California may be the country’s most important and influential state for technology, culture and lifestyle, but has become something of a cipher in terms of providing national political leaders. Not one California politician entered the 2016 presidential race in either party and, looking over the landscape, it’s difficult to see even a potential contender emerging over the coming decade.
We are a long way from the California dreamin’ days of Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and even the early Jerry Brown era. Today we approach national politics largely as spectators – and our rich residents as donors – to storms brewing in other regions.
In contrast, New Yorkers clearly have the moxie to rise. Ted Cruz even lambasted “New York values” in his to-date failed attempt to derail Donald Trump. Just watch Trump and his new consigliere, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, in action, they’re quintessential New York egomaniacal tough guys.
The Democrats also have a big New York imprint, with the front-runner, Hillary Clinton, a former New York U.S. senator and current resident. Her diminishing challenger, Bernie Sanders, is an aged Jewish boy from Brooklyn.
And, waiting in the wings, with his billions and his ego ready to propel him, sits former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Some East Coast observers see him as a potential running mate for Clinton, which certainly would make fundraising less important.
But it’s not just New York’s political culture that has shaped this election. The biggest non-Trump drama of the race has been the bitter conflict between two Florida politicians, the departed Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, now the rapidly fading hope of establishmentarian Republicans. Texas, too, has expressed at least the more doctrinaire aspect of its political culture in inflicting Ted Cruz on the electorate. Even the Rust Belt has had its moment, in the quixotic, but at least fundamentally decent, campaign of John Kasich.
What’s wrong with California?
With its massive technological and cultural footprint, one would assume California would be mass-producing politicians destined for the national stage. So what happened? One factor may be the state’s steady drift towards one-party politics. Let’s face it, the Republican Party of California remains enfeebled, so much so that some prominent Republican politicians have left the state to seek careers elsewhere.
California once boasted a vibrant two-party system. Most successful politicians tend to emerge from contested political cultures. Bill Clinton climbed the greasy pole in red-leaning Arkansas. Ohio and New Jersey remain two-party states, and both at least put potential presidents into the mix. Even Illinois, Barack Obama’s adopted home state, has a more competitive political culture than does California. People even talk seriously of Texas going purple, or even blue; no sane person can say the equivalent about our monolithic political culture.
Democrats in California also increasingly lack ideological diversity. Centrist, business-friendly Democrats are increasingly rare, and California is dominated by one basic ideology: gentry progressivism. Fanatically green, politically correct, impervious to challenges from the largely marginalized party majority, this ideology reigns supreme, funded by a combination of rich liberals and powerful public sector unions.
The oligarchic donors, for all their liberal views, don’t much care any more about income inequality than their Republican counterparts. Moderate Democrats, meanwhile, lack the numbers or moxie to slow Gov. Jerry Brown’s imposition of ever more hardship on the lower classes. But, for his friends, particularly in the tech community, Brown offers dispensations to the rich, combined with neat financial incentives, that protect their interests.
When Brown, who terms out in 2019, finally leaves the stage, what national political figure can be seen emerging from the Golden State? Brown won national respect for his occasional stifling of the most voracious special interests. But his successors are likely to lack the power and status to do so.
Instead we will see the rise of more party-line progressives, like Attorney General Kamala Harris, the odds-on favorite to become our next U.S. senator. She may be the nation’s “best looking attorney general,” according to our president, but the San Franciscan is so far to the left of the spectrum on issues, such as illegal immigration, that it’s difficult to see her selling well outside our state.
Lieutenant Gov. Gavin Newsom, a potential successor to Brown, may be more politically pliable, but is likely to become prisoner to the ruling party forces and less able to resist them than our current governor. To further constipate state politics, Brown may try to get his wife, former Gap attorney Ann Gust Brown, to succeed him, keeping the dynasty in power long beyond its logical sell-by date.
And then, there are the mayors. Eric Garcetti of Los Angeles might be popular with the New York Times, but the ship he is steering is seen, even by its boosters, as “a city in decline.” L.A.’s problems are no boost for former mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s potential gubernatorial bid. Like Los Angeles, most large California cities remain economically bifurcated, and financially troubled. At least three – Compton, Fresno and Brown’s former home base of Oakland – could all be headed toward Detroit-like bankruptcies with the next economic downturn.
Given its unique realities, California has trouble producing leaders who might appeal in more politically contested places. Yet the state still has power, notably in funding of campaigns. The state has lots of very rich people, and, for the most part, they send their money to the Democratic Party. In 2012, Californians sent nearly $100 million to the presidential candidates, more than three-fifths of that to President Obama.
There are some remnants of the once-potent GOP money machine, much of it tied to either a handful of renegade tech people or to old money. The billionaire Koch brothers may host their annual event in Palm Springs, but their money is parked in Wichita, Kansas, and Manhattan. The days when the likes of Nixon, Reagan or even Pete Wilson could find sufficient succor in the Golden State are now largely past.
The other source of California power is ideological. Brown’s obsession with climate change makes him a hero to greens around the world. But Democrats from less-green places are smart enough to know that climate remains a very minor issue among most voters, ranking 14th of 15 surveyed concerns, according to Gallup, for most Americans.
The three drivers of this election year – Sanders, Clinton and Trump – have focused not on climate but on more immediately pressing issues: the economy, upward mobility and the precarious position of the middle class. Brown’s priority on climate works against the lower classes and threatens to further stifle upward mobility. Climate policies, particularly in terms of housing, have savaged California’s middle class. Due largely to inflated housing costs, nearly a quarter of state residents are officially poor, more than in any other state. Residents of these communities increasingly are politically and economically marginalized, their politicians often subservient to wealthy greens.
Brown’s climate jihad is also likely to be less appealing in states east of the Sierras, places where manufacturing, agriculture and energy development remain key priorities. It is hard to see Hillary Clinton, running in coal country or in the industrial Midwest, embracing policies that clearly would destroy jobs and, in some places, whole communities. Can Democrats sell a policy of ever higher prices for energy and homes to satisfy the appetites of billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer, by far the state’s largest individual political donor?
California’s influence is now exerted through bureaucratic and programmatic channels. President Obama and his minions make no bones about looking to California’s regulatory state as a model. In Brown, they can see how to rule largely through an endlessly empowered bureaucracy, a rubber-stamp Legislature and a judiciary largely favorable to ever greater governmental power.
Fueled by money from oligarchs and cynical unions, our state is creating a model regulatory state, the epitome of political correctness frozen into policy. The influence of these ideas, and the money behind them, will remain. But in the realm of elected politics, the rest of the country seems ill-disposed to look to our political leaders for inspiration.
Originally published in the Orange County Register.
Cross-posted at New Geography.