The Real Story On The Lakoff Initiative
You may have seen me live-tweeting the events last night at SEIU Local 721 in LA, where Professor George Lakoff and the folks behind CA Majority Rule met with around 200 activists, union members, elected officials, legislative candidates, representatives from Speaker Bass' office, and more, to talk about the just-released proposed November 2010 initiative on majority rule. If you read through both the live tweets and Dante Atkins' notes on the meeting, I think you get a picture of a potential split inside the California Democratic Party, one that could have major implications for all elections next year.
It should be noted that CDP Vice-Chair Eric Bauman was there to offer support. He gave a typical stump speech and said very plainly that "the reason you're here tonight is the solution" to the problems that grip the state, problems he laid out very carefully and completely. He was honest in saying that any Democrat who opposes this kind of measure will be told that "vertebra are available for installation... I think the chiropractor's lobby can help us with that." He made clear that we don't have a spending problem, "we have a common sense problem," and he pushed everyone in the room to work toward a real solution.
But Professor Lakoff's speech seemed to capture the dynamic between the grassroots and the establishment much better. Lakoff opened by talking about the origins of the initiative that he filed yesterday:
I got into this last spring when Lonnie Hancock invited me to speak to a group of State Senators. And I said, what's the problem, you're the majority! And they said they don't have any power. And they explained the whole 2/3rds rule, and how the leadership has to work with them because we want to lose as little as possible.
And I asked, why aren't you in every assembly district explaining this problem? It's about schools, healthcare, everything, and there's no answer. I went back and said that there's something really wrong. Its name is democracy [...] Which is more Democratic? Majority rule, or minority rule? You knew the answer from the 3rd grade on. Even Republicans know the answer but they don't like to. We know there will be a blowback if we try to change things, but the hardest blowback is coming from our side. The reason that Loni Hancock invited me was that there was a poll done by a progressive organization, and it asked the wrong question.
This is my business. Studying language and the framing behind language. If someone presented you with the poll question: would you rather have more taxes and higher services, or fewer taxes and less services. Obviously, it went with the latter. And the legislature concluded that they shouldn't put anything about taxes on the 2010 ballot. Why do they think that? Because they think that polls are objective, and that language just floats out there. They're wrong. Language is not neutral. There's a truth here that that language hides. It's the truth that we don't have Democracy in this state. We have minority rule.
In response, because nobody else would do so, Lakoff's initiative reads: "All Legislative actions on revenue and budget must be determined by majority vote." It's tweetable and it's fairly simple to understand. It's framed as a democratic action to return the state to democratic rule. And it appeals very much to those interested in preserving democracy.
Which is the consensus opinion inside the Democratic Party. We know this because, back in July, the state party passed a resolution calling for majority rule for budget and revenue. And it didn't pass with contentious debate - it passed unanimously. One of the very few people to speak out against it was the Party Chair, John Burton. But the rank and file supported it utterly.
It was something of a reversal for Burton, who when he was trying to get the votes of those rank and file supported a majority vote position. Now he's seen some polls and decided to take half a bite out of the apple. Lakoff described his exceedingly short meeting with Burton last night.
Burton wouldn't talk to me for more than a minute. He just said that he saw the polls, and it said 55% on budget and nothing on taxes. How many of you were at the state convention? You voted on a resolution about this. How did that resolution come before you? The resolutions committee. And that was the point. We got the resolutions committee to do it and got a standing ovation. The rank and file Democrats know it's the right thing to do and they have to tell their leaders. So how do you change this? You have to have a poll, but you have to have pressure. The major donors have to call Burton and say, if you want any money from me, you get behind this. And he has to hear that from donor after donor and organization after organization. We have to win in our own party first. I think John Burton is a good person, same with Bass and Steinberg. It's the good people that we have to win over first.
Later, a woman from AFSCME asserted that Willie Pelote was willing to give $1 million dollars to a majority vote campaign until Burton called him and told him to forget it.
You can argue about what the most effective approach is to deal with California's budget dysfunction. We've been doing that all week. You could say that leaders must prepare the ground by tying things Californians want to revenue, and tell the story of Republicans thwarting the popular will. You can say that we need to throw out the Constitution and move straight to a convention. But what becomes incredibly clear is that there is a groundswell of support inside the party for a simple move to restore democracy to the state, and if the establishment in Sacramento rejects that, in particular John Burton, the subsequent outrage will have a major impact on grassroots support for all Democratic candidates next year. There's just no question about this. The grassroots already feels disrespected and abused by the leadership. They got Hillary Crosby into a statewide officer position based on just this kind of frustration. They feel that one of the richest economies in the world is run like a third-world country, and they know that they will never change that when procedural rules force Democrats into a defensive crouch, where they see their role as losing as little as possible. This split will grow and branch out into statewide officer races, legislative races, etc. The grassroots workhorses won't be very inclined to work so hard for a Party that disrespects them and fails to act in their stated interests. Not to mention the fact that everyone knows that, while we wait another Friedman Unit until the electorate figures out the problem on their own, people will suffer from budget cuts, people will go bankrupt, and people will die.
The CA Majority Rule team has a multi-pronged strategy. One, they are raising money for this poll, to try and prove that a properly framed set of questions will elicit the desired results. Two, they will put Speaker's Bureaus together in every district in California with people who can talk about majority rule and restoring democracy, complete with real-world examples of the fruit of the state's dysfunction. Three, they will seek to pass endorsements of the one-line majority rule initiative in every Democratic club and county committee in California. There's an executive board meeting coming up in November where this will probably come to a crescendo, too.
The real story of the Lakoff initiative is a story about rank and file Democrats wanting their leaders to follow their will. You can argue about tactics or strategy or approach, but that's what it boils down to. And the party leadership had better take heed.