Hendrik Hertzberg, writing in last week’s New Yorker, describes a fascinating new populist initiative called Repair California, which aims to solve that state’s governance problems (legislative gridlock, huge budget deficits, bureaucratic inefficiencies) through a citizen-sponsored constitutional convention. Here are the salient bits of the article:
“California, it turns out, is ungovernable. Its public schools, once the nation’s best, are now among the worst. Its transportation and water systems are deteriorating. Its prisons are so overcrowded that it has to turn tens of thousands of felons loose. And its legislature has spent most of the year in a farcical effort to pass the annual budget, leaving little or no time for other matters, such as—well, schools, transportation, water, and prisons. This is “normal”: the same thing has happened in eighteen of the past twenty-two years. But the addition of economic disaster to legislative paralysis may have brought California to a tipping point.”
One of California’s biggest problems, says Hertzberg, is that its legislature only controls about 7% of the state budget, assuming it can even muster the necessary two thirds majority to pass the budget in the first place. The state’s citizens have had enough, and change may be on the way:
“It started almost exactly one year ago, modestly enough, with an op-ed piece in the San Francisco Chronicle. Echoing Jefferson, the author, Jim Wunderman, wrote, “It is our duty to declare that our California government is not only broken, it has become destructive to our future. Therefore, are we not obligated to nullify our government and institute a new one?” He then called for a “citizens’ constitutional convention” to do the nullifying and the instituting… Wunderman’s op-ed manifesto engendered a broad response, and the response has engendered something like a movement.
That movement, called Repair California, is trying to put two initiatives on next year’s ballot. One would amend the California constitution to allow the voters to call a constitutional convention by initiative… The other would actually call the convention and specify its scope: governance, including the structure of the legislative and executive branches; elections, including the electoral system and the initiative process itself; the budget-making process; and the state’s revenue relationship with local government.
The genius of Repair California’s approach is twofold. First, it steers clear of “social issues”: no gay marriage, no abortion, no affirmative action. Second, the delegates would be chosen randomly from the adult population. (Appointed delegates, Repair California reasons, would be beholden to whoever appointed them; and if the delegates were elected, the elections would inevitably be low-turnout affairs dominated by money and the organized clout of special interests.) The convention itself would be an exercise in what is called “deliberative democracy.” The delegates would spend months studying the issues, consulting experts, debating among themselves, and forging a consensus. The result would be put to a vote of the people, yes or no, in November of 2012.”
Did anyone else get chills reading this? No? Well, neither did I, of course. That would be incredibly dorky. Ahem. But even if the hairs on the back of your neck didn’t rise out of sheer exhiliration, then surely the parallels between California’s governance problems and those of a certain country dear to all of our hearts jumped right out at you, didn’t they? Of course they did…
A Lebanese constitutional convention organized by citizens is certainly out of the question during our lifetimes, but I have an alternative proposal that is entirely more feasible: a reality TV show that applies the same principle of deliberative democracy by ordinary people to the Lebanese scene.
Some enterprising TV producer should create a weekly primetime reality show that tasks a group of ordinary Lebanese — men and women of different ages and regional/religious backgrounds — to “repair Lebanon”. Each hour-long episode would be dedicated to a single major issue — e.g. educational reform, health care, the electoral law, etc. — and would document the group’s efforts to come to consensus on the best way to “repair” the problem under consideration.
Given that these would be ordinary people from various professional backgrounds, the producers would have to bring in experts to “testify” before the group on what they regard to be the ideal solution for the problem at hand. The group would take all of these testimonies under consideration and deliberate together en route to making a final decision, which they would present at the end of each episode.
I imagine it being filmed in a kind of “guerilla style”: raw, unglossy, close to the action, as members of the group hit the streets to research the issues, meeting with politicians, business leaders, activist groups, and ordinary beleaguered citizens like themselves. It would also be interesting to watch the inevitable personality conflicts between group members bubble up through the arduous task of reaching consensus, which the producers could showcase through one-on-one interviews and lots of captured “candid” fights and arguments. (People at home love that stuff).
A variation on this theme could pit several groups against each other in a kind of weekly competition to come up with the best solution. At the end of each episode, viewers at home could vote for their choice via SMS, à la American Idol.
Now, I can already hear many of you snickering at how incredibly geeky this idea sounds, but trust me when I tell you that it would be a smash hit. After all, political talk shows are among the highest-rated TV programs in the country. If Lebanese all around the world can sit through several hours of Kalam al-Nass, al-Haq Yuqal, Nuqta Fasleh, Naharkon Sa`eed, Fakker Martein, Bi-kull Jar’a, and al-Fasad each week (not to mention the interminable weekly press conferences of their various leaders), then surely they could make room for an entertaining show about real people addressing real problems.
So what do you say? Any producers out there?