By Michael Feinstein. Inside/Outside. Monday, September 19, 2022
Many of us were raised with the idea that the United States has the world’s best democracy. But that view is not shared by organizations that actually rank the world’s democracies.
In its Democracy Index 2020 report, the Economist’s Intelligence Unit ranked the U.S. as the 25th most democratic nation. Since 2016, they’ve placed the U.S. in the “flawed democracy” category, after demoting it from the “full democracy” group for the first time in 2016.
“The US’s overall performance is held back by a number of weaknesses”, according to the report, “including extremely low levels of trust in institutions and political parties; “deep dysfunction in the functioning of government; increasing threats to freedom of expression; and a degree of societal polarization that makes consensus on any issue almost impossible to achieve.”
In its 2021 annual Freedom in the World report, Freedom House – a US-based non-profit (that conducts research and advocacy on democracy, political freedom, and human rights) – also ranked the U.S. 25th. “The erosion of US democracy is remarkable, especially for a country that has long aspired to serve as a beacon of freedom for the world.”
According to Freedom House, three enduring problems play an outsized role in undermining the health of the American political system: unequal treatment for people of color, the improper influence of money in politics, and partisan polarization and extremism.
What about here in Santa Monica?
Let’s start with democracy
The word “democracy” is derived from the Greek word ‘demokratia’, which comes from demos “people” and kratos “power”. In other words, “the people hold power.” Theoretically democracy is a great idea. How to practice it remains a living experiment.
Here in Santa Monica, we have municipal elections every two years as part of our local democracy. In each of these elections, various local groups and organizations make candidate endorsements — important signals to voters about the choices before them.
SMRR endorsement process
One of the endorsing organizations is SMRR – Santa Monicans for Renters Rights. A local grassroots group, SMRR first organized to bring rent control to Santa Monica in 1979 via the local initiative process, where citizens sign petitions to put draft laws on the ballot for a public vote. Since then while organizing around community issues, SMRR has also made endorsements in local elections, with its reputation as a tenants rights champion carrying a lot of weight in a city where 2/3 of residents are renters.
But whether or not one supports SMRR’s policies and platform, there is much to be gleaned from its candidate endorsement process.
SMRR recently held its bi-annual endorsement convention. With voting privileges open to SMRR’s general membership, the convention made endorsements for city council, school board, college board and rent control board, as well as for Santa Monica’s representatives for state assembly and county supervisor. It is an inclusive model when an organization’s general membership makes its endorsement decisions. But what preceded the SMRR convention is where the little ‘d’ democracy was really happening.
Candidates seeking SMRR’s endorsement must fill out an extensive questionnaire and participate in a candidate zoom interview, which is open to the SMRR general membership. The interviews for city council candidates were a half hour long, and featured prepared questions from the SMRR Steering Committee and additional ones from others attending the interview. The back and forth in those interviews gave a great sense of where the candidates were on key issues affecting our community.
What if the entire community could have this level of information about the candidates before it?
The SMRR questionnaire and candidate interviews videos were published on the SMRR website (https://www.smrr.org/2022-smrr-candidate-interviews/), made available before the SMRR convention, and remain on the SMRR website today. Why does this matter? Because for ‘the people’ to have the power, ‘the people’ need to be informed. And in this case, the depth of information available about the candidates was extensive.
In most elections, the majority of information that reaches voters comes from the candidates (or organizations supporting them) via campaign literature. Nothing wrong with that – its good to see what candidates (and their supporters) want to say. But such literature still mostly consists of short sound bites and sloganeering.
That’s where the public realm comes in — and public dollars are needed to ensure all are better informed.
In the official voter information guide that goes out to all voters, local Santa Monica municipal candidates have the option of submitting a 200 ‘candidate statement of intent’, in both English and Spanish language versions. Since the County of Los Angeles runs Santa Monica’s elections, it sets the price for these statements (based upon their own cost recovery.) This year the County charges approximately $1,300 for city council and rent control board and $1,500 for school board and college board.
The City of Santa Monica chooses to subsidize these costs, so that all candidates can have a 200 word statement published. That’s a good thing, because it ensures that all voters will have at least the same minimum baseline of information about all candidates. But of the 69 cities whose elections the County will run this November, only Santa Monica and West Hollywood have chosen to bear this cost.
While on the Santa Monica City Council myself in the late 1990s, I successfully promoted a substantial increase in CityTV coverage of ballot-qualified candidates. As a result for many years, candidate statements on various topics, along with interviews and forums (produced by the City of Santa Monica in conjunction with the Santa Monica League of Women Voters) were broadcast on Santa Monica’s CityTV for a month before the election, and posted on YouTube.
This TV-based exposure should have been further enhanced by a series of in-person Meet & Greet/Candidate Forums at easily accessible neighborhood schools, parks, libraries and other venues, feature food from local eateries. To give voters a clearer sense of the candidates and get into needed depth the issues, these forums could’ve coordinated topics so each focused on a specific topic or two. Too often candidate forums suffer from offering similar questions, with answers limited to 30 to 60 seconds, and then moving on to other topics.
People could walk, bike or bus a short distance to such forums within their neighborhood. Good food on-site would make it easier to attend after work. Breaking bread during election season is also good community building, important given the hyper-partisanship in U.S. politics that the international democracy rating agencies refer to. These forums could then be broadcast via multiple platforms and pushed out via social media.
But instead, starting in 2016 – after changes in CityTV management and a new approach to election programming out of the City Manager’s office, the number and variety of City election coverage offerings began to be cut back. Then the 2020 pandemic hit the City budget, all CityTV election coverage was eliminated and none has been reinstated since.
So we’ve gone backwards in Santa Monica.
Why not a state Democracy Fund?
In a healthy democracy, to be well informed about your choices is a core voters rights issue. It shouldn’t matter where you live, about how well the democracy is funded.
California as a state generally underfunds its democracy on all levels, including with county registrar of voters, who have to comply with state election mandates without state funding. This is made worse by requiring expensive ‘pay to play’ access to our voter information guides for candidates on all levels. And when the state legislature allowed the California Channel to expire in 2019, we lost the use of our public airwaves to host state/federal candidate interviews, statements and debates.
With the massive state surplus California had this past year, why didn’t we put some of it aside to seed a State Democracy trust fund? Shouldn’t it be a collective state responsibility to ensure that a meaningful level of informed democracy is possible and across the state, wherever you live? Isn’t our democracy worth it?
Michael Feinstein is a former Santa Monica Mayor (2000-2002) and City Councilmember (1996-2004). He can be reached via Twitter @mikefeinstein.
‘Inside/Outside‘ is a periodic column about civic affairs Feinstein writes for the Daily Press, that takes advantage of his experience inside and outside of government.