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The next time you call for bipartisan cooperation in America and long for Republicans and Democrats to work side by side, stop it. Remember the great lesson of California, the harbinger of America’s political future, and realize that today such bipartisan cooperation simply can’t get done.
In this current period of American politics, at this juncture in our history, there’s no way that a bipartisan path provides the way forward. The way forward is on the path California blazed about 15 years ago.
In the early 2000s, California faced a similar situation to the one America faces today. Its state politics were severely polarized, and state government was largely paralyzed. The Republican Party was trapped in the brain-dead orthodoxies of an ideology stuck in the past. The party was controlled by zealous activists and corrupt special interests who refused to face up to the reality of the new century. It was a party that refused to work with the Democrats in good faith or compromise in any way.
The solution for the people of California was to reconfigure the political landscape and shift a supermajority of citizens — and by extension their elected officials — under the Democratic Party’s big tent. The natural continuum of more progressive to more moderate solutions then got worked out within the context of the only remaining functioning party. The California Democrats actually cared about average citizens, embraced the inevitable diversity of 21st-century society, weren’t afraid of real innovation, and were ready to start solving the many challenges of our time, including climate change.
California today provides a model for America as a whole. This model of politics and government is by no means perfect, but it is far ahead of the nation in coming to terms with the inexorable digital, global, sustainable transformation of our era. It is a thriving work in progress that gives hope that America can pull out of the political mess we’re in. California today provides a playbook for America’s new way forward. It’s worth contemplating as we enter 2018, which will be a critical election year.
Understanding the Context of the New American Civil War
This is no ordinary political moment. Trump is not the reason this is no ordinary time — he’s simply the most obvious symptom that reminds us all of this each day.
The best way to understand politics in America today is to reframe it as closer to civil war. Just the phrase “civil war” is harsh, and many people may cringe. It brings up images of guns and death, the bodies of Union and Confederate soldiers.
America today is nowhere near that level of conflict or at risk of such violence. However, America today does exhibit some of the core elements that move a society from what normally is the process of working out political differences toward the slippery slope of civil war. We’ve seen it in many societies in many previous historical eras, including what happened in the United States in 1860.
Two Systems at Odds
America’s original Civil War was not just fought to emancipate slaves for humanitarian reasons. The conflict was really about the clash between two very different economic systems that were fundamentally at odds and ultimately could not coexist. The Confederacy was based on an agrarian economy dependent on slaves. The Union was based on a new kind of capitalist manufacturing economy dependent on free labor. They tried to somehow coexist from the time of the founding era, but by the middle of the 19th century, something had to give. One side or the other had to win.
America today faces a similar juncture around fundamentally incompatible energy systems. The red states held by the Republicans are deeply entrenched in carbon-based energy systems like coal and oil. They consequently deny the science of climate change, are trying to resuscitate the dying coal industry, and recently have begun to open up coastal waters to oil drilling.
The blue states held by the Democrats are increasingly shifting to clean energy like solar and installing policies that wean the energy system off carbon. In the era of climate change, with the mounting pressure of increased natural disasters, something must give. We can’t have one step forward, one step back every time an administration changes. One side or the other has to win.
Two Classes at Odds
Another driver on the road to civil war is when two classes become fundamentally at odds. This usually takes some form of rich versus poor, the wealthy and the people, the 1 percent and the 99 percent. The system gets so skewed toward those at the top that the majority at the bottom rises up and power shifts.
The last time America was in that position was in the 1930s, during the Great Depression. We were on the road of severe class conflict that could have continued toward civil war, but we worked out a power shift that prevented widespread violence. Franklin Roosevelt, the so-called traitor to his class, helped establish a supermajority New Deal coalition of Democrats that rolled all the way through the postwar boom. The conservative Republicans who had championed a politics that advantaged the rich throughout the 1920s and promoted isolationism in the 1930s were sidelined for two generations — close to 50 years.
Today’s conservative Republicans face the same risk. Since 1980, their policies have engorged the rich while flatlining the incomes of the majority of Americans, from the presidency of Ronald Reagan through to last December’s tax overhaul, which ultimately bestows 83 percent of the benefits over time to the top 1 percent. Make no mistake: A reckoning with not just Trump, but conservatism, is coming.
Two Cultures at Odds
The differences between two economic systems or two classes that are fundamentally at odds could conceivably get worked out through a political process that peacefully resolves differences. However, culture frequently gets in the way. That’s especially true when pressures are building for big system overhauls that will create new winners and losers.
Two different political cultures already at odds through different political ideologies, philosophies, and worldviews can get trapped in a polarizing process that increasingly undermines compromise. They see the world through different lenses, consume different media, and literally live in different places. They start to misunderstand the other side, then start to misrepresent them, and eventually make them the enemy. The opportunity for compromise is then lost. This is where America is today.
At some point, one side or the other must win — and win big. The side resisting change, usually the one most rooted in the past systems and incumbent interests, must be thoroughly defeated — not just for a political cycle or two, but for a generation or two. That gives the winning party or movement the time and space needed to really build up the next system without always fighting rear-guard actions and getting drawn backwards. The losing party or movement will need that same time to go through a fundamental rethink, a long-term renewal that eventually will enable them to play a new game.
Today’s American Civil War
Trump is doing exactly what America needs him to do right now. He’s becoming increasingly conservative and outrageous by the day. Trump could have come into office with a genuinely new agenda that could have helped working people. Instead, he has spent the past year becoming a caricature of all things conservative — and in the meantime has alienated most of America and certainly all the growing political constituencies of the 21st century. He is turning the Republican brand toxic for millennials, women, Latinos, people of color, college-educated people, urban centers, the tech industry, and the economic powerhouses of the coasts, to name a few.
The Republican Party is playing their part perfectly, too. They completely fell for the Trump trap — and that’s exactly what America needed them to do. The Republican Party could have maintained some distance from Trump and kept a healthy check on him through Congress. Instead, they fully embraced him in a group bear hug that culminated in a deeply flawed tax law in the waning days of 2017. This mess of a law, thrown together without traditional vetting, is riddled with outrageous loopholes that benefit the crony donor class and line the pockets of many of the politicians who passed it. The law is hugely unpopular, and everyone who voted for it is marked for the election of 2018.
Now the entire Republican Party, and the entire conservative movement that has controlled it for the past four decades, is fully positioned for the final takedown that will cast them out for a long period of time in the political wilderness. They deserve it.
Let’s just say what needs to be said: The Republican Party over the past 40 years has maneuvered itself into a position where they are the bad guys on the wrong side of history. For a long time, they have been able to hide this fact through a sophisticated series of veils, invoking cultural voodoo that fools a large enough number of Americans to stay in the game. However, Donald Trump has laid waste to that sophistication and has given America and the world the raw version of what current conservative politics is all about.
The Republican Party is all about rule by and for billionaires at the expense of working people. Trump is literally the incarnation of what the party stands for: shaping laws for the good of billionaires and the 1 percent. His cabinet is stuffed with them.
The Republican Party is the party of climate change denial. Trump is the denier-in-chief, but there are 180 climate science deniers in the current Congress (142 in the House and 38 in the Senate), and none of them are Democrats. More than 59 percent of Republicans in the House and 73 percent of Republicans in the Senate deny the scientific consensus that climate change is happening, that human activity is the main cause, and that it is a serious threat. Another way to say it is that the Republican Party is in the pocket of the oil and carbon energy industry. Trump just cut through the crap and named Exxon’s CEO as our secretary of state to unravel the United Nations climate accords. No beating around that bush for the sake of appearances — Trump burned the bush down.
The Republican Party for the past 40 years has mastered using dog whistles to gin up racial divides to get their white voters to the polls. Trump just disposes of niceties and flatly encourages white nationalists, bans Muslims, walls off Mexicans, and calls out “shithole” countries.
Trump is just making clear to all what was boiling under the surface for decades, and that’s exactly what we need him to do. Why? Because America finally needs to take the Republican Party down for a generation or two. Not just the presidency. Not just clear out the U.S. House. Not just tip back the Senate. But fundamentally beat the Republicans on all levels at once, including clearing out governorships and statehouses across the land.
The Dramatic Collapse of Republicans in California
Could such as collapse of the Republican Party really happen? Won’t it take decades of trench warfare to put the GOP on the run? Not at all. A political collapse could happen very fast, as it did in California.
California was a model of governmental dysfunction in the 1990–2005 period, with Democrats and Republicans at each other’s throats and little being accomplished. The political atmosphere became so toxic that Democratic governor Gray Davis was recalled in 2003 and replaced with populist Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger, who then proceeded to up the ante on polarization by pushing a series of conservative ballot initiatives in a special election in 2005. They were all handily defeated by the voters, marking the zenith of conservative Republican attempts to control California.
After that point, it was all downhill for the conservative GOP agenda in California. Schwarzenegger understood the sea change early and dumped right-wing populism and became far more moderate, going along with many progressive priorities. He soon started working with Democrats in the legislature on infrastructure, culminating in the passage of Proposition 1B in 2006 ($20 billion for roads and public transportation). Also in 2006, he and the legislature allocated an additional $150 million to stem cell research, supported a successful move to raise the minimum wage, and passed the Global Warming Solutions Act, which targeted a reduction of 25 percent in greenhouse gas emissions in the next 20 years. And in 2008, voters passed Prop 1A, authorizing $10 billion for high-speed rail.
Meanwhile, even though Schwarzenegger remained governor, the Democrats steadily expanded their majority in the state assembly. Then, in 2010, Democrat Jerry Brown was elected governor, and with the 2012 election, Democrats finally attained a supermajority in both houses of the state legislature. This was critical for overriding constant Republican filibusters and passing tax revenue laws (which still required a supermajority by Prop 13 dictates). The supermajority attained in 2012 was the first California legislative supermajority since 1933 and the first one for the Democrats since 1883. This is remarkable considering that in the dysfunctional 1990s, the state assembly and senate were closely divided between Republicans and Democrats, seemingly light-years away from the supermajority Democrats really needed to get things done.
Alongside these developments, Democratic domination of California representation in the U.S. House of Representatives steadily increased. Back in the 1990s, under Republican governor Pete Wilson, there was essentially parity between Republicans and Democrats in Congress. Today, there is almost a 3:1 split (39–14) in favor of the Democrats. Plus, they control both U.S. Senate seats and every single statewide elected office. There are no longer any Republicans able to mount a credible statewide election.
So, going from the zenith of right-wing populism to progressive domination in California did not take very long. That could easily happen in the country as a whole. The national GOP, after the 2016 election, controlled the presidency, the House, the Senate, and a strong majority of governorships and state legislatures. Since then, President Trump has become historically unpopular among American voters and the GOP Congress and its actions have become widely detested. Very quickly, their 2016 triumphs have morphed into a poisonous electoral environment where the GOP in 2018 is probably going to lose control of the House of Representatives and possibly the Senate, lose governorships and many hundreds of state legislative seats. And while the 2020 election is still a couple years away, an early forecast from political scientist Eric R.A.N. Smith has Trump (assuming his unpopularity continues) netting only 41 percent of electoral votes in that election.
In short, political change is slow until it’s very fast. The fall of the GOP is likely to be no different.
Life on the Other Side of Democratic One-Party Rule
There is life on the other side of that Republican political collapse. There is a clear way forward in the land of Democratic, progressive supermajorities. California is thriving right now, the economy is booming, state government budgets are setting aside surpluses, and the public is happy with its political leaders (as we have laid out in other articles in this series). California is leading the world in technological innovation and creative policies to counter climate change.
What about the need for checks and balances? Many Americans might be wary of trusting a political environment where one party has complete control of political power. How does society process the range of differences in political opinions in elections and in forming policies?
Californians faced those same questions and dealt with that new reality. In 2008, voters passed Proposition 11, which created a Citizens Redistricting Commission to redraw state legislative districts that over time had been heavily gerrymandered to protect incumbents of both political parties. That commission was insulated from politics and changed districts along more rational lines that took into consideration natural geography and longstanding contiguous communities. Then, in 2010, the voters passed Proposition 20, which applied a similar logic to congressional redistricting.
Alongside that effort, voters in 2010 also passed Proposition 14, a state constitutional amendment that established a top-two primary system in which all candidates, regardless of party, are placed on the same primary ballot, and the top two vote-getters, regardless of party, head into the general election. The immediate result was to bolster competition within almost all districts. In a district populated by Democrats, the voters still got a choice between, say, a more progressive candidate and a moderate candidate.
Politics in California today still has a range of political differences that get worked out within political bodies. The city council of San Francisco is made up of all Democrats but is often trapped in fierce policy battles between supervisors who are more left of center than their colleagues who are more moderate and supportive of the tech industry. However, everyone on that city council is a Democrat and would be considered a progressive Democrat in the national context. They all embrace creating a diverse society, fighting climate change, etc. The California Legislature holds a similar range of political opinions, from very left to pro-business Democrat, but they almost all operate within a worldview that shares much common ground — a worldview that is not shared by the few remaining Republicans still in the chambers.
In short, California has a supermajority of 60 percent of the population, and thus a supermajority of elected officials, who share a common vision of a general way forward. Their differences are worked out within the confines of that general vision. California Republicans, like their conservative national colleagues, don’t share that general vision, and so they have been pushed out of serious political discourse. They were beaten, and beaten badly. And they almost certainly won’t be part of that discourse until they go through a lengthy process of reform over many years.
The Final Battle Begins in 2018
America is desperate for a functioning political supermajority that can break out of our political stasis and boldly move ahead and take on our many 21st-century challenges. The nation can’t take much more of our one step forward, one step back politics that gets little done despite the need for massive changes.
America today has many parallels to America in the 1850s or America in the 1930s. Both of those decades ended with one side definitively winning, forming a political supermajority that restructured systems going forward to solve our problems once and for all. In the 1850s, we fought the Civil War, and the Republican Party won and then dominated American politics for 50 years. In the 1930s, the Democratic Party won and dominated American politics for roughly the same amount of time.
America today is in a similar position. Our technologies, our economy, our geopolitics are going through fundamental changes. We are facing new challenges, like climate change and massive economic inequality, that must be addressed with fundamental reforms.
America can’t afford more political paralysis. One side or the other must win. This is a civil war that can be won without firing a shot. But it is a fundamental conflict between two worldviews that must be resolved in short order.
California, as usual, resolved it early. The Democrats won; the Republicans lost. The conservative way forward lost; the progressive way forward began. As we’ve laid out in this series, California is the future, always about 15 years ahead of the rest of the country. That means that America, starting in 2018, is going to resolve it, too.
This argument has been built on previous articles and will continue through more stories to come. If you want more, follow us through this series.