Joe Mathews: Why we need a Water Party

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The California State Capitol, Sacramento, CA. Photo by Pikist/CC 2.0, Public Domain

We live in a two-party system, but sometimes it takes a nudge from the margins to get things done.

Third parties don’t have a great record of success in the U.S., and California is no exception. But Zocalo commentator Joe Mathews says this state is crying out for structural reform that can only come from outside the dominant Democratic and Republican parties.  Mathews wants to call his new movement the Water Party because the state needs to become more fluid and less constrained in its approach to solving problems and delivering the essentials. 

Read Mathews’ column below:

Let it flow

A Silicon Valley type wants to fix what ails California. What measures, he asked, might he put on the ballot to reform the state’s politics and governance?  

I was dismissive. Don’t you know, smart-rich guy, that California’s governmental dysfunction is built on myriad ballot initiatives that don’t work? Passing more measures is like trying to fix the Winchester Mystery House by adding more rooms, dude. California needs a new system, with a new constitution, I said.

Of course, I couldn’t tell him how to convince people to change the system because no one has figured that out yet. Hours later, however, I was re-reading How America’s Political Parties Change (and How They Don’t), by Michael Barone, who edits the Almanac of American Politics, when a thought occurred: If you want to make a big changes in California, you might need a new political party.

By conventional political wisdom, new parties are crazy. As Barone wrote, the Democrats are the world’s oldest political party. The Republican are third oldest. These parties survive because our electoral system incentivizes having just two parties. Rare is the moment when a new party can alter the system.

Of course, we are now in a very rare moment. Perhaps rare enough to birth a new party. 

California history tells us that new parties can bring the greatest changes—be they the 1850s Republicans who formed our state’s institutions, the Workingmen’s Party that established our constitutional structure in the 1870s, or the Progressive Party, which advanced women’s suffrage, independent commissions, and direct democracy in the 1910s.

Our present circumstances cry out for new parties. The Republicans have turned themselves into a conspiracy-mongering fund. The Democrats pursue narrow policies for union allies instead of providing the basics Californians desperately need: education, healthcare, housing, stable economy, and reliable energy

Since neither party can deliver life’s essentials, we need a new political force that can.

We need a Water Party. 

Why Water? Because it’s something we all require. Because water puts out fires. And because, it defines our state, and its dysfunction. Water—our rivers, our coast—is all around us, and yet we don’t have enough of it.

Mostly, water is the metaphor that shows the way past our nasty contradictions.

Californians cling to old systems that aren’t working, from unemployment to prisons. But water washes away the past. 

California is divided between myriad governments that don’t fit together. But water fills in the cracks.

In California, we often prefer to let decisions be made by algorithms and formulas. We’d be better off leaving more decisions to humans, who are half water. 

Indeed, our state, badly constrained and limited by too many regulations, must become more fluid. In this, the Water Party should adopt the philosophy of the San Francisco-born martial artist Bruce Lee, who advised:

Be formless, shapeless—like water. Now you put water in a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle, it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.

Starting from scratch, a Water Party could harness new ideas and practices to fit our age of apocalypse. It could experiment with “liquid democracy,” allowing voters to cast ballots themselves, or turn their vote over to personal proxies. Or, like Italy’s Five Star Movement, it could build online tools so its members could determine candidates and policy positions directly.

The Democrats and Republicans may be dominant for now, but political parties suddenly feel  unstable; Worldwide, traditional parties of left and right are breaking up. It’s not hard to imagine the Democrats dividing between Democratic Socialists and Social Democrats, and the Republicans splitting between White Nationalists and Never Trumpers.

In uncertain, a flexible and fluid California-centric party would have enormous value.

Be water, my party.

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.

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