Gov. Gavin Newsom is doing a good thing by launching “Campaign for Democracy” against authoritarian governors who are limiting freedom in Republican states like Alabama and Florida.
But what he’s campaigning for is not democracy.
Indeed, if democracy were his mission, he’d be campaigning in California—because our state has a deficit of it.
Newsom’s “Campaign for Democracy”—the name he’s given to a series of events in Republican states and to the political action committee paying for them—isn’t just a misnomer. It’s part of an American epidemic of leaders who portray whatever they are doing as “democracy,” and their political opponents as a threat to it. In the process, Newsom and other self-styled democracy defenders miss opportunities for progress while adding to the risks facing democratic systems.
To understand the problem, let’s start with a definition. Democracy is best defined as four words: everyday people governing themselves.
But Newsom’s campaign has little to do with the vital business of getting together with your neighbors to practice self-government. The governor instead is leading a large national media campaign to confront sins of politicians with whom he disagrees. (President Biden’s “Summit for Democracy” has a similar defect—lots of geopolitical blasts at authoritarians, too little democracy—but that’s another story).
Don’t take my word for it. Just check out the Campaign for Democracy website. The stated mission is all about ramping up fights and conflict with Republicans.
“We believe that all patriotic Americans must go on offense in red states as well as blue states, bringing the fight to statehouses, local communities, electoral battlegrounds, and our nation’s capitol to save the great American experiment in democracy,” the site says. It further promises an “aggressive” campaign “to confront and defeat unAmerican authoritarianism.”
Who are these authoritarians? They are “extremist Republicans.” Only Republicans.
Like the majority of Californians, I agree with the campaign’s criticisms of the Republican party for bullying vulnerable people, promoting transphobia, criminalizing free speech and the free press, denying rights to women, and dehumanizing immigrants. I think it’s good that Newsom and his administration are trying to speak up and offer some protection to people under right-wing attack.
But Newsom’s narrow cherry-picking of targets undermines his good intentions. Democratic decline is a global problem that touches all parties, and anti-democratic authoritarians also can emerge from the political left—like Joko Widodo in Indonesia, Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela, or Andrés Manuel López Obrador in Mexico.
That, however, is not the greatest omission in the “Campaign for Democracy.” The website and other published materials offer hardly any ideas for extending democracy and the practice of government. One part of the site, called “California Leadership,” focuses on progressive social and environmental policies, with only a brief mention of democracy.
Why so little about California democracy? Perhaps because there isn’t much democracy here to defend.
For the past century, California has been centralizing power in state government in Sacramento, and reducing the power of people to govern themselves locally. Decisions about taxation and spending are especially centralized, with communities reduced to beggars lobbying Sacramento to get their money back.
Playing off concerns about legislative gridlock, governors have added to the powers of their office for 40 years. Newsom has extended that executive power to historic heights, employing emergency powers for years during the pandemic. Accountability is hard because his administration is a highly secretive entity. California agencies routinely hide data, ignore public and press questions, and refuse to provide basic information that we the people need for self-government.
Californians remain proud of their power to use ballot initiatives and referenda to check government. But that system of direct democracy is so costly that only the richest and most powerful people and organizations can afford to use it.
The state’s Brown Act, an open meetings law, is now an anti-democratic gag rule; it limits the ability of local officials and citizens to meet and have broad discussions. And it stands in the way of efforts to bring global innovations in participation and deliberation—like citizens assemblies—to California.
State officials love to talk about efforts to make it easier for Californians to vote. They don’t talk much about the fact that our elections are rarely competitive or determinative. Power in California rests in public employee unions and corporations and commissions that can’t be voted out by the people.
In California, we also ignore the fact that huge shares of Californians aren’t eligible to vote—because they are too young, or because they are not U.S. citizens. As a result, many cities and regions are disenfranchised.
Just consider the non-citizen part of the problem.
Data on “democracy deserts” provided by C.C. Marin of the Independent California Institute show that more than 22.1% of voting-age adults in Los Angeles can’t vote. A quarter of voters in cities as different as Cupertino, Anaheim, and my mom’s hometown of Hawthorne are disenfranchised. This percentage exceeds one-third in the Salinas Valley, skews close to 40% in poorer L.A. County cities like Bell Gardens and Huntington Park, and 50% in Central Valley towns including San Joaquin (54.6%), Mendota (58.4%) and Huron (60.5%).
If Newsom wanted to launch a national effort worthy of the name “Campaign for Democracy,” he’d head around the country demanding that the federal government create ways for California’s non-citizen residents to vote. And in this state, he’d pursue major constitutional changes that started by restoring the power of local communities to determine their own fates.
The governor has expressed sympathies for systemic changes in California governance; he’s deeply familiar with democratic innovation, as he demonstrated in his 2013 book Citizenville. But will he actually take on democratic reform?
The politics argue against it. It’s easy to point out red-state fascism. It’d be almost impossibly hard for this ambitious politician to give up power, and lead a campaign to let Californians govern themselves.
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