California Democrats Are Embracing Real Political Reform

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)

Good news. The California Democratic Party is embracing real, smart political reform—even though such reforms are not in the party’s political interests.

Late last month, the party executive board adopted support for two sets of reforms.

The first involves representative democracy. Specifically, the executive board comes out in favor of proportional representation and multi-member districts, instead of single-member districts. Those are the best modern tools for giving people representation that is truly representative and diverse in a variety of ways.

What’s remarkable about the Democrats’ support of such measures is that, in the near term at least, the biggest beneficiaries would probably be Republicans. That’s because California’s system—like the American system—actually exaggerate the representation of the majority party. California Democrats hold big supermajorities in the legislature but didn’t get a supermajority of the votes. And having multi-members districts would give Republicans at least some representation in places like the Bay Area, which have no Republicans in the legislature.

As I’ve written for years in this space, these are the sorts of reforms California Republicans should have embraced—both because of the political advantages and because they are the right thing to do. Representative democracy faces a crisis of legitimacy and popular anger, and the best way to respond to that is to make it more truly representative. The fact that Republicans did not seize this opportunity—and that they’re being beaten to the punch by Democrats—is just another example of how politically and morally bankrupt the party is. 

Why are Democrats for this? The simplest explanation is it’s the right thing to do. And in the long-term, that might be good politics. A party that actually believes in democracy (unlike Republicans, who are cancelling primaries and embracing the racist anti-democratic authoritarianism of Trump) sees value in that democracy being truly representative, so it might govern more effectively. 

That brings me to the second big reform now embraced by the executive board. Reform of direct democracy.

What’s great about these reforms is that they don’t seek to restrict the ballot initiative process, which has previously been a goal of the Democrats. Instead, the goal is to improve it and further democratize it, by bringing more deliberation to it. The reforms propose center around creating a citizens oversight board which can hold hearings on measures and write summaries in plain language. In embracing this, the party is tacitly acknowledging the problem of attorneys general, who in recent decades have been Democrats, writing poorly worded and politically biased summaries.

Bringing citizens into the process would bring more deliberation, and help create a process for teasing out problems and unintended consequences. And having citizens in the process might create more opportunities for compromise around initiatives.

I’m an independent, not a Democrat, and am often critical of Democrats’ rule in Sacramento. But it has to be said that, unfortunately, there is only one party seriously thinking about improving our democracy, and that party is not the Republicans.

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