Look at a map. When it comes to America’s Pacific Rim, California is “out there” on the edge. As America and Americans moved westward, California was about as far as they could go. And California does have this conceit: that it lives farther “out there” in the future than anyplace in America.
Politically that’s been true on many important issues: legalized abortion, medical marijuana, environmental preservation. California has led America towards a future political consensus.
And California has been the future on one of the dominant political issues of our day, immigration. 23 years ago, in November 1994, Californians voted by almost 3 to 2 for Proposition 187, the most comprehensive and mean-spirited political expression of hatred and fear of illegal immigrants till Donald Trump. Not only did Prop 187 encourage citizens to rat out suspected illegal immigrants to the State DA or Federal Immigration Service; schools were commanded to check the legal status of every kid in their classrooms. Cities in California were denied the right to offer sanctuary.
Then a Federal Judge intervened, saying all of this was unconstitutional, because the state was usurping Federal functions, like the treatment of immigrants. By 1999, Prop 187 was dead, and over the next almost-20 years the State of California successfully absorbed a generation of legal and illegal immigrants.
Changes in California’s diverse population have changed its politics. When California went for Prop 187, in 1994, Latinos were 26% of the population, but only 8% of the vote that was created the crush them. It was a Never Again moment. Today, Latinos out-number non-Hispanic Whites and are almost 40% of the California population, and close to 30% of the vote. And almost all of them associate Prop 187 and the racism behind it with the Republicans. Latino voters, and there are many more still to get enrolled, form a solid core around which a long-term California Democratic Party majority is being built.
The Progressive wing of the national Democratic party hopes California has been the future in rejecting racism and anti-immigration hysteria and that America, too, can “get over it and start thinking as a generous and united people again.
Amen, brothers and sisters.
But, California also predicted an even more enduring political trend in American politics: the tax rebellion. Animus against government, built on the belief that somewhere someone else was getting an unfair share of services paid for by taxes begat Prop 13, which put a permanent crimp on property taxes at both the state and local level. Among the results, California has gone from the state with the best streets, highways, parks, playgrounds, school and universities to worst on streets and road and below the national average for most of the rest. Oh, and the law meant to protect residential property owners contained a loophole which has allowed commercial property owners to reduce their own share of the state property tax bill from 45% to 28, leaving homeowners to make up the difference. Nonetheless, Prop 13 passed with 65% of the vote in 1978 and retains untouchable popular support 40 years later.
Peter Schrag, who has written for The Nation for nearly a half century, is a former editorial page editor of the Sacramento Bee and a visiting scholar at the Institute of Governmental Studies at the University of California at Berkeley. His book, Paradise Lost: California’s Experience, America’s Future was a New York Times notable book in 1998. His most recent book, When Europe Was a Prison Camp: Father and Son Memoirs, 1940-41, was published last year by Indiana University Press. His most recent article in The Nation was “California Shows How to Beat Trump, Now and in November.” His new book is called California Fights Back.