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California's democracy overload

We're being asked to vote too often on too many issues that we're too unqualified to evaluate.


In less than 24 hours, you're going to be hearing the righteous indignation of all sorts of California pundits and policy types. They'll no doubt be shouting about an embarrassingly low turnout in Tuesday's statewide special election and the astounding ignorance on the part of those who did vote. Though not completely without merit, their rantings also will be part and parcel of the problem they're condemning: Our political elites are burdening the public with too much democracy.

Yes, I said too much. The state is on the verge of financial Armageddon -- in the governor's words -- and I think that placing too many decisions in the hands of voters is adding to the ruin of the Golden State.

Think of it this way: Much of the life of an average citizen is lived in the spirit of indifference, if not outright defiance, toward the political system. From time to time, we're all expected to cast a ballot, tune in to what's going on at city hall, the statehouse, Capitol Hill, and either express our grievances or throw our support to one cause or candidate or another. Our general indifference is interrupted by intense moments of engagement. But to ask voters to make too many decisions too much of the time tips the delicate balance between indifference and engagement, and that can lead to civic contempt.

In 1863, American psychiatrist Isaac Ray went so far as to suggest that participatory democracy was endangering our mental health.

"How different from us, in this respect, is every nation in Europe. ... There, the public attention may be called once a year to the election of a mayor." But in the United States, "the political agitation which is never at rest around the citizen of the republic is constantly placing before him great questions of public policy, which may be decided with little knowledge of the subject but none the less zeal -- perhaps with more. ... It is not for him to suppose, in any national crisis or emergency, that the government will take care of the country, while he takes care of himself."


The modern man, Ray argued, was "subjected to a strain which has been steadily increasing with the increasing wants and excitements of life," and participatory democracy was only making it worse.

UC San Diego sociologist Michael Schudson has pointed out that the "informed citizen" as the foundation of an effective democracy is a relatively recent invention. Notwithstanding Thomas Jefferson's citizen yeoman, the ideal engaged voter was concocted by reformers and progressives who were sickened by the cheap politics -- patronage jobs, free whiskey for voters and kickbacks -- of the late 19th century. Dismissing the high voter turnout of the day, they saw the immigrant-driven urban political machines as a betrayal of democratic ideals.

In 1893, E.L. Godkin, one of those reformers and the founding editor of the Nation magazine, argued that "there is no corner of our system in which the hastily made and ignorant foreign voter may not be found eating away the political structure, like a white ant, with a group of natives standing over him and encouraging him."

He helped install the civil service to reduce patronage and worked to replace campaign parades and public spectacles with educational pamphlets for voters. Godkin and company encouraged newspapers that were once mouthpieces for political parties to dispense high-minded editorial advice.

According to Schudson, the cost of these reforms, which "enshrined the informed citizen as the foundation of democracy," was high. Voter turnout plummeted. In the presidential election of 1920, it dropped to 49%.

This is not to say that bread and circuses, personality and prejudice -- and all the fun -- have been totally wrung out of the system. But even if you didn't read about the polls predicting the lowest turnout ever (30%), it shouldn't come as a surprise that Californians won't come out in droves Tuesday to vote in yet another election, on the anemically named, hard to understand Propositions 1A through 1F. (If voters get them at all, they get that for all the fuss, they still won't fix our problems.)

I hope you go to the polls Tuesday; I will.

But it's time for the good-government types to stop bemoaning the state of California's direct democracy and its voters and start remembering that, for most of us, in politics as in so much else, less is more. We're going to continue living out our days not thinking intensely about the inner workings of government. So find a way to make our representatives do their jobs.

And for the love of Jefferson, stage fewer elections -- and more parades.


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