California: A place where Democrats still matter

This weekend, I spent 42 hours in Sacramento, Calif., a charming but overlooked metropolis that is home to half a million people as well as the government of the world’s sixth largest economy. Mostly I was there to cheer my wife on in her second marathon (in as many months!) but I managed to also sneak in a little political tourism.

I check out the Capitol in any capital city I visit, but a few weeks after the election I felt particularly drawn to view what is arguably the Democratic Party’s greatest remaining source of power.

California is one of only six states that will remain under complete Democratic control at the end of January, along with Oregon, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware and Hawaii. If the Golden State seceded — a proposal that some people have floated with varying degrees of sincerity — Trump would have won the national popular vote by a million and a half votes. The emerging Democratic majority that the Clinton campaign assumed would carry Dems to a landslide national win already emerged in California years ago. The coalition of minority voters and cosmopolitan whites appears near-invincible, and the Dems didn’t even have to gerrymander the districts to make it so (the state has a nonpartisan redistricting commission).

While the Capitol grounds and the building itself were beautiful, I wasn’t particularly impressed by what I saw in the interior. Granted, I wasn’t able to see the Senate or Assembly chambers because I wasn’t on a tour. That was lame.

But in a manner befitting a state that has twice elected movie stars as governors, many of the gubernatorial portraits had a creative twist. Jerry Brown’s portrait from his first stint caught my eye.

Gov. Moonbeam

Ahnold’s portrait looked so real that I thought it was a photo, which made sense to me since I imagine it would be tough for a former Mr. Universe to entrust some commie painter to accurately render his bulking likeness. But apparently it was “neo-realist” painting.

There has been a bit of talk about how Trump’s election has led progressives to rediscover an appreciation for checks on presidential power and states’ rights.

Fair enough. There are certainly things that we (and the supposedly liberal media) shamefully ignored, notably the imprisonment and deportation of at least one million immigrants whose only crime was fleeing violence or responding to the forces of the global economy. My positions on our various military entanglements are mixed, but I know that far too many people who think of themselves as war skeptics essentially gave the U.S. government a blank check to bomb while there was a Democrat in the White House.

But that’s all in the past now. If progressives are moved to act locally in response to a Trump presidency, great. I hope that the soul-searching that Democrats are engaged in nationally is also taking place in California and other blue states. Now, more than ever, they have a chance to shine as laboratories of democracy, setting an example of what progressive government can accomplish. The Silicon Valley donors probably have a few good ideas, but they also have major blindspots; many are same ones that tripped up Hillary Clinton. The rich cannot save us. Please talk to the poor and the working class.

Lest the headline mislead you, progressives can still do a lot to shape events in red or purple states. Municipal and county government is often even more important than state government in a number of policy arenas. And of course, having government on your side is helpful, but not necessary, to improving things for the little guy.

Here in Austin I’ve seen strong promising examples of how local government and activism can work in spite of the bad news coming out of Washington. On Nov. 8, people in the Austin area elected a sheriff who campaigned on a sanctuary platform and the Austin Police Department’s new chief has said that Austin cops will continue to focus on local law enforcement, not immigration checks. The Fight for 15 coalition appears to be doing great work and is hopefully gaining momentum. It got a number of fast food workers to participate in a national strike in protest of low wages and organized several dozen people to protest a local food joint that it accuses of withholding wages from workers. These are all examples of key decisions by government officials and activists that can have a big impact on many people’s lives. Isn’t that what politics is all about?

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