There is a robust stream of thinking that Democracy has run its useful course and has failed or is on the way to failure. And California is one of the states where corruption in government, one of the signs of decay in a democracy, is highly developed. According to FiveThirtyEight.com, in 2014, California ranked #2 in number of corruption convictions and #9 in a survey of political reporters to identify the most corrupt of the 50 states. The combination of those two metrics probably puts California at the top of the political corruption league table.
Happily, it is often the case in our dynamic culture that the most pressing problem generates the most energetic search for innovative answers. California, besides being the epicenter of political corruption, is also a cauldron of new ideas. Unsurprisingly, therefore, we find a cluster of exploratory thinking about new and better forms of democracy.
Here are four ways of solving the problem.
The digitization approach.
Out of Y-Combinator comes a new conceptualization called liquid democracy (it would not be acceptable in Silicon Valley if it did not have a cool-sounding and paradigm shifting name). It’s a little bit hard to describe exactly what liquid democracy is, because Silicon Valley speaks in generalizations (“devise a new model to make the current one redundant”). However, there are some interesting elements to the digital exploration of democracy. One is individual sovereignty, implying a return to the Madisonian idea of “We The People” being sovereign, which was never realized. Equality is cryptographically protected so that everyone’s vote is equal and guaranteed. And voting can take place on mobile devices, which should increase participation. Every issue could be voted on, implying that so-called representative politicians will not be able to usurp the role of the people by pursuing their self-interested political careers while pretending to represent their constituents.
Digital technologies have a tendency to develop spontaneously along pathways of their own, especially when they disintermediate authority. The potential is promising.
The restructuring approach.
A non-digital yet no less disruptive idea is to drastically restructure the traditional political institutions. California has 40 elected State Senators and 80 elected Assembly (lower house) members in the legislature. This number hasn’t changed since the first California Constitution, yet the state population has increased from 100,000 to almost 40 million. The resulting representation ratios are, by a massive degree, the worst in the 50 states. The huge electoral districts demand huge advertising and campaigning budgets, opening up the process to the corruption of special interest money that pays for elections in return for favorable legislation from the winners.
The Neighborhood Legislature concept aims to fix this problem by making electoral districts much smaller – 100 times smaller, in fact. They would be neighborhood-sized, hence the name (although it certainly seems that a Silicon Valley naming squad could do a better job).
This is an interesting idea, in that the political districts would now be focused on very local matters. Parties might not matter any more, or, alternatively, there might be hundreds of parties, like, let’s say, the Lower Chinatown Residents Party. Politics would focus on water supply and the price of electricity and the quality of neighborhood schools and the role of the police, rather than on big money issues like climate change.
Eventually, it seems possible that these locally focused political districts might start the drift away from centralization to effective secession or local independence. Which leads us right to the next idea in Californian Democracy.
The secession approach.
Tim Draper is a venture capitalist who takes a direct path towards new solutions. He has decided that California is ungovernable. Therefore let’s get rid of California. He proposed to break it into 6 states. California has a direct democracy option, where so-called “initiatives” like Draper’s can collect public signatures to place them on the statewide ballot during major elections. The so-called Six Californias initiative failed to collect the requisite number of signatures to qualify. So Draper has returned with another initiative, this time to split the state into 3 states.
Many supporters of reform believe that smaller political units are more democratic than larger ones. Centralization magnifies the unrestrained power of rule-making bodies, and decentralization tends to make legislatures more responsive to voters. Mr. Draper’s initiative is a step in this direction, and mirrors a tendency towards secession that we have seen in Britain, Catalonia and elsewhere.
The lawsuit approach.
If all else fails, sue. We are a litigious people, so let’s harness our strength. Citizens For Fair Representation is suing the state on behalf of 21 Northern California rural counties, on the grounds that they are inadequately represented in a so-called representative democracy. 11 of the counties share 1 state senator, whereas Los Angeles County has 11 state senators. The result is one-sided legislation that favors the cities and discriminates against the rural counties. The lawsuit aims at a rebalancing so that individual counties have a fairer access to representation at the state level.
The cradle of the next stage of democracy.
These are just four ideas out of many more that have been hatched in California (seasteading is another one, for example). We can take some encouragement in the fact that, although our incompetent, corrupt, generally stupid and always partisan politicians stand resolutely in the way of progress, there are plenty of idea generators who will attempt to find a path to the system that replaces our failed democracy.
Also published on Medium.