Opinion: Everything’s wrong in California — and yes, progressives can fix it

An aerial view of the intersection of the 101 and 110 freeways in downtown Los Angeles
There’s ample reason to be hopeful about the future of progressive politics and activism in California; it’s just important for us and our political leaders to listen to the right voices, Paul Thornton writes.
(Los Angeles Times)

Good morning. I’m Paul Thornton, and it is Saturday, Feb. 13, 2021. Let’s take a look back at the week in Opinion.

I know I should start off with something impeachment-related, but this lifelong Californian cannot resist giving attention to the latest entry in the long-running journalism genre, “What’s the Matter With California?” Before delving into specifics, I want to state two all-important guiding principles for anyone who, in my view, wants to give a good-faith diagnosis of what ails this unfathomably complex state: History matters, and as a corollary, racism matters too.

I say this upfront because Ezra Klein’s recent excoriation in the New York Times of California liberals who talk a good progressive game but fail to deliver on policies and services glaringly relegated history and race to the sidelines. In their place were observations that neighborhoods where Black Lives Matter yard signs proliferate lack low-income housing, that a state committed to reversing climate change cannot even build a bullet train, and that urban public school campuses that serve mostly minority students remain stubbornly closed. Klein’s piece contains plenty of cogent observations about the hijacking of progressive state policies by special interests acting in bad faith — but he also oversimplifies with a perfunctory lone mention of “housing racism” (a contributing factor that merits deep examination) in the middle of his discussion on the state’s worsening housing crisis.

This is where history comes in, and it is inextricably tied to racism. At least in Southern California, what we see as Los Angeles today — the vast tracts of single-family homes; the freeways that skirt or altogether end at historically white neighborhoods but seem to bound over and even obliterate Black and brown areas; the ongoing environmental atrocities — is a product of generations of housing discrimination and racist transportation policy that served white interests at the expense of historically thriving communities of color, topics that were explored in multiple pieces last year by my colleague Matthew Fleischer.


Adequately explaining California’s problems seldom lends itself to digestible political punditry. If you want to evaluate the usefulness of liberal or conservative policymaking in California, you have to overlay it on many, many generations of racial injustice — and it’s here where Klein and others like him come up short.

This is the part where I’m supposed to express some hope for the future of progressive policymaking in a state as unwieldy as ours — and thankfully, there are good reasons to do so. In Los Angeles, newly elected City Councilwoman Nithya Raman unseated a powerful, money-backed incumbent on the strength of her grassroots campaigning and unabashedly street-level progressive politics. In the planning realm, people like Dr. Destiny Thomas and her Thrivance Group advocate centering discussions about planning on the needs of marginalized communities. In transportation, local groups are organizing to thwart freeway expansion efforts.

So yes, there’s ample reason to be hopeful about the future of progressive politics and activism in California; it’s just important for us and our political leaders to listen to the right voices.

America has a political violence problem. This week the Democratic House impeachment managers presented devastating evidence that former President Trump spent years fomenting the anger that culminated in the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. Whether this signals a new, less peaceful era in American politics remains to be seen, writes columnist Robin Abcarian, who also notes a recent survey showing that almost 4 in 10 Republicans express some kind of support for committing acts political violence. L.A. Times

Mike Pence may have been a target on Jan. 6. That doesn’t make him a hero. Democrats laid the praise on a little too thick for the former vice president, whose resolve to finish certifying the electoral vote after the storming of the Capitol was hailed by the Democratic impeachment managers. Still, it should not be forgotten that Pence indulged Trump’s election conspiracy theorizing up until Jan. 6, writes Michael McGough. L.A. Times

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President Biden needs to make the first move to revive the Iran nuclear deal. One of Trump’s worst blunders as president was his decision to pull the U.S. out of the agreement that set strict limits on Iran’s nuclear program; it’s yet another mistake the new administration must undo in its early days, writes The Times’ editorial board. However, Biden’s strategy so far of waiting for Iran to come back into compliance with the deal will fail without some indication from the U.S. that it is willing to salvage it. L.A. Times

California needs a new attorney general, because the current high-profile holder of that office, Xavier Becerra, will soon head to Washington to serve as Biden’s health and human services secretary (pending confirmation, of course). Gov. Gavin Newsom will pick Becerra’s replacement; this is what our editorial board wants: “Because the vacancy would be filled by appointment, not election, the candidate need not be a politician beholden to police unions and their campaign donations. That freedom could allow the attorney general to drive long-delayed and desperately need police reforms — for example, initiatives to prevent abusive officers from jumping from one department to another, pressure resistant police agencies to release information on misconduct, and establish standards and guidelines for alternative crisis response by unarmed clinicians. It should allow the attorney general to assert a far more muscular brand of oversight of abusive law enforcement agencies.” L.A. Times

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