The California Dream… of Less Centralized, Solutions-Oriented Government?

The California of our dreams.

The California of our dreams.

Back in college, I enrolled in courses on California history and California literature during the same quarter. It was a pretty good case study of how literature reflects history. And, perhaps, vice versa… the name of this state, after all, derives from a circa 1510 Spanish story about a fictional paradise. People have come here looking for utopia ever since. What do people find when they come here? There is no shortage of stories that build upon actual historical disappointments to create fictional dystopias.

The dystopian/utopian duality of California is reflected in how the national chattering classes reflect upon our state as both a glimpse of the future America to come and a failed experiment for the less dramatic states to avoid. One minute we’re permanently ungovernable and the next minute our polis and politeia are a glimpse of the future. I got thinking about this again after reading Bill Maher, who notes our state’s conversion from “crazy” to “responsible” and writes:

While the rest of the country is beset by stories of right-wing takeovers in places like North Carolina, Texas and Wisconsin, California is going in the opposite direction and creating the kind of modern, liberal nation the country as a whole can only dream about. And not only can’t the rest of the country stop us — we’re going to drag you along with us.

Maher says that we’re doing this under the leadership of Governor Brown, a guy who actually “likes government” and doesn’t have to deal with the tea party. Sure he cares about social justice, but does Brown always likes centralized government? His response (when he isn’t simply just ignoring them) to federal court orders regarding our unconstitutionally over-crowded prison system is to return some convicts to county jails or locally-supervised probation. His signature education policy accomplishment is surely returning most academic and spending decisions to school districts, this scheme has “Local Control” right in the name. He once vetoed a bill and wrote “not every human problem deserves a law.” In a profile story, he told The Atlantic he had “been reading a lot about how screwed-up the Roman Republic was.” He often talks about the principle of “subsidarity” – a principle of decentralization.

For many Californians, Sacramento is about as foreign as Washington, D.C. It seems that Brown might feel the same. He is a former mayor, in addition to being our former governor. The Atlantic Cities asked, provocatively, can mayors really save the world? They talked about an argument put forth by Bruce Katz and others: centralized nation-states have failed to serve the global, public interest. But mayors, leading cities that are just as much tangible communities as they are governments, are pragmatists. Working to solve local and global problems, they might be able to “crowd-source” our way to solutions in a way that top-down, technocratic departments cannot. This doesn’t sound outside the Governor’s vision for our state.

Perhaps we should embrace and build upon the Governor’s ideas for subsidarity. The same Atlantic profile of Brown described California as a place with many problems, but a place with many people looking for solutions, eager to build success:

California is usefully representative of the country in one very important way. What is good, and bad, about America is better, and worse, in its most populous state…California’s challenge is America’s: how to manage public business competently enough—collecting taxes, covering costs, educating children, fostering research, protecting the environment, maintaining order—to allow the creative carnival of its private activities to go on. And this is where Jerry Brown’s accomplishment seems most impressive.

I think this is the real truth about California, and our real opportunity. We are neither a failed example to avoid, nor a gleaming paradise. We don’t hate big government, but we don’t love it either. Maybe we don’t have to be a place that is liberal or conservative, just like the country at large is neither liberal or conservative. We have our problems, but we have people working trying to fix them. Like our pragmatic governor, maybe we can be a pragmatic network of cities, counties, and school districts: communities and citizens, trying new things to make our state, our country, and the world a better place.

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