Viewpoints

Why California should look abroad to fix democracy

Pedro Sanchez, leader of Spanish Socialist Party, applauds as he delivers his speech in the Basque village of Durango in northern Spain in June. Joe Mathews says California can learn how to fix its democracy by looking at other countries.
Pedro Sanchez, leader of Spanish Socialist Party, applauds as he delivers his speech in the Basque village of Durango in northern Spain in June. Joe Mathews says California can learn how to fix its democracy by looking at other countries. Associated Press

Now that the election is over, are you leaving the country? If not, you should reconsider.

Before the election, only a few prominent Californians – including actor Samuel L. Jackson and singer Miley Cyrus – pledged to depart the U.S. out of disgust with our democracy. But I do know one non-celebrity Californian who really is taking his frustrations with American-style democracy overseas this weekend – yours truly.

This is not my first such post-election escape. For the past decade, I’ve helped bring together scholars, journalists, election administrators and politicians who work on participatory democracy, including the initiative and referendum processes for which California is known. Each gathering is in a different country: South Korea, Uruguay, Tunisia and Switzerland. This time our destination is San Sebastián, in Spain’s Basque country, which has embraced participatory democracy after years of dictatorship and violence.

I don’t particularly enjoy long-distance travel or organizing the events, which requires Skyping at odd hours with prickly foreign professors or officials. But I do it because, by listening to people from around the world explain their challenges, I get a clearer idea of what’s wrong with our version of democracy, and how we might improve it.

I wish every Californian, would do the same so that we might better comprehend ourselves.

Unfortunately, too many people consider the very idea of looking for answers overseas as daft. I’m accustomed to watching California audiences tune me out when I give talks about how other countries do elections or budgeting better than we do. Singer-songwriter Sheryl Crow has been mocked for circulating a petition to limit the poison of endless electoral politics and adopt a shorter election cycle, as in Canada and Great Britain. And elected officials who go overseas to learn more about democracy are pilloried for taking “junkets.”

I find this cynicism dispiriting and surprising. Californians are quick to embrace culture or technologies from around the world. But we have the opposite attitude when it comes to democracy. We are convinced that our system is so distinctive that the world has little to say to us.

It’s hard to overstate just how wrong we are. Almost nothing in California government is a native invention. We borrowed our two-house legislative system from our British colonial masters, plagiarized our first constitution from Iowans, took our top-two- runoff election system from France and established our direct democracy on the Swiss model.

Our reluctance makes even less sense after this election. Nearly every democratic institution in this country – the presidency, Congress, law enforcement, state election officials, the media – lost credibility in 2016. In California, our first open U.S. Senate seat in a generation produced a desultory race, and we turned direct democracy into a mess of 17 confusing statewide initiatives.

Despite widespread disillusionment with aspects of our democracy, there are few big reforms being advanced. We’re not looking far and wide enough for them, and so our insularity enfeebles us.

In San Sebastián this week, I’m looking forward to learning more about how Germans support grass-roots groups that bring ideas to the ballot, how Tunisians are creating a new system of local government and how Seoul and Vienna have found smarter ways to engage citizens on local questions. I wish I could take a planeload of local and state officials overseas with me.

“If I cannot add to my own level of understanding, I could ill afford to try to raise that of others,” said Saint Ignatius Loyola, a Basque. In these times of great anxiety and little understanding, leaving the country might be the most patriotic thing you could do.

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square. He can be contacted at joe@zocalocpublicsquare.org.

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