Back in the seventies you used to get points for saying what a few big thinkers were saying about how things were going in the world – social and political and economic trends showed that the whole world was going to turn into either Los Angeles or Beijing, or more broadly, California or China. It was going to be one or the other. It would be hyper-consumerism and glitz – with street gangs and scolding evangelicals and crazed cults on the side – or it would be a drab command economy with relative order and ugly clothes. That was the new clash of civilizations, before the Muslim jihadists complicated matters. Still, for a long time California was the place to be – where Ozzie and Harriet lived, and Gidget did too. The weather was fine, the schools the best in the nation – college, in our first-rate state universities, was pretty much free – and the Beach Boys were surfing, or at least singing about surfing. There was money to be made too – aerospace was booming, new technologies spawned new big corporations, and there were jobs for everyone. Everyone had a nice house in the endless but pleasant sprawling suburbs, with two cars in the garage and a cool hotrod parked in the street for the teenager – or so it seemed. Hollywood was here too, so it was clear. California was always the place to go to make it big, or to reinvent yourself, or both. It always was. After the Gold Rush of 1849 somehow this became the place of quick amazing success. Then there was The Grapes of Wrath, where the Joad family, driven out of the Dust Bowl, searches for some sort of California Dream, even if that didn’t go so well – but they had the right idea. Even in the late sixties the Mommas and Papas were California Dreaming, and there was that Summer of Love up in San Francisco. Be sure to wear some flowers in your hair. This was the future.
Then it turned sour, as Michael Grunwald explained in a Time cover story in 2009:
California, you may have heard, is an apocalyptic mess of raging wildfires, soaring unemployment, mass foreclosures and political paralysis. It’s dysfunctional. It’s ungovernable. Its bond rating is barely above junk. It’s so broke, it had to hand out IOUs while its leaders debated how many prisoners to release and parks to close. Nevada aired ads mocking California’s business climate to lure its entrepreneurs. The media portray California as a noir fantasyland of overcrowded schools, perpetual droughts, celebrity breakdowns, illegal immigration, hellish congestion and general malaise, captured in headlines like “Meltdown on the Ocean” and “California’s Wipeout Economy” and “Will California Become America’s First Failed State?”
Yeah, we blew it. Governor Reagan presided over the dismantling of the schools and services and the severe hollowing out of the tax base – to make us all freer, in the conservative sense of the word, where government is never the solution, as it’s always the problem. Grunwald, however, said the dream is not quite dead yet:
It’s still a dream state. In fact, the pioneering mega-state that gave us microchips, freeways, blue jeans, tax revolts, extreme sports, energy efficiency, health clubs, Google searches, Craigslist, iPhones and the Hollywood vision of success is still the cutting edge of the American future – economically, environmentally, demographically, culturally and maybe politically. It’s the greenest and most diverse state, the most globalized in general and most Asia-oriented in particular at a time when the world is heading in all those directions. It’s also an unparalleled engine of innovation, the mecca of high tech, biotech and now clean tech. In 2008, California’s wipeout economy attracted more venture capital than the rest of the nation combined. Somehow its supposedly hostile business climate has nurtured Google, Apple, Hewlett-Packard, Facebook, Twitter, Disney, Cisco, Intel, eBay, YouTube, MySpace, the Gap and countless other companies that drive the way we live.
The Republicans out here couldn’t kill all that, as much as they tried, by making this a place where the schools are now crap, and you have to pay big bucks even for the state universities, where the roads and bridges are falling apart and the state is always broke, on purpose, so no services are available, because there should be no state services as a matter of principle. The innovators and empire builders still stayed. Maybe it was the weather. They sent their kids to private schools.
Then the inevitable happened. Folks out here finally got tired of the Republicans. Arnold Schwarzenegger turned out to be a bad joke. We brought back Jerry Brown, who was our eccentric Governor Moonbeam in the eighties and the son of Pat Brown, the governor who presided over the building of all the new freeways and the state’s amazing university system. Paul Krugman recently explained what happened:
Modern movement conservatism, which transformed the GOP from the moderate party of Dwight Eisenhower into the radical right-wing organization we see today, was largely born in California. The Golden State, even more than the South, created today’s religious conservatism; it elected Ronald Reagan governor; it’s where the tax revolt of the 1970s began. But that was then. In the decades since, the state has grown ever more liberal, thanks in large part to an ever-growing nonwhite share of the electorate.
As a result, the reign of the Governator aside, California has been solidly Democratic since the late 1990s. And ever since the political balance shifted, conservatives have declared the state doomed. Their specifics keep changing, but the moral is always the same: liberal do-gooders are bringing California to its knees.
But that’s not the case:
Unemployment in California remains high, but it is coming down – and there’s a projected budget surplus, in part because the implosion of the state’s Republican Party finally gave Democrats a big enough political advantage to push through some desperately needed tax increases. Far from presiding over a Greek-style crisis, Gov. Jerry Brown is proclaiming a comeback.
Needless to say, the usual suspects are still predicting doom – this time from the very tax hikes that are closing the budget gap, which they say will cause millionaires and businesses to flee the state. Well, maybe – but serious studies have found very little evidence either that tax hikes cause lots of wealthy people to move or that state taxes have any significant impact on growth.
There’s a lesson here:
California isn’t a state in which liberals have run wild; it’s a state where a liberal majority has been effectively hamstrung by a fanatical conservative minority that, thanks to supermajority rules, has been able to block effective policy-making.
And that’s where things get really interesting – because the era of hamstrung government seems to be coming to an end. Over the years, California’s Republicans moved right as the state moved left, yet retained political relevance thanks to their blocking power. But at this point the state’s GOP has fallen below critical mass, losing even its power to obstruct – and this has left Mr. Brown free to push an agenda of tax hikes and infrastructure spending that sounds remarkably like the kind of thing California used to do before the rise of the radical right.
Krugman suggests there as national implications:
After all, California’s political story – in which a radicalized GOP fell increasingly out of touch with an increasingly diverse and socially liberal electorate, and eventually found itself marginalized – is arguably playing out with a lag on the national scene too.
The thought is that California might still be the place where the future happens first, without Republicans, as an item in the Economist explains:
California gave America two of its five most recent Republican presidents. But the state party has fallen on hard times since the days of Nixon and Reagan. After having fallen for decades, the number of registered Republican voters in California now stands at just 30% -and with the number of voters expressing no party preference rising fast, the party is in danger of slipping into third place in the state. No Republican holds statewide office in California and the Democrats enjoy wide majorities in both chambers.
The picture is no prettier when it comes to elections for national offices. Republicans have not won a Senate election in California since 1988. The party now accounts for just 19 of the state’s 53 congressmen. The last Republican presidential candidate to take California was George Bush senior. As the most populous state, California holds over one in ten electoral-college votes.
Neither Mitt Romney nor Barack Obama bothered to campaign out here – they just dropped by to raise funds. The state is no longer in play. The state is blue now, and there was a tipping point:
In 1994 Pete Wilson, the Republican governor, pushed aggressively for a law to deny public services and benefits to California’s growing number of illegal immigrants. This tarnished the Republican brand among Latino voters, many of whom might otherwise have been well disposed to a party with a pro-business, pro-family message. Two years later the Republicans lost their majority in the state assembly.
That mattered a lot. We had a rule that required a two-thirds supermajority in both chambers to pass a budget, which we ditched in 2011 – now a simple majority will do. A supermajority is still needed to approve any tax rises, but the Democrats have that now. There aren’t enough Republicans around to block anything, as in this Los Angeles Times item:
“It’s no longer a statewide party,” said Allan Hoffenblum, who worked for 30 years as a Republican consultant in California. “They are down to 30 percent, which makes it impossible to win a statewide election. You just can’t get enough crossover voters.”
“They have alienated large swaths of voters,” he said. “They have become too doctrinaire on the social issues. It’s become a cult.”
If this is where the future happens first, then the past has to be left behind:
“The national party is becoming a party of very enthusiastic social conservatives driven by Southerners,” said Bill Whalen, a fellow with the conservative Hoover Institution at Stanford University. “It’s a problem if you’re an independent voter in California. If you think about the Republican Party, what national figure comes to mind? George W. Bush or Newt Gingrich…”
There’s no hope there, and now there’s nothing here:
“The institution of the California Republican Party, I would argue, has effectively collapsed,” said Steve Schmidt, a Republican consultant who was a senior adviser to Mr. Schwarzenegger. “It doesn’t do any of the things that a political party should do. It doesn’t register voters. It doesn’t recruit candidates. It doesn’t raise money. The Republican Party in the state institutionally has become a small ideological club that is basically in the business of hunting out heretics.”
That about sums it up, and there was the recent mayoral race here in Los Angeles:
“The state of the Republican Party in L.A. is as dead as dead gets,” said former mayoral candidate Walter Moore, who pulled in 26 percent of the vote when he ran as an Independent in 2009 against incumbent Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. Compare that to four years earlier when Moore ran as a GOP candidate in an election with multiple Democratic candidates. He won three percent of the vote.
“I think it’s a very tarnished brand in this city,” he said. “You may as well say you’re in the Klan.”
And then there was the final indignity:
In a bit of cognitive behavioral therapy – or masochism – leaders of the California Republican Party have invited a Democratic strategist to a retreat this weekend to tell them, more or less, how bad they are.
The strategist, Garry South, has been highly critical of the Republican Party’s inability to adapt to California’s changing demographics, among other failures. Republicans hold no statewide office, and party registration has fallen below 30 percent statewide.
“It’s a pretty depressing presentation if you’re a Republican,” South said. “So I may have a doctor on hand to issue Prozac prescriptions.”
Something is up here, and California might still be the place where the future happens first, in this case the end of the Republican Party.
Maybe so, but George Washington University’s John Sides made the argument in the Washington Post that the 2012 results “didn’t prove that the Republican Party needs a reboot” – people tend to overestimate how much policy and ideology have to do with election outcomes, and after eight years of whatever, they’ll want to try something new, whatever it is. Things move back and forth. They always do. Or they don’t. New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait made the now popular case for the Emerging Democratic Majority:
The Democrats forged a national majority beginning in 1932. That majority came apart beginning in the mid-sixties, from which point, through about the nineties, Republicans were generally able to cast Democrats as carrying out an agenda that redistributed resources from the white middle class to the (disproportionately nonwhite and presumptively undeserving) poor.
Bill Clinton built a political message that allowed him to thrive within this hostile environment. But over the last couple election cycles, the environment itself has changed. Racial and cultural divisions no longer naturally cut in the GOP’s favor.
Chait sees things this way:
The large plural of voters who still saw themselves as Democrats largely endured through the seventies. Only by the end of the eighties had these voters stopped thinking of themselves as “Democrats who often vote Republican” and begun to think of themselves as “Republicans.” But beginning at the end of George W. Bush’s disastrous second term, the Democratic advantage has opened up again, and shows no signs of closing. And the partisan edge, while much smaller than the New Deal-era version, is more stable.
The old Democratic coalition was ideologically diffuse, and depended on overwhelming support among white Southern conservatives who elected reactionaries to Congress and frequently defected on the presidential ballot. The current Democratic advantage represents a smaller but more stable ideological plurality.
Sure, but all sorts of unforeseen crises can happen, and Nate Cohn tries to straighten all of this out:
The debate over a permanent Democratic majority has devolved into discussions of long-term uncertainty (like the possibility that the economy will falter) and the perils of maintaining a diverse coalition (unforeseen issues could divide a coalition already fractured by culture and class). But Republican strategists and politicians won’t and can’t count on Democrats’ imploding between now and 2016. Who knows where the economy will be in four years? Even if Democrats might fracture one day, it is difficult to envision the Democratic coalition descending into internecine conflict anytime soon. Majorities don’t last, at least in part because minority parties make adjustments to capitalize on opportunities. After all, the New Deal coalition wasn’t won with appeals to free silver or a League of Nations.
The important question isn’t whether Democratic dominance is inevitable, but how the GOP must adjust and compensate for generational and demographic changes.
That’s the problem:
Obama’s 3.9 point margin of victory was modest in historical terms. But the last four elections have largely re-litigated the same issues, sorting voters into two of the most ideologically coherent political coalitions in American history. The “red states” and “blue states” have withstood twelve unusually tumultuous years, from 9/11 to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars to a historic financial crisis. This isn’t the post-war norm; the electoral maps of 1948, 1960, 1968, and 1976 look quite different from each other, even though all were close. Many of the fluctuations in the two party coalitions over the last twelve years can be attributed to ideological sorting, like the continuing decline of Democratic fortunes in Appalachia or Republican losses in the affluent and well-educated suburbs of Denver, Washington, and Raleigh. These changes are reinforcing divisions between the two parties, not upending them.
The problem for Republicans is simple: They built relatively durable, ideological coalitions immediately before a new generation of socially moderate and diverse voters completely upended the electoral calculus. In 2012, voters over age 30 went for Romney by 1.5 points – a result that shouldn’t surprise observers of the Bush elections. But the persistent and narrow GOP lean of the 2000 and 2004 electorates was overwhelmed by Obama’s 24-point victory among 18-to-29-year-olds. Democratic success with young voters is a product of demographics, not just Obama’s fleeting appeal or Bush’s legacy. Just 58 percent of 18-to-29-year-old voters were white in 2012 and 19 percent said they have no religious affiliation; in comparison, 76 percent of voters over 30 were white and only 10 percent were non-religious.
That means there’s doom in the air:
It was frequently observed that a Romney victory would have required a historic performance among white voters, provided that Obama could match his ’08 performance among non-white voters. Bush’s 2004 performance among white voters wouldn’t get it done anymore. In 2016, the math gets even more challenging. If the white share of the electorate declines further, Republicans won’t just need to match their best performance of the last 24 years among white voters, they’ll also need to match their best performance of the last 24 years among non-white voters. If they can’t make the requisite 16-point gain among non-white voters – a tall order, to say the least – then the next Republican candidate will enter truly uncharted territory, potentially needing to win up to 64 percent of the white vote just to break 50 percent of the popular vote.
That’s just not going to happen:
Although Republicans made gains among white voters nationally, they didn’t make gains outside of the South and Appalachia. This hasn’t done much for their standing in the Electoral College, since their gains in the battleground states have been limited to sparsely populated stretches of northern Florida, southeastern Ohio, and western Pennsylvania. Only in Pennsylvania can the GOP claim that these gains have been sufficient to nudge a battleground state in their direction.
At the same time, Obama did much better than John Kerry in well-educated suburbs, moving states like Virginia and Colorado into the Democratic column. It is often overlooked that Obama also did better among rural white voters outside of Appalachia and the South than Kerry or Al Gore. As a result, Obama consolidated the competitive states of the Upper Midwest and easily won two overwhelmingly white states carried by Bush – Iowa and New Hampshire. Similar gains in the farmland of northwestern Ohio and south-central Pennsylvania helped Obama counter losses in Appalachia.
Cohn suggests a Republican candidate could say this – “I believe in evolution, I support contraception, there’s no such thing as legitimate rape, I like science, I think climate change is real, and I’m willing to compromise.” That would help, but it’s unlikely to happen. One might as well vote for a Democrat. Differentiation is everything in politics.
And that doesn’t address the underlying issue. John Sides is right – after eight years people usually do vote for a change. Something is always wrong with the party in power. That’s inevitable, as everyone makes mistakes. Let the other guys have a turn, so we end up choosing a system of cyclical Alternate Government – back and forth, back and forth – except when we don’t. California is where the future happens first and out here we all lived through the damage that causes. Each side doesn’t get their turn out here anymore. That cult, or that club that is basically in the business of hunting out heretics, forfeited their turn at this long ago, which makes it odd that Republican National Committee is holding its spring meeting here in Hollywood this week:
When it was Ada Fisher’s turn, she had a very pointed message: “Look around the room. There are only three of us who are black in this room.”
During an interview after the meeting adjourned, Fisher, North Carolina’s national committeewoman, brought it up again. She said one of the biggest problems with the Republican Party today is that it’s letting everyone else define it. Fisher said historically the GOP had a strong record on civil rights, and it should highlight that. But she says Republicans today also shouldn’t compromise on their core principles.
“I don’t want the party to be ‘Democratic lite’ – to try to emulate everything that the Democrats have done,” she said. “We have to stand for something. We stand for individual responsibility. We stand for free enterprise. We live for these kinds of things.”
Becoming “Democratic lite” is a prominent concern being uttered during breaks in the halls and in closed-door strategy sessions in Hollywood this week.
They have a lot to work out, but one wonders why they chose to meet here – just down the street at that giant Lowe’s hotel that looms over the theater where the smug pretty-people hand out the Oscars each year. It was an odd choice. This is where the future happens first, and it already happened here. This is the state where the once proud and powerful Republican Party systematically forfeited any claim to legitimacy and then turned into less than an afterthought.
Oh well. They can always walk one block west and visit the very cool building where Ronald Reagan had his first office up on the eighth floor – when he was a union president – and dream of what once was. No one else out here does that. It would be better if they looked around and saw their future, like the rest of us out here.