Sunday, January 23, 2011

California: Democracy in Form

After writing about Representative Mike Thompson's bill to allow commercial development of conservation easements, I was reflecting on how formal our democracy is when it comes to the elections in his California district. We have not had a meaningful election as long as I can remember. Every cycle the incumbent collects some $2 million in campaign funds mostly from the timber industry, the wine industry, the public-funded construction industry, and public-serice employee unions.

Mike Thompson is registered in the Democratic Party, as are a majority of the voters in the district. Republicans form a distinct minority; the second largest group in the district are unaffiliated ("decline to state" in California parlance). Mike (who is a likeable and shrewd guy) has never had meaninful opposition in a primary since his first election. This is despite there being lot of leftish Democrats in the district, including a number of Democrats in the hierarchy who are more in touch with voter sentiments in the district. As to the Republicans, they nominate someone to run every time (as do the Greens and Libertarians), but they aren't going to waste good money in a district where they will get clobbered on election day just the same.

Aside from the bias towards rich people's problems, in many ways Mike's voting record is reflective of an largly apathetic electorate. On abortion Mike is pro-choice. He is for the environment unless it gets in the way of a winery or development. He is againt the war when standing in front of Democrats, but always votes for funding the war. It is hard to imagine us getting a new Representative before he dies or voluntarilly retires.

In a dictatorship maintaining this poor of a standard of government would require silencing critics like me. But I can criticize Mike all I want. Worst case scenario, if a lot of people listen to me about a particular issue, Mike will back track, voters will calm down, and it would soon be business as usual.

From what I hear from around California, this scenario is the rule, not the exception. There are a smaller number of Republicans with safe seats than there are Democrats, which reflects the overall liberal culture of California. It can't even be said that the liberalism is entirely symbolic.

It is sad that a mere $2,000,000 can buy a seat in the House of Representatives that controls a multi-trillion dollar economy. I suspect the rich would give more if they could do it legally. A favorable estate tax rate, or capital gains rate, is worth a lot more to even a mid-level capitalist than a mere $2 million. At $2000 per person, it only takes 1000 donors to raise $2 million dollars.

In effect about 1000 people participate in running the California 1st congressional district. That is called an oligarchy, not a democracy. I would think that would be a ball park figure for the typical seat in Congress. With 435 seats in the House, that means there are less than one-half million people who get to meaningfully participate in the decision making at the national level.

But maybe what is wrong is that ordinary people don't give enough to the opposition. At a more affordable $100 giving level, 20,000 people should be able to band together to buy a seat in Congress. But they would have to band together and agree on what they want for their money. Which is harder than getting some agreement out of 1000 donors.

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