Friday, May 22, 2009

Reading: Pierce on "Rule by the essential political dynamic of drivetime talk-radio"

One of the things that I worry about on behalf of Oregon is that, too often, when California gets a dumb idea, it's only about 5 or 10 years before someone thinks we should try it here. (The day that they gave a booby-prize governorship to Der Arnold gave me chills, although--to be fair--the last time they elected a movie star as governor Oregon managed to resist any latent urges to do the same, so perhaps we'll dodge that bullet a second time.)

But Charlie Pierce notes that the ongoing mess that our neighbors to the south have been facing for years isn't just a side effect of knee-jerk opposition to taxes and abuse of the initiative system on the structure of government--it's that knee-jerk opposition to taxes and abuse of the initiative system have become the structure of government:

Back when I was a young reporter for an alternative weekly, Massachusetts passed a referendum by which property taxes in a specific municipality could not exceed 2.5 percent of the assessed value of the property therein. Prop 2 1/2, as it was called, and is still called today, was the east coast franchisee of the California "tax revolt" that began there with Proposition 13 in 1978. The basic attitude behind Prop 2 1/2 was summed up best for me by one of its authors who, when asked what would happen when the law forced local libraries to close, replied that it didn't matter because paperback books never had been cheaper. Well, we're nuts here but not that nuts. We stopped with this little bit of initiative distemper. California, it seems, has rendered itself utterly ungovernable by taking every ounce of the philosophy behind the campaign for Proposition 13--government by initiative, anti-tax phobia etc. etc.--and turning it into the very structure of government itself. It threw out Gray Davis and installed a comical buffoon in his place who seems to be unstrung by the actual job of being a governor. And, now, the voters of California have gathered themselves together again and produced something best described by an observer of Andrew Johnson's impeachment--"a towering act of abandoned wrath." I thought about the libraries when this happened this week and came to the realization that the basic philosophy behind this is that there is simply no such thing as a political commonwealth, that we, as a people, own nothing in common, nothing for which we have to be responsible to our fellow citizens, rich or poor, but especially the latter. This is what libraries were--common spaces, where people could gather and read--and surf the 'net, too--and places that we could be confident belonged to us all. They were examples of a lost idea in American life. California has determined, in a hundred different ways, that it will be ruled by the essential political dynamic of the drivetime talk-radio program. This is in no way a good thing.

We'll probably never have a movie-star governor in Oregon--we're just a little too Gore-Tex and sensible-shoes for that--but Pierce's description sounds uncomfortably close to what we've been trending toward in Oregon for years: Professional initiative-filers and their out-of-state sugar-daddies larding up the statewide ballots with initiatives inspired by the conservatives' Closet of Anxieties. No one wins that arms race except the broadcasters who sell them air time for their ads.

So I'm watching with bated breath as the Democrats in Salem work to clean up the initiative system. It's a difficult balancing act, since reform will have to avoid throwing out the baby of First Amendment rights and genuine grass-roots participation in government with the bathwater of Sizemore-style fraud and racketeering.

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