California as Bellwether, for the GOP and for Us All

Last week I had an online back-and-forth about current politics with Josh Barro, of Bloomberg, at the NY magazine site. The most memorable line from the exchange was Barro's, about the descent into dysfunction of California politics: "When you meet with people in the legislature in Sacramento, the most striking thing is how stupid everybody is."

The two larger questions from the discussion were,

  • First, whether the GOP's path-to-perdition in California over the past twenty years prefigures the party's course at the national level. In short: a tough anti-immigrant tone led to hostility from Latinos and other minority groups, which in turns has made the GOP uncompetitive in any state-wide races in California.
  • And second, whether California's overall predicament is what our whole country must expect. In short: California has an outsized share of the world's most creative, profitable, and influential private companies and institutions, but its public sector is collapsing and unable to address many of the state's major issues.

I note all this as a loyal son of Southern California and a product of its expansive Pat Brown era of investment in public schools, universities, and infrastructure of all sorts.

Readers weigh in. Let's start with a reader from the San Diego area, about the Republicans' situation. Emphasis added in his and the other notes:

I have to say you're right about the California GOP being a microcosm for the national GOP.  One of the reasons for California going with open primaries, with top two vote getters on the November ballot (adopted through the initiative process), is because the GOP would punish any member who stepped out of line and was accused of working with the Democrats.  Same with removing redistricting control from the Legislature. 

Sure, some of this went on with Democrats but nowhere near the extent of the GOP.  Remember, Pete Wilson championed managed growth planning in his early terms as San Diego mayor until he set his sights on running for statewide office. 

Having worked for the County of Orange for 15 years, my take isn't that the California GOP is resigned to losing. It's just that they hold ideological purity higher than election results and have the true believer's faith that if they hold firm their time will come.  I'm sure most of them feel that Schwarzenegger, a moderate, was a disaster...

Today's GOP has many similarities with the communist and other rigid dogma type parties in that they require their members to continually prove their fidelity to the "cause" even if it keeps changing.  When people speak of the GOP moving to the middle, I ask who in their current leadership would you consider moderate...

My guess is that even if Romney loses and the GOP takes a beating in Congressional races, it will be blamed all on Romney not being pure enough which tainted everyone else... Stalin wasn't followed by Gorbachev.  They had to work through a lot of turmoil first.  Don't forget you have Cantor nipping at Boehner's heels.

One more thing on the GOP.  Just because they aren't always in the majority doesn't mean they aren't winning... Just look at how scared many people are these days to identify themselves as Liberal.  This is true here in California.

To use a football metaphor as we're in season, the Right have driven well passed the 50 yard line, close enough if they don't score a touchdown, they'll kick a field goal.  As long as they have more points at the end of the game, how they got them is secondary.  The bottom line is who has been most faithful to the Revolution.

On whether a Romney-Ryan loss this fall would (as Josh Barro suggested) push the national Republicans back toward the center, rather than (as I suspect) even further to the right:

As for the idea that the GOP will somehow awaken from its self induced stupor to field candidates of higher quality or greater intelligence, let me simply remind y'all of how long the Dixiecrat South lived inside its shell before Johnson finally blew it up: 100 years. And that was before the FOX echo chamber.

In the future, the GOP will live solely on the Filibuster or on the hope that it can regain power. Its lasting legacy will be the Judiciary, just as it was for the Federalists (I am a Hamiltonian) and even this too shall pass. As the economy finally rebounds and as the demographic shift finally takes hold, the Democratic President who succeeds Obama in 2016 will have the opportunity to replace Scalia, and Thomas with smart, young liberal justices who will follow in the tradition of the justices appointed to the lower courts by Obama....

Someday, in the very distant future, the recidivist GOP will discover a new Barry Goldwater. And someday, they will discover a new Reagan. But not tomorrow, and not in 2016, 2020, 2024 etc. But, when they do, She will be of Asian descent.

More on what has turned the nation's largest state into the Democrats' most important base:

I'm from California, and Josh Barrow almost nailed it with respect to California. Of course, what he didn't mention was that the GOP's perpetual minority status is largely the result of policies that they themselves pushed (and purchased, via financing voter initiatives) their way into law.

-Term limits insures that legislators are perpetually looking for their next job, and that the concept of constituent service no longer exists in the state. There is no accountability for any bad or corrupt legislation, because by the time the law goes into effect, the lawmakers are different, and thus not responsible. Term limits is the reason that California legislators are *all* stupid. And they are.

- Two-thirds majority rule for budgets and taxes. That single law has paralyzed California government for a generation. And the GOP's major strategy is holding on to that one or those two seats to deny lawmakers the ability to govern. People claim it is Prop 13, and yes, that was damaging, but this one is really the reason why California government fails, in the same way that the Grover Norquist pledge ensures the failure of the US Congress.

- I should add the balanced budget initiative to the list of catastrophic GOP legislation destroying California. It requires the state to spend like a drunken gambler in the good times
-- and there have been some very, very good times -- but when times get hard, with the two-thirds rule, we can't raise any revenue. So, well, they are forced to burn the house down for firewood, and sell off the land to make ends meet. Bad, bad policy.

I could go on, but these three laws are really what is preventing California from being the Golden State that we all knew and loved.

Finally, on what passes for a cheering note, an argument that the national GOP does have some chance of repositioning itself:

I think that the national GOP is the odds on favorite for being "reformed" first [before state-level parties do]. It is difficult for state parties to really form a distinct identity from the national parties nowadays.

I can think of a few conservative states where the local Democratic party is strong (West Virginia, Kentucky Arkansas), but it seems most of those states are former Democratic strongholds (whether from Jim Crow era or New Deal era) that have managed to retain dominance, rather than ones that "reformed" to meet statewide political preferences. It is likely that these states will eventually re-align to be Republican dominated, as have many other formerly Democratic states in the South. (Oklahoma, Louisiana, etc). Will the Democratic party in those states be able to reform to become competitive? It's a hard road to climb to become competitive (rather than to stay competitive). Or will the Utah Democratic party ever really become competitive statewide? Doubtful...

I don't see the California GOP becoming too competitive until A) the National GOP changes and B) California becomes more representative of the country at large in terms of demographics and policy preferences (or more likely, vice versa!)

Of course, if I want to feel better about the local political situation in my original home state of California, I can think about how things go in my current home jurisdiction of Washington DC. Topic for another day.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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