Achieving common ground among widely disparate players in a hard-charging urban political pressure cooker like Los Angeles generally fails when directed from above.
A recent conversation with a well-positioned colleague brought this truism to mind. She’d been frustrated, she said, that people in Los Angeles didn’t talk to one another, sometimes didn’t even know one another when they were working in the same field. And if they didn’t know one another, well, then, how could they all come together, agree on what’s wrong and decide to change? She confessed she was teetering on the brink of that time-tested path favored through the ages by autocrats and czars: “I guess,” she said, “we’ll just have to make them decide.”
The Los Angeles civic arena simply doesn’t work that way. Trace the path of any policy decision that ever produced significant change and one gob-smacking fact repeats like a hard chorus: No one – and I mean no one – was ever completely in charge.
I don’t care if they control vast resources, represent large constituencies, or come cloaked in immense moral or political authority: No one’s completely in charge. Present yourself as if you are, and surely that sinking sensation you feel will be your legs getting cut off at the knees, or higher. Still, change isn’t impossible. And we’re famous in Los Angeles for making it when we’re damn good and ready. Take just one example of the last couple of decades: taxing ourselves to build mass transit.
In 1980, Los Angeles County had no light rail or subway infrastructure. Today the region has 138 miles of rail transit, about 20 miles of subway lines, 103 transit stations and at least another 100 on the drawing board. A whole passel of concerns – escalating fuel costs, traffic gridlock, a city’s renewed interest in its core and inner suburbs – turned the tide. The effort flew into high gear with the astonishing 2008 passage by a two-thirds majority of the Los Angeles County electorate of a ballot initiative adding a half-cent transit-specific increment to the state sales tax. The result: a projected $40 billion over the next 30 years dedicated to traffic relief and transportation upgrades throughout the county.
No czar made us decide. Legions took matters into their hands. Elected officials, civic leaders, business interests, and community groups argued hard until individual citizens compelled by sound argument cast affirmative votes at the polls. Some folks played rough, a few played ugly, but everyone played smart in the end. Alliances were glued with good deals, some made in suites, others on the streets, a few in the form of whispers and winks. Yet everyone in the game knew who to work with to get things done for the greater good, whether they were best pals or not. And when they needed someone else, they figured out who that was, found them and brought them along.
That’s politics. That’s how a democratic culture works, for better or worse. If you have any doubt, order up Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” on Netflix and review carefully how that deal to emancipate the slaves went down. People in a democracy don’t come together just because it’s a nice thing to do, nor do they tolerate impatient people in positions of power, however well intentioned, telling them what and how they must decide.
If that’s frustrating and makes some folks ache for autocracy, let them stew. It takes many captains to pilot the civic ship, and those who steer best know to navigate change at the pace of politics.