Much has been written, here on Dangerous Intersection and elsewhere, about the corrupting effect that massive amounts of corporate spending and lobbying has on our democracy. And I don’t disagree with any of that – I think public financing of elections, or at the least more stringent disclosure laws, would be hugely beneficial in creating a more rational democracy that’s less distorted by special interests and more responsive to genuine public will.
Nevertheless, America is still a democracy, and sometimes the voters remind us of that. One such inspiring story came out of California last week.
The quick summary is that PG&E, a powerful utility company, didn’t want to compete with towns and communities that were planning to go into the electricity business for themselves with pilot projects to generate renewable energy. To that end, PG&E got an initiative on the ballot, Proposition 16, which would require local governments to get two-thirds voter approval in order to create or even expand any municipal utility. Of course, this is a nearly impossible standard to meet, and PG&E was obviously well aware of that.
PG&E spent heavily to promote its initiative, dumping an incredible $46 million into a statewide ad blitz. Meanwhile, the local utilities that opposed the initiative were prohibited by law from campaigning against it, and it was left to a scattered handful of citizen activists and consumer advocates to raise awareness. The opponents of Prop 16 raised a scant $90,000, thus finding themselves outspent over 500 to 1.
And the result? Prop 16 lost, by a statewide five-point margin. In fact, the areas served by PG&E voted against it at an even higher rate than other regions of California.
This encouraging news shows that American democracy, besieged as it is, isn’t defeated. The rich and the powerful can’t always have their way. I don’t deny that people are too easily swayed by advertising to make poor decisions, but elections still can’t be bought outright. We ought to find this inspiring: if and when the public truly desires progressive social change, that change will come about, and even the wealthiest special interests won’t be able to prevent it.