make their own choices about government in California. Such ideas have no place in California, the papers and politicians tell us. They are too radical. They have no support in polling. They are unrealistic.
The gerontocracy runs on this strange realism: that some people and rules are so special that they will never die.
This realism rules California right now. And so I nominate the gerontocracy as Californian of the Year.
May it not live long.