Republicans nationwide are rejoicing over their electoral victories last week, regaining control of the U.S. Senate and increasing their majority in the House of Representatives. Many perceive this as an endorsement by the American people of President Bush's efforts in the war on terrorism, as well as his domestic agenda of cutting taxes and trimming government largess. But here in California the Democratic grip on state government is as powerful as ever.
Democrats are in solid command of the state Senate and Assembly, and depending on the outcome of the controller's race, they may control every statewide elected office including the governorship. Clearly, electoral politics in California are far removed from the rest of the country. This is partly due to the failure of Republicans to address demographic changes unique to California, and to challenge the Democrats' redistricting scheme. But there is a more fundamental force shaping politics in the Golden State. The very constitutional design of California diminishes the traditional role of political parties, and works in favor of big government and the candidates who support it.
Consider, for example, the effects of the constitutional requirement that a two-thirds majority in the state legislature approve the annual state budget. Any budget that is passed, however excessive, must receive support from Republicans as well as Democrats, so long as neither party holds two-thirds of the Senate and Assembly seats. The budget process is "bi-partisan" by design, which means neither party can be held responsible for the single most important activity of the state government — deciding what it will do each year and how much money it will spend doing it.
Consider also the many statewide elected offices under the California Constitution, from the Secretary of State to the many judges who appear on ballots but about whom voters know virtually nothing. Unlike the federal government, where the President is responsible for cabinet members, department heads, and judges, elected officials in California are unaccountable to the Governor and, in the case of "non-partisan" offices such as the State Superintendent of Public Instruction, officially unattached to any party. When California government fails to advance the public good, the Governor can easily disclaim any blame, and it is difficult to hold either political party responsible.
Perhaps the most corrosive element of the California Constitution is the initiative. As evidenced by Proposition 13 (limiting property taxes) in 1978, and Propositions 209 (abolishing affirmative action) and 227 (ending bilingual education) more recently, conservatives use the initiative to advance their policies, rather than building a political majority of Republicans to advance their principles. Although a popular way of correcting bad government policies, the initiative process makes electing Republicans less relevant, and in the long run may be destructive of deliberative, constitutional government.
Initiatives appeal to the passions and emotions of voters, drowning out any deliberation about principle. Proposition 209, for example, was supported by a large majority of Californians, but instead of being debated on the floor of the legislature, un-elected liberal proponents of affirmative action responded hysterically, hurling allegations of racism and bigotry against anyone who opposed race-based preferences. What could have been a re-aligning opportunity for the Republican Party of California, and a political vindication of equal rights and colorblind law in our halls of legislation, was squandered. Republican legislators had little at stake in the fight, and most preferred to stand on the sidelines and say nothing about a subject that was then on everyone's mind.
These designs of the California Constitution render political parties almost meaningless in California politics. This transformation has corresponded with the rise of modern liberalism, the goal of which is to replace constitutional politics with bureaucracy and bureaucratic expertise. As the power and scope of bureaucratic government increases, citizens look less to parties, and more to candidates who promise to deliver government goods to various interest groups. This new, liberal kind of politics tends to favor Democrats, who believe in dividing citizens into groups — unions, racial classes, senior citizens — and offering them government preferences and handouts.
What is lost is the principle that the only free government is limited government, and that a sound constitution is the only way to keep government limited. Early in his campaign for governor, Bill Simon tried to engage Californians in a principled discussion about their government. Simon understood the crises facing California — a massive budget deficit, rolling power blackouts, embarrassing public schools, skyrocketing housing prices — as symptoms of a deep alienation from the principles of constitutional government and free society. But the media and the public paid little attention. He got noticed only once he began campaigning as a liberal "reformer," slinging mud at Gray Davis for his heavy-handed fundraising tactics. In the end, however, it served only to distract from something much more important, the principles of free government.
With the victory of Gray Davis and other liberals across the state, the immediate prospects for freedom in California look gloomy. But there is hope. We must begin reminding our fellow citizens of the principled differences between limited constitutional government, and unlimited bureaucratic government: In principle, do Gray Davis and his liberal cohorts believe there are any limits to government power? In principle, is there any part of our lives they cannot regulate, or any amount of property they cannot expropriate from the people of California? As more Californians become aware of the genuine threat to liberty represented by big government, they will begin to vote into office candidates who believe in freedom and limited government. Perhaps they will even consider revising their Constitution, which today is their own worst enemy. Only then will the light of freedom shine brightly again in the Golden State.