Would California Be Better Off Its Parties Were More Civil?

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The conventional wisdom about California politics, as it is about American politics, is that it's not civil enough. Discourse is too harsh. Instead of cooperating, the parties are saying nasty things about each other.

But is the concern about civility overblown? I think so, at least in California (and full disclosure: that's one reason why I'm moderating a free, public event in San Francisco on July 16 on the topic). In this state, the political parties have differences, but uncivil dialogue between them is relatively rare -- rare enough to still be news when it happens.

Indeed, if anything, I find myself wishing for more incivility, particularly if it means real debate and alternatives.

Indeed, a central problem of California's governing system is that there isn't much real, tough, serious back-and-forth -- because there is so little reason for it. The big decisions -- the ones that might make people mad -- have already been made, and frozen in place via ballot initiative, constitutional amendment or court decisions.

When partisans of left and right do blast at each other, they are often fighting about trifles.

Take the current argument about pension "reform," which is really about minor changes in the system. Or the debate over taxes, which involves two competing tax proposals that raise relatively small amounts of money (between $6 billion and $10 billion a year in a state economy approaching $2 billion), and make no permanent changes to the tax system.

All the taxes are temporary. The arguments about these things have been harsh, but not all that civil. Because so little is actually at stake.

If California gave its elected officials more power, the story might be different. We might have bigger, nastier debates about real issues and profound changes. Imagine, for example, if the majority party in the legislature could remake the tax system without the votes of the minority party?

Or imagine if our elections system gave the Republican minority a real chance to win elections and win control of the legislature, rather than miring them in permanent minority status?

Those would create real contests, and increase the temptation for incivility.

Indeed, a decline in civil dialogue and a rise in real rhetoric conflict between the political parties might be -- at least in the peculiar California context -- signs of progress.

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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