Is California Dreamin’?
Despite worrisome economic problems — high housing costs and burdensome pension liabilities, for starters — California seems to be on the upswing again.
Meanwhile, the Golden State, once solidly Republican, has been steadily becoming more Democratic since the Clinton administration. What does it signify? In State of Resistance: What California’s Dizzying Descent and Remarkable Resurgence Mean for America’s Future, Manuel Pastor, a professor of sociology and American studies and ethnicity at the University of Southern California, explains how and why the state is turning a deeper shade of blue.
The Democrats swept all the House races in Orange County — home of Ronald Reagan, John Wayne, Richard Nixon and Proposition 13 — in the midterms. How significant is that?
It is highly significant, especially since Orange County has been a Republican stronghold for so many years. The Republican county chairman himself said the GOP in California is now “dead.” But what is just as significant is how those races were won, which hasn’t gotten a lot of attention.
How were they won?
It wasn’t through that old formula of TV ads, big-name political consultants and last-minute get-out-the-vote efforts. This time there was an awful lot of grassroots organizing that made the difference — people that were involved very early on, coming into the district on weekends, knocking on doors, encouraging people to register to vote.
And there was something else, something I think is even more important than all that.
There was a determination on the part of their candidates and their backers not to move to the middle but to “move the middle.” By that I mean reframing issues so that they become acceptable in ways they otherwise wouldn’t be. You saw it with immigration, when people came to think differently about “Dreamers” and how they share American values. You see it when, instead of talking about redistribution of wealth to help people without jobs, you talk about raising the minimum wage to help the working poor. You’ve seen it, too, with the extent to which we’ve been able to forge some bipartisan consensus on the incarceration of criminals, making the conversation not so much about punishment as about rehabilitation and forgiveness. This, I think, is how political campaigns and policy debates will be won in our time.
Hasn’t Jerry Brown been crucial to this turnaround?
Jerry Brown gets a lot of credit for California’s resurgence, but that is only part of the story. The other is the role of grassroots activists and how they have moved the middle. In many cases, the grassroots activists have forced Brown to embrace more progressive politics than he wanted to.
Brown deserves a lot of credit, especially for leading the way on climate change. But in other areas, he has staked out moderate positions and been pressured to give in to the political reality coming from the more progressive side. He originally fought against sanctuary cities. He was originally for a higher sales tax and ended up supporting a higher income tax — the so-called millionaires tax. He is often credited with California’s economic recovery, but he has been as much a beneficiary of a number of changes, both economic and demographic, as the cause of any of it.
How do you account for the economic upturn?
Go back to the 1990s, with the end of the Cold War, when there was a cutback in defense spending. People rarely realize this, but in the number of manufacturing jobs, Los Angeles actually outranked Detroit and Chicago. These were largely defense industry jobs. With the cutbacks, California went into a recession. A lot of people with these working-class jobs, enjoying middle-class lives, lost their jobs. It was devastating, and by the early 2000s, there were almost no Fortune 500 companies left in LA. But the key to the turnaround was in Northern California.
People forget why Silicon Valley is called Silicon Valley. It’s because that’s where microchips were manufactured. But when it became apparent that microchip manufacturing was moving to Asia, the business leaders had to figure out what the next big thing was and build their economy around that — which of course was the internet and software. And they did it. Fifty percent of the venture capital in this country goes to California, and 80 percent of that goes to the Bay Area. There is newer and younger leadership of these tech companies, and that is reflected in our politics changing from red to blue.
How is that?
Tech industry leaders tend to be fairly libertarian on economic issues — less regulation, for example. But they are more libertarian on a lot of cultural issues as well. And they are responsive to their employees. Back in 2016, a poll of tech workers found that 90 percent of them gave to Hillary Rodham Clinton. Another poll showed that while the CEOs still leaned Republican, it was a pretty even split. These younger CEOs are also more supportive of inclusiveness and diversity than the older business class tended to be. And all that you see played out in the state’s attitudes toward immigration and toward immigrants.
What’s the connection?
Back in the 1990s, under Pete Wilson, an otherwise pretty moderate Republican, there was a lot of anti-immigrant sentiment. At the same time, securing the borders was a mainstream Democratic position, endorsed by the Clintons. This was also about the time Rush Limbaugh was starting to talk about politics on his radio show out of Sacramento. But here, too, the activists moved the middle. People forget that it was Reagan who issued an amnesty to illegals, and this more welcoming attitude — an attitude that didn’t view immigrants as pests — was embraced by the progressives. And while what Reagan did was seen as a humane thing to do, by the time these new citizens began voting, they were voting at higher rates than native-born whites, and they were voting Democratic.
We’re accustomed to thinking of California as a harbinger for the rest of the country. In what way is that true today?
Besides those House races, there were races for state legislatures around the country that were highly significant. Democrats seem disappointed because they lost some of those high-profile races, like Beto O’Rourke’s attempt to unseat Ted Cruz in Texas. But those state legislative races should make them very happy. After Barack Obama won the White House, a lot of Democrats seem to have thought they could just sit back, like their work was done. And there was a major fall-off in energy after 2012. In midterm elections during the Obama presidency, Democrats lost 900 seats in state legislatures. They didn’t get out and campaign the way they should have, and they paid dearly for it.
And this time?
In the 2018 midterms last month, they picked up 350 state legislature seats that had turned from blue to red back to blue again. The difference, I believe, was the energy level of grassroots activists who realized, after Trump won the White House, that they had to get active again.
Reach Pastor at 213.740.5604 or firstname.lastname@example.org.