I know, Obama's slogan this time is "Forward" and Mitt Romney is campaigning (false as ever) as the real change, but at least in California, this election is as much, or more, about hope and change as in 2008, when those words hung across the landscape of Berkeley like Christmas decorations on December 23.
Yes on Propositions 34 & 36
Forty years after California (and much of the nation) began its turn toward penal severity and mass incarceration, California voters have a chance to signal that the hot emotions of racialized crime fear has finally run its course. It is true that both measures are modest in their reach. Proposition 34 would repeal the death penalty, only to replace it with Life imprisonment Without Parole. Since the vast majority of California's more than 700 death row inmates are likely to die in prison of old age under any plausible scenario, this would change little on the ground. Nor does it count on people being necessarily less afraid of crime. Indeed its primary populist appeal is to move the funds saved from lawyering death cases to funding police departments in investigating cold murder and rape cases. Proposition 36 would allow prisoners serving life sentences under California's notoriously broad 3-Strikes law, to seek re-sentencing if their third strike was for a non-violent, non-serious crime (and assuming they were not already convicted of a murder or rape); a measure expected to reach only about 3500 of the more than 30,000 prisoners serving enhanced terms under the 3-Strikes law.
Still, both measures represent a big change that should be embraced by all Californians, a change away from penal measures intended to signal severity as an end in itself, not just despite, but in-spite of the fact that they delivered little objective crime control. The hope here is not just a hope that serious violent crime has gone away (even with the crime decline the violence in next door Oakland makes that difficult) but hope that new approaches, like innovative policing and restorative justice, can reduce crime and address the community scars of violent crime without incarceration. Forty years ago the conventional wisdom in criminology was that neither prison rehabilitation programs or police patrol tactics could meaningfully reduce crime. Today neither position is dominant. Furthermore, despite their poll tested pragmatic moderateness, both propositions would signal major change 1.) because they both deal with violent crime which I have long called the "hard back of mass incarceration" in contrast to the "soft underbelly" of drug crime and parole violations; and 2.) they are voter propositions, a form of law making long sought to favor fear over reason.
Yes on Proposition 30
For nearly forty years the state of California has been disinvesting in education, both K through 12, and higher education, in order to reduce taxes. At the start this must have been very tempting, since California taxes were relatively high and our education system was excellent. Now our tax system is highly uneven and unreliable, but manifestly fails to meet the state's basic revenue needs, and our education system is diminished at every level. Proposition 30 is again a modest turn toward hope and change. In asking for voters to approve a tax increase (and not just bond measures for debt), Proposition 30 breaks with decades of lying to voters about the realities facing the state. It asks not just for an income tax increase on high income earners, but a sales tax increase that will be paid by everyone. In this mildly progressive but still broad base, Proposition 30 hints of California's New Deal period when the state made the great investments that turned it into the dominant state of the postwar period. The hope here is modest. The tax increase is temporary and the funds would stop the hemorrhaging of education not reinvest in it.
Re-elect President Obama
It is true that for readers of this blog, the President has not been a major change agent. We did not expect him to lead on issues like "mass incarceration," and his promises to end our national disgrace at Guantanamo ran into a wall of Congressional fear. His Justice Departments aggressive prosecution of whistle blowers like Bradley manning, and the quiet war on marijuana, while letting financial crooks sleep on their gains has been a mystery to many of his supporters. Still, the President has kept his promise to never "govern through fear." While he has steadily sought to address the priority threats of George Bush's fear regime, including ordering the military execution of Osama Bin Laden, President Obama has not generated a new list of monsters, struggling to let uprisings in the Arab world proceed without demonizing the new leaders. Most importantly, in getting even a modest national health system and re-regulating the financial services industry, President Obama has begun to change the machinery of governance, moving us from the model of punish and prosecute that was "governing through crime," to approaches that require cooperation, trust, and new positive benefits for citizens.