The new Jordan School District gave me a chuckle the other day. Faced with some difficult budget decisions brought on by problems they didn't create, members of the new school board commissioned an opinion poll to get some advice.
The public, filled with the sage wisdom one can find only in a pure and direct democracy, said, essentially, Don't raise taxes, don't increase class sizes, and for heaven's sake, don't cut any of the programs we like.
Well, what were you expecting them to say? Modern Americans seem to have an obsession with a form of democracy that goes beyond the mere right to choose qualified representatives. That's quite different from what the nation's founders envisioned (the only political office they wanted to be chosen democratically is that of a representative in the House). It's also dangerous. Which brings me to California.
Although it hardly caused a ripple in the pond of Utah news last week, California held an election on Tuesday. Because things voters consider there sometimes cause sonic booms here (Prop. 8, anyone?), this one could eventually hit Utahns, too.
But then, it could hit all Americans. California is going bankrupt and, given the trend in recent months, it isn't too far-fetched to believe President Barack Obama and Congress will want to bail them out. You can't have a state that large falling into chaos and anarchy, after all. But bailing them out would require taking a bit of money from you and every other American. And yet it's interesting to note that an election touted as necessary to keep Californians from "financial Armageddon," as Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger put it, attracted only a smattering of voters. Official turnout figures weren't available yet as I wrote this, but reports told of hardly anyone showing up at polls.
Maybe they figured, as Californian Melissa Fazli told CNN, that they already had elected a bunch of super smart politicians (at least that's what they all said before the election, right?) to make the tough decisions. "It's just not right," she said to CNN. "We voted these people in in order to stand up for us and make the decisions that needed to be made, and they dropped the ball. And they just passed it on to us."
The Economist magazine last week tried to explain California's troubles as the result of a unique combination of populist ideas that, taken together, paralyze government. For one, the state's budget has to pass both houses of the Legislature by a two-thirds majority. So does any tax increase. The state made it easy for citizens to put initiatives on the ballot and then made it illegal for lawmakers to override any successful initiative. Californians face an average of 10 initiatives a year, the magazine said.
All that democracy has done little to excite voters, who typically stay home in droves. The greater the voter apathy, the more likely you are to have political extremists — the people who love politics and are passionate about an ideology — take control. The right becomes really right, and the left becomes really left, and few good compromises ever find their way to the middle.
Utah, for good reason, has made it harder to pass citizen initiatives.
L.A. Times columnist Gregory Rodriguez said it well: "Much of the life of an average citizen is lived in the spirit of indifference, if not outright defiance, toward the political system ...Our general indifference is interrupted by intense moments of engagement. But to ask voters to make too many decisions too much of the time tips the delicate balance between indifference and engagement, and that can lead to civic contempt."
From what I've seen, California voters made the right decisions Tuesday, but it's still up to the politicians there to keep the rest of us from paying their bills.
As for the Jordan School Board, it shouldn't worry too much about what the people tell pollsters they want. The board was elected to make those decisions, after all.