States don’t come any bluer than California these days.
By every conventional measure, the Golden State is one of today’s rare Democratic success stories: Every statewide office is occupied by a Dem and the party enjoys commanding majorities in both legislative chambers. The Republicans’ suicidal impulses on issues from immigration to gun control essentially have reduced the vestigial GOP opposition to irrelevance—even in such traditional conservative redoubts as Orange County, which if not quite a pure azure yet, has moved remorselessly to deep violet. Four-term Gov. Jerry Brown bestrides the once fractious state budget process like a colossus of fiscal rectitude, ensuring finances, as well as progressive policies that make sense.
Moreover, by every conventional standard, Democratic California is an economic success story—unlike, say, Kansas, where Gov. Sam Brownback and his GOP legislative majorities have created an unmitigated economic and social disaster by governing according to pure supply-side “conservative” principles. It’s well known that, were California an independent nation, it would have the world’s sixth largest economy. Over the past four years, it has created 17% of all America’s new jobs and accounted for fully 25% of the growth in the nation’s GNP. Only the United States as a whole and China are home to more billionaires than California, and—more broadly—the state’s median household income has increased by 5.2% over the past three years.
And yet. . .while California is America‘s richest and most productive state, eight million individuals, slightly more than one in five of its people—20.6%–lives in poverty. Only the District of Columbia has a higher percentage of poor people, 22.2%. San Bernardino is the second poorest major city in the country, and economic powerhouse Los Angeles has more poor people—27%–than any other California county.
It isn’t as if the governing Democrats have been indifferent to these misery indicators. Over the past couple of legislative sessions, lawmakers have increased the statewide minimum wage and overtime pay for agricultural and domestic workers, boosted the earned income tax credit, expanded welfare benefits and health care support, and increased assistance to low-income students pursuing higher education. None of this—despite the usual brain-dead Republican bromides—has engendered a “culture of dependency.” (God forbid, by the way, that Americans ever should depend on each other for help.) Since 1979, as tens of thousands of jobs have been added, the productivity of California workers has risen by a stunning 89%, according to the Berkeley Labor Center.
And yet. . .median hourly pay and wages grew just 3% over those same years. And while we’re all familiar with the income inequality that has scandalously fattened the wealthiest 1% of Americans, it’s too often overlooked that the mainly urban upper middle class—who constitute one of the California Dem’s most important constituencies—also have benefited disproportionately from this phenomenon. In fact, the top 20% of American households—those with annual incomes of at least $200,000—has enjoyed a $4 trillion increase in its aggregate income since 1979, which is a staggering $1 trillion more than the lower 80%.
In California, that top 20% is overwhelmingly comprised of homeowners who also have benefited disproportionately from the overheated housing market. Many analysts, in fact, now believe those staggering increases in rents and house prices, particularly in the Bay Area and greater Los Angeles, are pushing more people into poverty and imposing a crushing new misery tax on the working poor, particularly in LA with its large number of low-skilled immigrant workers. As longtime Sacramento commentator Dan Walters has pointed out, “Supply shortages lie at the core of California’s high housing costs and, thus, of its very high incidence of poverty. . .Our net housing gain has been about two-thirds of the need in recent years, which means the demand/supply gap is continuing to widen and drive housing prices, especially urban rentals, steeply upward.”
As researchers at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management recently found, six of the nation’s least affordable metropolitan housing markets are in California: Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Jose, San Diego, Riverside and Sacramento. “It was already bad before, but it’s getting worse,” David Shulman, a senior UCLA economic analyst told the Sacramento Bee. “California is still attracting high-income people, who are creating an enormous amount of wealth, but low and middle-income people, like teachers, are leaving because housing has become extraordinarily expensive.” The result, he said, is a “hollowing out of the middle-class,” and the transformation of a housing crisis into a housing catastrophe.
As Walters also notes, Brown and the Democratic legislators have been singularly reluctant to engage this issue in a serious way. A variety of proposals to finance and speed the construction of affordable housing come and go in Sacramento, mostly foundering on opposition from established Democratic interest groups, like environmentalists and labor unions. The powerful real estate and mortgage industries, for example, oppose a proposal to fund low-cost housing by eliminating the tax deduction on second home mortgages. Anti-tax groups are adamantly against funding based on a modest transaction tax.
The Democrats also have been leery of teasing out the implications created by divisions of income and privilege that continue to dim Sacramento’s celebrated golden glow. Drive from LA’s Westside east into the Inland Empire or from Palo Alto into the Central Valley and that division is inescapably visible to anyone with open eyes. Less obvious, are the racial and ethnic disparities that continue to undercut California’s much remarked upon multicultural success story. While just 10.2% of the state’s white residents are poor, 24.8% of its African American people live in poverty, as do 23.3% of Latinos and 23.1% of its Native Americans.
Discussed or not, those divisions have consequence, as in the case of the embittered white working-class and rural voters who helped push Donald Trump into the presidency. While the ham-fisted political stupidity of California’s Republicans and the party’s lingering antagonism to immigrants, particularly Latinos, probably precludes anything similar here, too many of the 80% of state residents left out of the current surge in wealth do share a more general disaffection.
Like the rest of the country, California is slipping more deeply into a broad crisis of legitimacy. A recent Gallup poll found trust in a range of institutions at historic lows: Only 6% of Americans now say they have “a great deal of confidence” in Congress. Big business has the confidence of just 18%, and newspapers do barely better at 20%. Banks are trusted by only 27% of Americans, while just 30% have confidence in the schools.
Politics appears to hold no remedy for the disaffected, and while 72% of eligible Americans registered to vote in 1972, according to Gallup, just 65% do so today. Even religion no longer seems to provide refuge or consolation. In 1972, seven out of every 10 Americans belonged to a church or synagogue, and more than half of those people attended services at least once a month. Today, membership in congregations of every faith has fallen to just 55% and only about four in 10 those people bother to attend a monthly service.
Hillary Clinton lost to Trump for a variety of reasons: She was a poor candidate and her campaign turns out to have been a top-heavy, poorly run shambles. Russia’s surreptitious intervention on Trump’s behalf was a factor, as was the GOP’s malevolent and racist strategy of voter suppression. Even so, the Democrats may have suffered most of all, by failing to articulate a reason to vote for their candidates. They’re a party in search of a soul. That’s what the Bernie Sanders insurgency, for all its adolescent petulance, really has been about. As the recent spate of Democratic losses in special congressional races has demonstrated, it’s not enough to “not be Donald Trump,” even with his approval rating in the 30th percentile.
Another wave of deeper disaffection is in the offing when the working-class whites who voted for Trump realize that his health care and tax policies are going to hit them harder than anyone else and that the fantasy of reindustrialization he promotes is just that—a fantasy. There will be no great reclamation of industrial employment under Trump, just more job loss, stagnant wages for those who are working and a generalized hopelessness with less help for those suffering under its burden.
A successful Democratic strategy, as Joe Biden and a handful of others have pointed out, has to speak to those caught up in disaffection and hopelessness and provide ways to extend the opportunities enjoyed by the upper 20% of Americans to the other 80%. The party’s soul can only be found right where it’s been since Franklin Roosevelt—not in ideological purity, but in what Arthur Schlesinger so aptly called, “the politics of remedy.” They need to recall Jim Farley’s shrewd counsel to FDR that, “the best social program is a good job,” then make sure working men and women are equipped to fill them when they’re created. They need to promote tax and spending policies that benefit the 80% majority as generously as they do the upper 20%.
The Democrats need to show that they’re able to get more done for more people. There’s no better place to begin that work in earnest than in California, where a progressive Democratic government is a global success story, but a provisional one. The coming gubernatorial election is just the forum for that effort, an anvil on which the renewed soul of the Democratic Party can be pounded into shape.
Former Assembly Speaker and LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa—currently trailing Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom by five points in the polls—already has a bracing willingness to do just that. A recent poll by UC Berkley’s Institute of Government Studies found the former San Francisco mayor is favored by upper-income voters and whites, while Villaraigosa already is drawing heavy support from Southern Californians, Latinos, and low-income voters.
There’s the divide, and the former LA mayor already has shown he’s not wary of pointing out its implications. At a recent rally at East Los Angeles College, Villaraigosa labeled Newsom as one of the “Davos Democrats who fly over the homes of people left behind, but never have been in their living rooms. I grew up in those living rooms. . .I came out of the civil rights movement. I’ve stood up for justice and equality my whole life, for working people.”
That’s true enough, and his campaign website promises a program of educational reform, job creation, infrastructure construction, affordable housing and, most of all, “work with dignity” for all willing to take it up. That, in fact, is where the real soul of the Democratic Party will be found, but the specific of recovering that spirit remains a task yet to be defined. In politics, redemption, as well as the devil, is in the details.
The Democrats lost the recent congressional special election in Georgia, at least in part, because of a successful ad campaign that warned a Dem victory would be a win for House minority leader “Nancy Pelosi and her California values.” The road to a Democratic victory in the next midterms runs through this state’s upcoming gubernatorial election and a campaign that demonstrates those values translate into the opportunity for success and security for working class Americans, whatever their race or ethnicity.