Journal: Citizen Wisdom in California

11 Society, Civil Society, Government, Methods & Process

Full Story Online
Full Story Online


by Hendrik Hertzberg

The New Yorker

AUGUST 24, 2009

The states of the Union are supposed to be laboratories of democracy, but this summer they have been looking more like toxic-waste dumps of futility. From coast to coast, from tundra to coral reef, state governments are in an awful fix. Their budget gaps are on track to add up to at least a third of a trillion dollars. In half the states, education funding is being cut, which means bigger classes, shoddier facilities, and fewer frills like music, art, languages, and library
books. States are closing parks, draining rainy-day funds, and shrinking services for children, the elderly, and the disabled. . . . . . . .

California, it turns out, is ungovernable. Its public schools, once the nation’s best, are now among the worst. Its transportation and water systems are deteriorating. Its prisons are so overcrowded that it has to turn tens of thousands of felons loose. And its legislature has spent most of the year in a farcical effort to pass the annual
budget, leaving little or no time for other matters, such as—well, schools, transportation, water, and prisons. This is “normal”: the same thing has happened in eighteen of the past twenty-two years. But the addition of economic disaster to legislative paralysis may have brought California to a tipping point.

California’s constitution, with its five hundred or so amendments, is so long that its full text would occupy every line of the magazine you are holding. Thanks largely to initiatives, many of them well intentioned, it is also wildly at odds with itself. It contains so many set-asides and mandates that the legislature can control only about seven per cent of the state budget even when it deigns to pass one. But California’s nemesis could soon become its salvation. Something remarkable is beginning to happen.

It started almost exactly one year ago, modestly enough, with an op-ed piece in the San Francisco Chronicle. Echoing Jefferson, the author, Jim Wunderman, wrote, “It is our duty to declare that our California government is not only broken, it has become destructive to our future. Therefore, are we not obligated to nullify our government and institute a new one?” He then called for a “citizens’ constitutional convention” to do the nullifying and the instituting.
Wunderman heads the Bay Area Council, a business group not normally considered part of the vanguard of the revolution. (Its board consists of C.E.O.s and other executives from companies like Bank of America, McKinsey & Company, Chevron, Google, United Airlines, and the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco.) But Wunderman’s op-ed
manifesto engendered a broad response, and the response has engendered something like a movement.

That movement, called Repair California, is trying to put two initiatives on next year’s ballot. One would amend the California constitution to allow the voters to call a constitutional convention by initiative. (As it is, while specific amendments can be passed that way, it takes two-thirds of the legislature to call a convention. That will never happen.) The other would actually call the convention and specify its scope: governance, including the structure of the legislative and executive branches; elections, including the electoral system and the initiative process itself; the
budget-making process; and the state’s revenue relationship with local government.

The genius of Repair California’s approach is twofold. First, it steers clear of “social issues”: no gay marriage, no abortion, no affirmative action. Second, the delegates would be chosen randomly from the adult population. (Appointed delegates, Repair California reasons, would be beholden to whoever appointed them; and if the
delegates were elected, the elections would inevitably be low-turnout affairs dominated by money and the organized clout of special interests.) The convention itself would be an exercise in what is called “deliberative democracy.” The delegates would spend months studying the issues, consulting experts, debating among themselves, and forging a consensus. The result would be put to a vote of the people, yes or no, in November of 2012.

To have faith in such a process requires a faith in the good sense and sincerity of ordinary people—a faith that just about everybody professes. The beauty part is that no one can know what the delegates would come up with—which is why the idea has won such broad support. Besides the capitalists of the Bay Area Council, the center-left New
America Foundation loves it. So does the left-left Courage Campaign, a partner of And so does the

Tom Atlee Home Page
Tom Atlee Home Page

lame-duck governor. It’s “brilliant,” Arnold Schwarzenegger says.

Phi Beta Iota: Thanks to Tom Atlee and Carolyn Shaffer for this lead. We've included more paragraphs than normal from the original, but please do read the original in its entirety, the author has made a significant contribution to our understanding of the possible.  Tom provided the above URL for Repair California, and the below comment:  “Or try the quiet version of radical  democratic reform — Citizens Initiative Review — being promoted by  Healthy Democracy Oregon.”  Both are being added to the list of Righteous Sites.

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