Shutterstock

On possibly the greatest night progressive politics has seen in a long time (not to mention a great night for weed), the food movement experienced a stinging defeat in California. The statewide GMO labeling initiative (a.k.a. Prop 37) went down in convincing defeat (as did the city of Richmond’s proposed soda tax).

The group behind the initiative, California Right to Know, put a brave face on defeat and touted the more than 4 million votes the initiative received in its 53-to-47-percent loss. And that’s certainly not nothing. The odds of success were long. Even California Right to Know co-chair and Food Democracy Now founder Dave Murphy admitted that the group had taken on “an impossible task.”

In Mother Jones, Tom Philpott agreed that the GMO labeling effort represented a swing for the fences in picking a fight with not one but two of the most formidable industries on the planet — agribusiness and processed food.

Yes on 37 forces were outspent 5 to 1, and that money advantage was put to good use through a clearly potent ad campaign that was decried for its deceptiveness and false claims. And, of course, the losses may point to weaknesses in the political abilities of the food movement. But the ultimate truth about the Prop 37 campaign is this: The California initiative process is a flawed, unproductive way to make policy. This has been true for decades. And while I speak from personal experience — I was a registered California voter for seven years — there are few serious political analysts who view the state’s initiative process in a positive light.

Anyone can get anything on the ballot. Voters presented with multiple ballot initiatives every election cycle are overwhelmed, under-informed to the extreme, and often asked to decide issues that require the kinds of expertise that go far beyond what a typical voter commands — especially in the case of proposals with any complexity in their impact or implementation.

The GMO labeling initiative had both, creating a process that was bound to result in a “throw up your hands” opposition. Mother Jones writer (and California resident) Kevin Drum expressed a bit of this concern about Prop 37, when he said, “I’ll confess to mixed feelings about this. But I’m afraid mixed feelings mean a No vote.”

The proposition system’s greatest flaw is the ease with which well-funded efforts can pass (or defeat) initiatives, regardless of their merits (or lack thereof). It’s true that good ideas and good policies have been passed in California using this process. But as Bill Clinton reminded us this summer, “a broken clock is right twice a day.”

For example, this year’s flip side to the Prop 37 defeat was the state’s passage of a green energy spending initiative. Hey, great news, right? But why did it pass? Because a rich hedge fund manager spent $30 million of his own money to make sure it did. More often than not in California initiatives, the side with the biggest budget wins. That was why, back in July, I invoked the informal rule of thumb that an initiative needs to register more than two-thirds support in polls before the opposition gets going. Prop 37 hovered on the margins of that number early on, but it clearly didn’t have enough of a cushion to make it across the finish line.

It’s also true that food-related referenda can be successful in California. Proposition 2, the 2008 animal welfare initiative, withstood a (much smaller) barrage of negative advertising from the meat industry on its way to passage. Of course, having treatment of animals at the heart of this initiative likely brought a lot of “non-foodies” along for the ride — but that’s what building electoral coalitions is all about. It also helps that the Humane Society of the United States, which spearheaded the effort, is one of the more politically savvy organizations working in food today. All of which is to say: Wins happen.

There’s a saying in the labor movement that frequent strikes are not a sign of strength but rather a sign of weakness. When workers can’t get what they want at the negotiating table they have to walk out. Getting GMO labeling through the initiative process may demonstrate something similar. This is the kind of policy that should be addressed through careful negotiation by regulatory agencies and possibly legislation on the national level. But those paths are totally blocked to reformers at the moment by the same companies who fought so tenaciously to kill Prop 37.

So advocates use the tools they have, make some trouble, and hope for the best. And Prop 37 may have been the best available option to supporters of GMO labeling this year. But that’s not the same as a great option. You could even argue that the whole process was more about “sending a message” to food companies and politicians than it was about making sound policy. This is not to deny that passage of Prop 37 would have taken the food movement to a whole new level. But failing to get the initiative passed in California is far from a sign of significant political weakness, much less irrelevance.

This may also apply to such things as city-specific soda taxes. They are far from the ideal way to address obesity. Richmond, Calif., wasn’t wrong to try, but asking a city to go it alone on something like this, especially when “tax avoidance schemes” in this case would involve hopping in a car to the town next door, is to invite failure. Philadelphia, where I live, has been fighting this battle for a few years now — and the tax proposal is inelegant and awkward, which makes it that much easier to justify opposition.

When it comes down to it, the recent “political failure” that comes most to mind now is another California initiative that passed the same year Prop 2 did. I’m referring to Prop 8, the California constitutional amendment that overturned gay marriage. It passed in large part because of outside money that poured in to fund the pro-initiative organization, although there were some accusations of mismanagement by campaign organizers. While the amendment has repeatedly lost in court since then, I still keenly remember the way progressive Californians felt betrayed by their fellow citizens on a subject for which California had seemed such an obvious trailblazer.

And look where we are today on gay marriage. It’s the law of the land in many states. Three more states legalized it Tuesday, and Obama was able to endorse it in the midst of a heated campaign with positive results. The four years since the passage of Prop 8 have been nothing but good for gay marriage.

I don’t know if GMO labeling will enjoy the same success in the coming years — though even Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack felt the need to hedge his bets recently and suggest it was something that bears attention at the national level.

Either way, more than 4 million Californians made it clear this was an issue that matters to them. That’s a strong statement. And proponents of the idea in other states are already working to get it on the ballot; Washington will likely be the first. Sometimes you strike out your first time at bat, but that doesn’t mean you quit.