There’s America, and then there’s California. Golden State residents know that their state is a different political animal from their nation, but just how different may not have been fully apparent until Tuesday’s election.
Californians voted for Hillary Clinton at a rate (61.5%) higher than any other state’s, save Hawaii. They voted to extend progressive tax rates, restrict ammunition sales, legalize weed and ban plastic bags. They appear to have given the Democrats a two-thirds supermajority in the state Assembly and perhaps, pending the final vote count in one district, a supermajority in the state Senate. Even Orange County, once the seedbed of Goldwaterism, voted Democratic in the presidential race – for the first time since Franklin Roosevelt’s landslide victory in 1936.
This time around, of course, Orange County went against the national tide. On Nov. 8, even as the white working- and middle- class of the once-industrial Midwest provided the votes to make Donald Trump president, California – a far more racially diverse state than any in the Rustbelt – continued on its own, far more liberal course.
California can’t erect a wall to keep Trump administration policies from eroding some of the state’s liberal landmarks.
In recent years, the state has enacted a $15 minimum wage and its own clean energy standards, established an automatic retirement savings plan for workers, and extended Obamacare eligibility to immigrants in the country illegally. A number of California cities have mandated paid sick days for workers and limited their police departments’ interactions with federal immigration authorities.
But California can’t erect a wall to keep Trump administration policies from eroding some of the state’s liberal landmarks. Neither Obamacare, much less the ability of California residents here illegally to buy into it, are likely to survive. Sanctuary cities may be threatened with a loss of federal funds. A Trump withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accords won’t negate California’s environmental standards, but California by itself can’t shift the planet away from reliance on fossil fuels. The state’s pro-worker positions, mandating higher wages and decent benefits for millions of Californians, may be eroded in the long run by what’s sure to be Trump’s war on unions.
When a Trump nominee takes his or her seat on the U.S. Supreme Court, that court will likely rule that public employees who don’t want to join their unions don’t have to pay a single cent in dues—even though those unions are legally obligated to bargain for them and represent them in any dispute with management.
Such a ruling could decimate unions that have played a decisive role in moving California leftward. The Service Employees International Union, for example, originated and sustained the Fight for 15 campaign, absent which the minimum wage hikes of recent years would not have been enacted.
Abetted by such wealthy liberals as Tom Steyer, these unions have also funded and waged registration drives that have seen the Democratic share of California registered voters increase from 43% to 45% since 2012, while the Republican share has dropped by 29% to 26%. (Of course, the GOP’s social conservatism, anti-feminism and adamant opposition to immigration reform are responsible for the widening gap too.)
Even if Trumpism doesn’t affect the Democrats’ hold on California — as it likely won’t — unions are necessary to keep the state Democratic Party truly liberal.
As the state GOP has subsided into complete ineffectuality, business, real estate interests and wealthy conservatives who in other states would support Republican candidates have directed their donations instead to moderate Democrats in the legislature, city halls and school boards. On Tuesday, thanks to the state’s top-two primary system, Democrats backed by business faced off against Democrats backed by labor in a number of legislative contests. For the most part, the business Democrats prevailed, though two Assembly members with major funding from oil companies lost to Democrats backed by unions and environmentalists. On social issues like reproductive rights and immigration, however, business and labor Democrats form a united liberal front.
In the short term, California will play the role of progressive outlier in a Trumpified United States. In the long run, however, as the nation becomes more racially diverse and as the liberal millennial generation plays a larger role in national politics, chances are good that America will move closer to California’s standards of tolerance and egalitarianism. Just how long that long run lasts will determine how much damage the nation will sustain, and how well California will be able to resist it.
Harold Meyerson is executive editor of the American Prospect. He is a contributing writer to Opinion.
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