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The California Contest: Rich, Old, White People vs. Dead White People

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Opinion: CA Contest Pits The Old vs. The Dead

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What's the biggest political debate in California?

You could argue it's Democrats vs. Republicans, or liberals vs. conservatives, or environmentalists vs. developers, or unions vs. business.

I'd argue that, at election season at least, the real political debate in California is between rich, old white people and dead white people.

The rich, old white people are the folks who run politics and sponsor ballot initiatives that drive debate. Look at the list of measures, and you'll see ballot initiative sponsorship is almost exclusively an old white person's game, with Chris Kelly, the former Facebook executive who sponsored Prop 35, as the exception. The sponsor of Prop 33, George Joseph, is past his 90th birthday.

In sponsoring initiatives, these rich, old white people may seem to be debating other interests and other rich people. But what these sponsors are really doing is trying to change California's monstrously complicated governing system.

And that system wasn't recently constructed. It's been built over the 160-year history of the state. Most of the people who built it -- by sponsoring ballot measures, issuing court decisions, or voting in initiatives and constitutional amendments -- are dead.

Indeed, the power of the dead is very strong in California, because our system, particularly our inflexible initiative system, makes it relatively easy to lock initiatives into law and amendments into the constitution that can't easily be altered by the living (too many Californians don't understand how haunted we are by the past, which is one reason why I think we should permanently move Election Day to Halloween).

So at election season, the rich old white folks argue with the dead white folks. And yes, today's rich old white folks dominate the debate -- conversations with the dead are mostly a one-way conversation. But the rich, old, white folks almost always fail -- because their measures lose or because their measures win but the consequences are not what they intended.

California's dead, at election season, are the toughest of opponents.

Lead Prop Zero blogger Joe Mathews is California editor at Zocalo Public Square, a fellow at Arizona State University’s Center for Social Cohesion, and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (University of California, 2010).

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