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California's Political Horizon

June 23, 2009

by Patrick Atwater
California's Political Horizon

Leaving Sacramento for the first time last weekend, my initial suspicion was confirmed: this is just a small blip in the vast expanse of the Central Valley. As I rode the train, downtown faded seamlessly into a depressing suburbia, then a few scattered abandoned warehouses, and finally farmland. In Sacramento proper it’s easy to delude yourself into thinking that this is a real city: the office buildings skillfully mimic proper skyscrapers, Yuppification (restaurant, condo, and otherwise) pervades, and the allure of state power is palpable. The symbolic might of the state’s majesty is everywhere. That is to be expected, though; it is the state’s capitol (and not just any: the Golden State’s). Witness all the big, Greek-looking buildings. Pillars, colonnades, the law: what’s not to love? I mean what sort of freedom hating sociopath hates formal universality? I know those kids posing for pictures in front of the Capitol don’t.

Beneath that shiny exterior, though, lies the twisted, gnarled undergrowth of bureaucracy. In the capitol, the contrast is especially stark. The ground floor is oppressively open. Tourists mill about, intermingling with lobbyists, legislators, and Arnold’s bear. Go a few floors up, however, and you’ll find yourself in a faceless maze of cold institutionalism. Members’ offices look more like holes in the wall of fluorescent nightmare than where LAW gets made.

The cold, hard truth is that much of the state’s legal code is drafted in even more soulless hallways than these. Your water quality regulations aren’t drafted with the poppy enthusiasm of “I’m Just a Bill” or likely even finished with a flourish of the Terminator’s pen. They’re probably drawn up in some bureaucrat’s office. That’s good; I’m glad regulating water quality isn’t flashy. But the silent disconnect between a pedestrian water quality regulation and the symbolic pillars of law that upholds it is deafening.

Yet if the events in Iran have taught us anything, it’s that universality matters. The cleansing power of a simple and pure solution is awesome. “Give us our votes.” People deserve the right to vote. It may be proto-fascistic but man is it something! We need those declarations. Sacramento needs to be more than just a town in the Central Valley; it needs to be the State’s Capitol. Half-baked or not, regulation needs the force and the majesty of law. The functioning of our society demands it. Still, the fractures in our world are unforgiving of our excesses. Here, I have to quote a friend, a soon-to-be Yale law graduate:

“[The liberal state] wants to include everybody in its folds, but this inclusion is imperfect, because like all inclusion, it requires demarcation: taking census data; doling out resources; writing tax codes; determining welfare eligibility. We should not confuse the seduction of universalist rhetoric with true universality.” –Kiel Brennan-Marquez, "Corporate Gods and Partisan Monsters"

As long as man has been political, we have been trying to embrace all of humanity under one umbrella. Whether justified by divine right or natural law, the underlying impetus is the same. That one umbrella, though, can’t keep us dry in reality’s rainstorm of particularity. Regardless, we’re stuck without shelter, so we might as well try to make do: create a competent state, with sound policies to match. Perhaps it’s futile; perhaps the struggle, though redeeming, is just that; perhaps Fitzgerald was right:

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

I think about that and take comfort: this tension is nothing new, nothing to be feared. Then I remember that’s just a bunch of bullshit to placate us into mediocrity.

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