COMMENTARY - Hey, President Biden: Did California’s invitation to your Summit for Democracy get lost by your failing postal service?
Or did you just forget to put us on your list?
For all the complaints about the democracy summit from big countries that didn’t get invited—poor Russia, poor China—there was no bigger snub than the lack of invitation to California.
The Golden State isn’t just way more democratic than most of the countries you included, like increasingly authoritarian Poland, India, and the Philippines. California also has more people living under democracy than all but a handful of countries at the summit.
More pointedly, where’s your gratitude, dude? California is the most democratic nation in the American empire and considerably more democratic than the United States as a whole. And you wouldn’t be pretending to govern the country now, much less holding an international democracy summit, without the votes of Californians.
But, maddeningly, instead of asking California to send its own delegation to your summit, you missed a double opportunity.
First, a California invitation would have helped you address the very real criticism that the American government shouldn’t be holding a democracy summit when its own democracy is backsliding. Second, you would have put some healthy scrutiny on California’s own democratic deficiencies.
Perhaps you didn’t invite us because you feared, rightfully, that we’d make you look bad. People might point out that the United States, over 245 years, hasn’t managed to hold a single national election. Instead, all elections in this country are at the state or local levels, even for the nation’s highest office, which is why you don’t even have to win the most votes to be elected president. Congress, as a supposedly representative institution, is a joke, with a gerrymandered House and a Senate that gives two seats each to California and Delaware. Democracy is supposed to be the self-government of everyday people, but virtually all hard questions in the United States are decided by nine unelected and unaccountable lawyers with life tenure.
California is the most democratic nation in the American empire. And you wouldn’t be pretending to govern the country now, much less holding an international democracy summit, without the votes of Californians.
And while you tolerate voter suppression in many states, California is busy making it easier for people to vote. Californians also allows its citizens to make the laws and amend the constitution themselves through direct democratic tools that do not exist at the national level. At the local level, California communities are adopting other democratic advances—including ranked choice voting systems and participatory budgeting.
Meanwhile, we’ve noticed, Mr. President, that you are dumping all the trickiest democratic issues—from voting rights to migrants’ rights—on your Californian vice president, while allowing your staff to undermine her at every turn.
All that said, we know California isn’t perfect. We only look that way compared to your government.
If you’d invited us, we might have had to answer for our many failings. We have centralized so much fiscal power in state government that our local governments have become little more than NIMBYs and beggars. We’ve also invested a dangerous amount of authority in our governor, who has extended his own pandemic-era power to rule by decree into March 2022.
And for a place that takes so much pride in its diversity, we are terrible at representation. Indeed, Californians are the least-represented people in America. Because of our failure to expand the state legislature over the past century to keep up with population, our legislative districts are twice as populous as any in America—every state senator represents one million Californians, and every assembly member half-a-million.
Our local governments are similarly small and unrepresentative. If we had been invited to your democracy summit, we would have had to leave Los Angeles at home. It’s embarrassing to explain why the city of Los Angeles has just 15 council members for its 4 million people and L.A. County has just five supervisors for 10.3 million. (On the other hand, maybe this ought to be an international scandal worthy of foreign intervention. My idea: asking Mexico City, now a model of democratic structure and representation with its new constitution, to take over and reorganize L.A.’s government to make it a real democracy).
Given all these failings, it sure would be helpful if we could join a meeting with some of the world’s most democratic countries. Learning more about summit invitees like Taiwan, which has built a successful democracy in the shadow of an autocratic state, and Switzerland, which does direct democracy better than California, could help us raise our game.
President Biden, we know it’s too late for you to invite a California delegation for this year’s online summit. So, why not invite California to next year’s in-person follow-up right now?
(JOE MATHEWS writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.)