Got Democracy?

This summer I was able to join a political campaign in Maui County. We didn't win, but we got our message out, and, as a bonus, we got to peek behind the political curtain.

Because I spent 60 years in California, I can't help comparing democracy there to democracy here. The difference is dramatic, and seems worth sharing. Simply stated, it's a paradox: Californians inherit democracy, but are no longer able to make it work; Hawaiians are natural democrats, but are blocked at every turn.

On the mainland we inherit three centuries of self-government. Democracy is in the books and in the law; it's taken for granted. In California no one challenges your right to speak up, film a meeting, organize, or run for office. Elections are many; appointments are few. Meetings must be noticed, information must be shared, petitions must be heard, politicians can be recalled, laws can be passed by popular vote. If anyone even frowns at your rights, you take him to court.

And yet the people of California are mostly too busy to pay attention or participate. Most have lost the sense that politics can be fun. Campaigns, even for local office, are professionalized. Democracy is a business, in which corporations and special interests speak and citizens, for the most part, are silent.

Of course, every California official tries to speak and act in the name of the people; but “the people” are tens of millions, they change jobs and addresses frequently, and they are very hard to organize. What passes for public debate is often two pollsters arguing over whose sample is representative. One could say that Californians are living off their democratic inheritance, but doing little to replenish it.

Hawaii, on the other hand, has the culture for a flourishing democracy. People here have better manners and more patience. The slower pace of life leaves time to talk story, debate public issues and share information. There is more respect here — of the young for the old, of citizens for officials, and of everyone for basic human needs and frailties.

There are traditions of talking things through and working toward consensus. There is a flourishing independent press and public access television. Most important of all, the state is small enough for politics to remain personal. Every district can be walked; every island could be organized. Families stretch across many islands. Word of mouth is still king. Even on state wide issues, all the stakeholders could be represented in a single room.

And yet ... And yet the practice of democracy in Hawaii falls far short of its potential. With notable exceptions, residents here behave less like equal citizens than like subjects. Few seem aware that the U.S. Constitution guarantees an absolute right to speak and participate.

The once heroic Democrats have aged into a smug monopoly, recycling the usual suspects, manipulating voters and screening out dissent, much like the oligarchy they once replaced. Both parties file nuisance lawsuits to trip up candidates who threaten their turf. The primary ballot is effectively closed to independents. Even filing for office involves an outback adventure into Pearl City. Voter rolls are available only to “certain people.” The rules for filing campaign reports are vague and capricious. At every turn participation is discouraged.

In a real democracy, citizens would be encouraged to participate; there would be one simple application process available on every island; and parties would be slapped for cheating.

When we turn to the practice of government, the comparison with the mainland is shocking. The shock is not the corruption, nor the fact that state politics is still dominated by heirs of the Big Five. California has worse. The shock is the indifference of state officials to the rules and rituals of democracy. Hawaii has a sunshine law, and many officials have even heard of the First Amendment, but compliance seems optional, and enforcement, a joke.

In Hawaii, the Governor issues edicts. Department heads “carry out his will.” The most basic information about public business is kept secret or redacted. Some meetings are noticed, but important meetings are “by invitation only.” Private corporations, such as HECO, are allowed to dictate policy, speak directly to the public and decide what information to share, while elected officials tiptoe around as if they too were subjects. There is, we are told, a Consumer Advocate, but he or she is as elusive as Big Foot.

In a democracy, protest typically means there's a problem with government policies. In Hawaii, protest is treated as the problem. When there are complaints, selected complainers are invited in for a chat, or else an agent is dispatched to the hinterlands to “listen.” (As in, “See, we listened!” ) If neither ploy works, then carefully screened stakeholders are invited to Honolulu for group hugs and emergency blessings. In extreme cases, our state government will stage a entire traveling circus of scripted consensus (or “spinput”), like the IRP (Integrated Resource Planning), in hopes the public won't notice that it actually has no teeth or effect. Meanwhile nothing changes, because the original policy problems have not been addressed.

County officials and staff, it should be noted, can be quite democratic, but it's the state that collects the taxes and calls the tune. In such a small state, however, you would expect state officials to also understand the needs and moods of the communities they serve. To a surprising degree this is not the case, especially in the executive branch. Island number nine is the Capitol itself.

Without democracy, the policy process runs backwards, producing waste, delay and distrust.

For example: An outgoing Governor pays off her biggest campaign contributors with a useless but hugely profitable wind turbine project. The new Governor signs off on this shady deal and calls it a “state energy plan.” When communities slated for destruction complain, he goes crying to the legislature. Eager to please, the majority dutifully produces the infamous cable bill, a blank check from the ratepayers to anyone chosen to build any cable project, no matter the cost. Whatever is ultimately built, a legacy of suspicion is now guaranteed. In a real democracy, a state energy plan would begin with consultation and consensus building.

The whole point of democracy is to start with community buy-in, so you don't have to force acceptance later with bribes and threats. Democracy means counting heads instead of breaking them. (If you're just gonna push people around, dictatorship is more cost-effective.) For now, bribing and threatening is still acceptable in Hawaii, but as population grows and the islands shrink, it will backfire more and more.

Those who live in or near native Hawaiian communities are also aware of ongoing challenges to the legitimacy of the state government itself. Whenever state officials appear secretive or high handed, they are fanning the flames of this challenge and cutting the ground from under their own feet. Faced with smoldering nationalism, a wise leadership would bend over backwards to consult, include and respect.

Hawaii is a beautiful place, and, on balance, more civilized than California. But that beauty and civilization are marred by spoiled officials who take advantage of a deferential population. When people are afraid to speak up, it's easy to push them around.

If state officials are too quick to cut deals with private interests, squander public assets, and uproot communities, it's because they know they won't be seriously challenged. Just how spoiled our current leaders really are is clear from their repeated attempts to exempt themselves from their own regulations. A government that feared the people wouldn't dare propose an environmental waiver like SB755, or create a rogue elephant like the Public Land Development Company. In a real democracy even con men pay lip service to the people's wishes.

These are all first impressions, and it's true there's a complex history here that's hard for a newcomer to grasp. U.S. institutions tend to be conflict-based, while many of the cultures present in Hawaii are consensus-driven, and preserve ancient habits of deference to power. But while deference in a traditional setting may have been a two way street, in a modern state it simply invites exploitation. Clearly the century of outside domination (roughly 1860-1960) also did lasting damage to traditions of self-government, and the tyranny of the plantations left scars as well. Since 1959, however, the opportunity to transcend these limitations has been available.

The people of Hawaii have paid the price of statehood, but they have yet to reap all the benefits. Why should a state this small, tightly knit, and talented to be stifled by an unimaginative elite? Why shouldn't Hawaii's cultural richness be reflected in her politics?

All that's needed is a renaissance of participation, an awakening of small “d” democracy. Californians may have lost faith, but in Hawaii democracy still has a promising future. Perhaps it's time to paint it on a banner and start marching.

About the author: Larry Tool is a former college instructor, longtime Bay Area business owner, local official Martinez, Calif. in mid '90s, reviewer for SF Chronicle '80s and '90s. Happily retired letting Molokai change me.


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