What’s the matter with California? It is a question once asked about Kansas, when that state came to be viewed as a harbinger of a more conservative America. But now the trend is quite opposite, the right wing is in retreat and the Golden State is the progressive bellwether.
How is it that the state that incubated the presidencies of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan is now so deep blue Democrat that Mitt Romney hardly bothered to campaign there? Why did voters, including huge majorities in the state’s two wealthiest counties, approve a tax on high-income earners to increase funding for public education?
The answer is that the shifting demographics of California, forerunners of an inevitable national trend, are producing an American electoral majority that is more culturally sophisticated, socially tolerant and supportive of a robust public sector than can be accommodated by the simplistic naysayers who now dominate the Republican Party.
The big news from the last election is that California, home to 12 percent of Americans and the world’s eighth-largest economy, is a model of rational political thought. Not only did President Barack Obama garner almost 60 percent of the vote there, but the Democrats who already controlled all branches of the state’s government gained a two-thirds supermajority in both houses of the state Legislature, the first time one party has done so since 1933, when the Republicans were in power. The Democrats have not managed such a feat since 1883.
Instead of voters rewarding the state’s Republican Party for its obstructionist tactics on any measure requiring a two-thirds vote, they provided California’s Democratic leadership with the votes needed to trump limits on tax collection imposed by the infamous Proposition 13, which for 34 years had shortchanged the public sector of needed funding.
The resulting California vote was consistent with a national tendency that the Wall Street Journal summarized in a headline: “Wall Street Took a Beating at the Polls.” The article cited the victories of populists in Senate races, including Elizabeth Warren in Massachusetts and Sherrod Brown in Ohio, voter-approved increases in taxes in a number of states, and the rejection by historically anti-tax New Hampshire of an amendment to the state constitution that would have banned an income tax. But the example of the Golden State was even more compelling:
“In California, home to 88 of the 400 wealthiest Americans, according to Forbes, voters raised corporate taxes on businesses based out of state and raised income taxes on the wealthiest residents. What’s more, the measure, which passed 53.9 percent to 46.1 percent statewide, received strong support in some of the counties where those tax increases will sting. In San Mateo, the home of Silicon Valley, the measure passed 63.2 percent to 36.8 percent In Marin, where annual income ranks in the top 20 of all U.S. counties, the margin was even higher, 68.2 percent to 31.8 percent.”
So it isn’t just brown and black or poorer voters, who are barely present in those two counties, who explain the shift in the political outlook of Californians as much as it is a notion of what a modern society requires for its economic success and social stability. The key issue involved in that tax initiative was funding for education, including the state’s extensive system of public higher education. A once robust collection of community colleges, a network of excellent state universities and the internationally admired University of California campuses will all benefit.
Even if one does not depend on that vast system for the education of one’s own progeny, and surely there are many who do, there was massive support from the state’s business leaders — as demonstrated by the Silicon Valley vote — who recognize that education fuels productivity. A school term ending in April — a possibility in some districts had the initiative not passed — would not provide an adequate education for California’s workforce.
It is refreshing to discover that not every super wealthy person need be a shortsighted pig. That is one lesson from California voters, and it should burnish the Golden State’s reputation as an inspiration for the nation. It helps that the cutting edge industries in the state, ranging from the older world of entertainment to the newest of information technology, are apparently more inclined to a progressive outlook than the entrenched economic interests in some other states. Texas comes to mind.
But the Lone Star State will also change because of the far more important demographic changes that affect both Texas and California even more than the rest of the country. Recall that Texas Gov. Rick Perry ran into trouble in the Republican primaries for suggesting that the education of undocumented immigrants might contribute to our shared prosperity.
In California, Gov. Jerry Brown deserves major credit for pushing through the tax initiative by mobilizing younger and Latino voters to recognize that their access to education was at stake. But the larger demographic shift in the state reflects a national trend that carried Obama into the White House once again.
As veteran California political writer Dan Walters of The Sacramento Bee put it: “[The] election saw the emergence of a much different demographic profile that, if it continues, permanently changes assumptions about our politics. California’s new electorate, derived from exit polling data, is multiracial, younger, more liberal, not very religious and less likely to be married with children ... The long reign of older white voters is coming to an end ... “