Much has been written about the divisive & dysfunctional nature of California politics. Two recent newspaper columns touched on the current state of local politics–Don Bennett’s Argus Column of August 23, 2009 and Pete Golis’ Press Democrat column of July 19, 2009.
Of course, political divides exist in Petaluma and they are well known–growth vs. no growth (or smart growth vs “development by right”), Big Box vs. Eggcentric, East Side vs. West Side, etc. etc.
I used to rail against these “divides” and berate those who contributed to them. Frankly, to do so was naive. My only defense–weak though it may be– is that I thought we should reach a certain plateau of common understanding in our public dialogue.
Achievement of a “common understanding” or consensus is extremely rare–decisions are made by those with sufficient votes to prevail. There is nothing new in all of this. The fact is that political and social “divides” are hard wired into our Western Cultural DNA. Moreover, thay have not always been resolved by elections or decisions by our elected representatives.
A few brief examples…
- A President who ordered law enforcement officials to arrest and imprison all who disagreed with him. ( No, not George W. Bush–John Adams. )
- A President who openly ignored a Supreme Court decision. (Abraham Lincoln)
- A Congressman (Griswold) who assaulted another House Member (Lyons) on the House floor with a cane–“Griswold was laying on blows with all his might…on the head, shoulder & arms of Lyon.”
- Gadfly videos on CaliforniaCItyNews where you can witness City government meetings populated with ranting and raving members of the public as well as council members sometimes resisting arrest as they are dragged off the dais.
- On a personal note, I recall an instance where I dodged a haymaker punch by an Illinois legislator who took umbrage at a tax question.
The reality of our history is one of constant political conflict–and conflict that frequently includes abuse of power, personal attacks, and sometimes physical assault. This has occurred and occurs at all levels of government.
At this point, a quote from the Golis column is in order:
The tribalism of our politics is now all-too-familiar. We don’t elect people who think first of what’s best for the common good. We elect people who are pro-business or slow-growth, who side with public employees unions or who oppose new taxes.
Then we are surprised that when these people are thrown together, they can’t find common ground to solve problems before they morph into one crisis and then another and another.
People who are not invested in state and local politics often find that it is irrelevant to their lives – because it is irrelevant to their lives.
Hometown governments are being gutted. A record number of housing foreclosures is devastating neighborhoods and families. Local business are going broke. Thousands of local people can’t find the work they need to support their families.
And what’s going on in local government? The Petaluma City Council is re-arranging the deck chairs on the Planning Commission, and the Healdsburg City Council is taking a firm stand against Starbuck’s.”
Granted, Golis presents a grim view of the situation. In my opinion, he is pretty close to the mark. However, his assessment that people find local politics to be “irrelevant to their lives” does need some expansion. Granted they may perceive politics as irrelevant. But they are witnessing the impact nonetheless…
Are our local divides so great that they can’t be bridged?
Is Petaluma too broke to fix?
I submit that the answers are “Yes” to the first question and “No” to the second question.
In short, nothing is broken. It is just politics as usual–at all levels of government from Petaluma through Sacramento all the way to Washington D.C–And it was ever thus.
In our hierarchical world, it is difficult, if not impossible, for institutions at the bottom of the institutional pyramid to be better than those at the top. Or put another way, excrement always flows downhill.