Op-Ed

Dreaming of life without the GOP? Welcome to California—where things are far from perfect

Partisans cherish a persistent illusion: Everything would be fantastic if it wasn't for those dopes in the other party. Yet, as one side gains power, its ability to pass the buck invariably wanes.

In Washington, where Republicans now control the White House, the Senate and the House of Representatives, there is no one else to blame if the healthcare system, the tax code and the economy do not improve, or if the environment deteriorates and our foreign enemies assert themselves. For the next two years, the GOP owns every federal policy success and failure. 

Many Californians fear the worst from the GOP’s virtual monopoly. President Trump is unpopular here. So are the Republicans. In fact, Golden State officials have positioned themselves as a bulwark of "resistance" to significant parts of their agenda.

Gov. Jerry Brown is defiant on environmental policy. Sheila Kuehl of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors has encouraged people "to engage in any way they can to slow down anything that might come from the federal departments and Congress,” declaring that "you can’t just be dormant when fascism is growing.”

On many matters, state and local officials ought to oppose the Trump administration's populist nationalism, in accordance with the United States’ federalist system and the 10th Amendment.

At the same time, California Democrats cannot cast themselves as a mere resistance movement, for the simple reason that, in the Golden State, their power far surpasses the Republican advantage in Washington.

California voters have elected a Democratic governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, secretary of state, treasurer, controller and insurance commissioner. The state Senate has more than twice as many Democrats as Republicans. So does the state Assembly. Democratic mayors preside in San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose, Long Beach and Los Angeles.

We're a case study in what a political community looks like when Republicans wield little or no power — and an ongoing refutation of the conceit that but for the GOP, the United States would be free of dysfunction.

Sure, the Golden State gets a lot right. It’s the sixth-largest economy in the world.

But California ranks in the lowest fifth of states in education. Housing costs are out of control. Our major cities face a crisis of homelessness. Our police officers kill citizens at rates comparable to the rest of the country. Our infrastructure is severely overstressed due to underinvestment. The bullet train project meant to connect L.A. to the Bay Area is a national joke. Our counties, cities and schools are being crushed by an unsustainable pension burden. Our taxes are already among the nation's highest.

And it is no longer plausible to blame any of this on Republicans. For the foreseeable future, Democrats own every Golden State success and failure.

That ought to be a wake-up call, even if the California GOP remains too incompetent to win.

Most California public servants are nothing if not earnest in their horror at the direction President Trump is taking the country. Few seem to realize that they're in a position to oppose Trumpism in a manner much more powerful than defiant statements and fleeting acts of resistance. They are in a position to govern well in the nation's biggest state.

They can be the change they want to see in government — and demonstrate to the country that Democrats know how to improve American communities.

To govern badly is always a failure of the public's trust. To do so now, as a public servant in California — to ignore dysfunction in deference to a special interest group or kick problems down the road to avoid the difficulty of solving them — isn't just a betrayal of the public, it is high-octane fuel for the ascendant Trump coalition.

The national GOP is deeply flawed. Until Democrats acknowledge that those flaws are mostly inconsequential when it comes to what ails California, the Golden State will fall short of its potential, and the rest of the country will reject even the best of what we have to offer.

Positive leadership by example will always be more compelling than mere opposition.

Conor Friedersdorf is a contributing writer to Opinion, a staff writer at the Atlantic and founding editor of the Best of Journalism, a newsletter that curates exceptional nonfiction.

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