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For Californians, watching what’s happening politically with Trump and the Republican Congress in America can bring a serious bout of déjà vu. It’s like watching a movie from 15 years ago, in a theater, before Netflix started streaming through the Internet and onto your TV.
Spoiler alert: Trump will bring the old conservative agenda to its absurd conclusion with high-profile climate denial, anti-immigrant intolerance, and tax cuts for the rich in the face of historic inequality, to name just a few. The Republican Congress will embrace Trump, futilely try to apply their rigid orthodoxies to the complex modern world, break into ideological war with each other, prove totally incompetent, and fail big. In the process they will alienate all the growing political constituencies that matter going forward. The Republican brand will become toxic, their support will collapse and they will be pushed to the political sidelines for a long time to come.
Why? Because California is the future and that’s exactly what happened to California’s Republican Party about 15 years ago.
What do we mean by California is the future when applied to politics? Modern California politics has an uncanny knack of prefiguring what happens in the rest of America in about a 15-year timeline. In other words, what happened in California 15 years ago should be studied closely to see how it will play out in America today. And what’s happening now in California will roll out over America in the next 15 years.
California experiences the future earlier than other parts of the country. Californians invent many new technologies, adopt them early and adapt new systems around them relatively quickly. They absorb waves of immigrants at the highest numbers in the country and accommodate them into their society quicker. The state is a magnet for young people, entrepreneurs, and people who want to change the world. Much of the population is unusually open to trying new things in the economy, society, and in politics.
Plus California has an outsized influence over the rest of the United States. It has the largest population of any state, with 40 million people, and its economy compared to all nations would be the sixth largest in the world. It’s the home of Hollywood and the digital media giants and has a huge impact on promoting next generation ideas.
Whatever the reasons, a strong case can be made from the observed facts on the ground that California blazes a political trail about 15 years before America follows.
The California Conservative Era(s) Begin
The clearest example of this trailblazing is the modern conservative ascendance, starring Ronald Reagan himself. Reagan ushered in the conservative era of California politics when he was elected governor in 1966. He beat a two-term incumbent liberal Democrat, Pat Brown (father of Jerry Brown) and muscled out the more conventional progressive Republicans (yes, they existed) of that time.
Reagan then did largely the same thing at the national level roughly 15 years later. He bested the more conventional Republican candidates and beat the incumbent liberal Democrat Jimmy Carter. Looking back on that time, we can characterize Reagan’s brand of politics as a “conventional conservative” era, though it seemed radical back then. In this iteration of conservatism, the practitioners worked in a conventional political way to pursue their goals by working towards bipartisan consensus, making compromises, and trying to get practical legislation passed.
Just about the time Reagan took the national stage, another more radical brand of conservatism hit back in California in 1978, with the Proposition 13 initiative that slashed property taxes and forced two-thirds votes in the legislature to pass any tax increase in the future. This movement was driven by conservative insurgents like Howard Jarvis who believed in confronting the system, changing the rules (which were seen as benefiting Democrats), and forcing other conservatives to be more aggressive. The one issue that animated their politics above all else was to slash taxes and refuse to even consider any new ones.
The Gingrich revolution served the same purpose on the national stage, 16 years later. Newt Gingrich championed this uncompromising style in the 1994 election that flipped control of the House of Representatives to the Republicans for the first time in almost 50 years. The anti-tax mindset now gripped the country as a whole.
The Reactionary Period: 1990 to 2005
Back in California in the 1990s, the conservatives were onto the next big issues, particularly those involving immigration. The 1990s in California saw a wave of three consecutive elections with controversial initiatives on the ballot that were a reaction to the changing racial composition of the population.
Many outsiders may know of Proposition 187, which barred state funds going to support illegal immigrants in any way, including schooling young children. Republican Governor Pete Wilson famously backed that initiative, which won after an inflammatory election in 1994. Two years later, in 1996, voters passed Proposition 209, which barred the use of affirmative action in helping place more minority students in the University of California system, among other things. Then in 1998, Prop 227 effectively eliminated most bilingual classes in elementary and high schools across the state.
All three of these initiatives tapped into the rising anxieties of the white electorate that was watching as the state population was changing due to high rates of immigration, both legal and illegal, mostly coming from Latin America. In 1980, the population of California was 67 percent white, with only 33 percent racial or ethnic minorities. By 1990, the size of the white population had shrunk to 58 percent and the size of the minority population had grown to 42 percent. By the end of the 1990s, the percentages were roughly 50/50.
Turning to California’s eligible voters, in 1980 this group was 78 percent white and in 1990, 72 percent white. By 2000, that number had dropped to 63 percent. Looking at those who actually voted in elections, as distinct from those who were eligible to do so, the number of white voters in California dropped steadily, from 83 percent in 1980 to 79 percent in 1992 to 70 percent in 2000.
Hispanic voters doubled over that time period, from 7 percent in 1980 to 10 percent in 1992 to 14 percent in 2000, while Asian/other voters almost tripled from 3 percent in 1980 to 5 percent in 1992 to 8 percent in 2000.
The political reaction that happened in California around immigration in the mid-1990s surfaced in the rest of America in the Tea Party movement of 2010. Part of the Tea Party phenomenon was in reaction to the first black president, but it was also in response to immigration that had started to hit other parts of the country as well.
The key point here is the similarity between where California was in the mid-1990s and the period the United States entered in the 2010s. In both periods, the percent of minorities among actual voters was starting to hit and exceed one quarter with the percent of minorities eligible to vote heading toward one third.
This made the growth of minorities and their political power impossible to ignore and made them a ripe target for reactionary populism capitalizing on economic and social discontent — especially among less educated whites feeling their culture and way of life slipping away.
The Paralyzed Period: 1990 to 2005
The success of some of these conservative initiatives emboldened the Republican elected officials to continue to push an increasingly extreme agenda. They clung to orthodoxies forged in the previous decades, became more ideological and less practical, and refused to compromise with their Democratic counterparts. The politics of California became increasingly polarized and thus the state government became increasingly paralyzed as it moved into the early years of the 21st century.
Very little got done, including passing budgets and other basic functions of government. Add to that the aftereffects of the dot com crash, and the repercussions of an experiment to deregulate the market for electricity — and the state was a mess. California became the subject of ridicule from many of those living in other parts of the country.
In 2003 California voters had had enough. They recalled their governor, and in frustration elected a tough-talking Hollywood celebrity with zero experience in government. Maybe Arnold Schwarzenegger could crack some heads and make things work…
Sound familiar? American voters displayed the same frustration with polarized, paralyzed national government in the 2016 election and turned to Donald Trump. Trump took office pretty much 15 years after Arnie did.
The story did not end well for Schwarzenegger or conservative Republicans. They quickly ginned up a 2005 special election loaded with conservative ballot initiatives but the electorate would not go for them. All were soundly defeated.
That 2005 special election turned out to be the conservative movement’s Waterloo. After that point very few Republican statewide candidates could win, and conservative candidates at almost all levels of government and almost all regions of the state saw their support buckle and then collapse.
What comes 15 years after that 2005 California special election? The 2020 United States presidential election against incumbent Trump.
The Progressive Era Starts in California in 2005
Despite a persistent reputation as dreamers and hippies, Californians are a practical people. They like to deal with reality. After a point, they couldn’t be fooled again by the false promise that cutting taxes for the rich would trickle down and lead to jobs for everyone else. They got sick of hearing the same brain-dead orthodoxies of the old conservative playbook.
By 2006 the voters started shifting to more progressive initiatives that authorized bonds to reinvest in basic public infrastructure, which had been long neglected because of a lack of tax money and Republican intransigence towards public investment. Prop 1B authorized $20 billion in bonds for roads and public transportation, passing with 61 percent of the vote. Prop 1D, authorized $10 billion in bonds for K-12 education facilities, passing with 57 percent. By 2008, voters start going beyond shoring up existing infrastructure and investing in the future. For example, Prop 1A authorized $10 billion in bonds for a high speed rail, passing with 53 percent.
The return of Jerry Brown as governor in the election of 2010 marked another progressive milestone. Jerry’s tenure has seen a rehabilitation of good government initiatives that positively impact the economy, society and climate. And by the 2012 election, Democrats captured super-majorities in both the state house and the senate — able to override the last of the Republican obstacles to progress.
California has turned true blue. All statewide offices are now held by Democrats. Republicans can’t even run a credible campaign on the state level. And the GOP is decimated down-ballot too. (More on that in a future story.)
If California is the future, then the Republican collapse will soon go national. Many of the same pieces are already in place.
The Looming American Demographic Shift
Let’s just take one example, demographic change, to round out this piece. Arguably the demographic shift in California has been more responsible than any other single factor to shift the politics in a more progressive and Democratic direction.
Of course, California today is much farther down the demographic transformation road than it was in the 1990s and consequently considerably ahead of where the United States is today. But it is important to stress that the United States as a whole will continue down the same road, increasingly resembling where California is today.
Before 2020, the majority of American children will be nonwhite and by the early 2040s, the United States will have more nonwhites than whites in the population as a whole. California today represents the demographic future of the United States as a whole.
The demographic future is even closer for key states that are likely to decisively change the political complexion of the country as a whole. Arizona will be majority non-white by 2023 and Georgia by 2025. In the 2030s, Texas will be pushing two-thirds nonwhite and getting close to half Hispanic.
And the projected changes in the states are much broader than that. Right now, there are only five majority nonwhite states: California, Hawaii, New Mexico,Texas and the very recently-arrived Nevada. Maryland, the next majority-nonwhite state, should arrive in the next few years. After that, four more should join their ranks in the 2020s: Arizona, Georgia, Florida, and New Jersey.
In the 2030s, Alaska, Louisiana, and New York will join them, and in the 2040s by Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Virginia. The 2050s should round out the list by adding Colorado, North Carolina, and Washington state.
Within the next fifty years, therefore, the number of majority-nonwhite states could be 22, including seven of the currently largest states and 11 of the top 15. Today, these states account for two-thirds of the nation’s population.
All signs show that the national Republican party is handling this demographic change exactly how the California Republican party did. They are totally screwing it up, almost certainly alienating these critical constituencies for a long, long time to come.
What did you expect? After all, California is the future.
More of this argument will come through more stories to come. If you want to learn more, follow us through the series.
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