I got one of those calls again—they come every six months—from a Silicon Valley hotshot who wants to use his brain and his wealth to fix what ails California. This investor asked the same old: What measures might I put on the ballot to reform the state’s politics and governance?
On the phone, I was dismissive. Don’t you know, smart-rich guy, that California’s governmental dysfunction is built on top of ballot initiatives that don’t work? Passing more initiatives is like trying to fix the Winchester Mystery House by adding more rooms, dude. California needs a new system, with a new constitution, I told him.
Of course, I couldn’t tell him how to convince enough people to change the system because, no one has figured that out yet. But soon thereafter, I was re-reading a book, How America’s Political Parties Change (and How They Don’t), by Michael Barone, who edits the Almanac of American Politics, when a thought occurred: If you want to make a big changes in California, you might need a new political party.
By conventional political wisdom, new parties are crazy ideas. As Barone wrote, America’s political parties are history’s most enduring; the Democrats are the world’s oldest political party. The Republican are third oldest. These parties survive because our electoral system incentivizes having just two parties. Rare is the moment when a new party can alter the system.
Of course, we are now in a very rare moment. But rare enough to birth a true unicorn—a political party?
I dare to say the answer is yes.
California history tells us that new parties can bring the greatest changes—be they the Republicans who formed our state’s institutions in the 1850s, or the Workingmen’s Party that established our constitutional structure in the late 1870s, or the Progressive Party, which established women’s suffrage, independent commissions, and direct democracy in the 1910s.
Our present circumstances cry out for new parties. The Republicans have cracked up, and reconstituted themselves as a social club for conspiracy-mongering. Meanwhile the dominant Democrats, obsessed with national politics and owned by labor unions, pursue narrow policies instead of providing the basics Californians are lacking: education, healthcare, housing, stable economy, and energy that doesn’t shut off.
Since neither party can deliver life’s essentials, we need a new political force that can.
We need a Water Party.
Why Water? Because it’s something we all require. Because water puts out fires. And because, it defines our state, and its dysfunction. Water—our rivers, our coast—is all around us, and yet we manage it so poorly that we don’t have nearly enough of it.
But mostly, water is the metaphor that shows us the way out of our nasty contradictions.
Californians cling to old infrastructure and systems, even ones that aren’t working. But water can wash away the past.
California is split up between regions and thousands of local governments. All those pieces don’t fit together. But water naturally fills in such cracks.
In California, we often prefer to let decisions be made by algorithms and formulas. Perhaps we should leave more of the decisions to humans, who are half water.
Indeed, our state, so full of constraints and limits, needs to re-dedicate itself to the value of flexibility. Because we will need to be fluid to deal with the difficulties and horrors of the future. In this, the Water Party would do well to adopt the practical philosophy of the San Francisco-born martial artist and film star Bruce Lee, who famously advised:
Be formless, shapeless—like water. Now you put water in a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle, it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.
The people now in charge of California will dismiss the idea of a Water Party, just as I dismissed that Silicon Valley caller, but their actual behavior betrays their desperate wish that they could be more like water. Look at Gov. Gavin Newsom, who, caught in the inflexible vise of state government, keeps forming task forces, strike teams, and special commissions that have more freedom and fluidity to dig into the big problems and respond to all of our current emergencies.
Forming the party itself wouldn’t be so hard. Under state regulations, you must first hold a party caucus or convention, and then qualify as a party either by collecting enough voter registrations, or sufficient signatures on a petition.
By starting from scratch, a Water Party wouldn’t have to follow the practices of the Democrats or Republicans; it could forge new ideas and new practices to fit our age of apocalypse. The Water Party could experiment with “liquid democracy,” a system in which voters can either vote on issues themselves, or turn their vote over to a personal proxy. Or, like Italy’s Five Star Movement, it could build an online environment to allow its members to determine candidates and policy positions directly.
In his book, published last year, Barone predicted the continued dominance of the Democrats and Republicans, arguing that “the parties have been a force for stability.” But right now, the parties themselves feel unstable, with some of the most bitter fighting happening not between the parties, but within them.
Around the world, traditional parties of left and right have split apart in recent years. It’s no longer hard to imagine the Democrats dividing between Democratic Socialists and Social Democrats, and the Republicans splitting between White Nationalists and Never Trumpers.
At a time of such uncertainty, a flexible, California-centric party, devoted to water and the other basics, would have enormous value. The nation’s rigid divide might crack up, but California would have a force fluid enough to shape a better future.
Be water, my party.
Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.