Prop Zero
The Starting Point for Commentary and Coverage of California Politics

California Political "Realism" Isn't Realistic

In California, "realism" is political madness.

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    NEWSLETTERS

    It's the political season, and in California that means a lot of talk about "realism." Ballot initiatives are often defended against criticism of their flaws with the defense that the initiatives represent political "realism" -- that is to say, they can pass.

    By the same token, good ideas are routinely dismissed as "unrealistic" if they don't poll well in the here and now. The result of all this talk about realism and the unrealistic is a political culture that's totally divorced from, well, reality.

    Think about this. The notion of a constitutional convention is widely dismissed as crazy, overly ambitious and, of course, "unrealistic." But ballot initiatives are realistic, because they can pass.

    That's one way to look at it. But here's another. In California's it's considered realistic to fix the constitution -- a complicated, 160,000 word document -- with one small amendment at a time, passed by initiative. But it's considered unrealistic and irresponsible to rewrite the whole document so it actually makes sense.

    This isn't the only example of where Californian notions of realism don't seem all that real. A few examples:

    • Realism: selling the public on temporary tax increases as a grand fix to the state's budget problems (as Gov. Brown has with Prop 30)
    • Fantasy: pursuing permanent increases in taxes as a way of fixing the budget
    • Realism: throwing a half-dozen new budget rules into one initiative (as in Prop 31), on top of all the existing rules that govern the budget
    • Fantasy: getting rid of all the reforms and rules in the budget system and designing something simpler
    • Realism: changing how the state is governed by passing initiatives at the ballot
    • Fantasy: changing how the state is governed by electing different people and a different party to run the state legislature.

    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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