Is trendy California no longer a bellwether state, as journalist Fred Barnes has argued? Does the Democratic Party's clean-sweep of state offices last November mean it has become another one-party Massachusetts or Hawaii? (And even they elected Republican governors.) Perhaps California is a bellwether in a way not usually taken, i.e., its literal meaning of a castrated sheep. And that offers lessons for any conservative revival.
Historical perspective lets us see the causes of liberal inclination and the cures for it. California is the model Progressive state, with Governor and then U.S. Senator Hiram Johnson molding the state's Republican Party in his image, holding those offices from 1914 until 1945. The key themes are reform—an assault on corruption that became an assault on political competition—and nonpartisanship with a vengeance, resulting in weak political parties. The Republicans today are particularly disorganized, while the Democrats have nurtured a reliable core of business and labor, in addition to ideological supporters. But over the years most fundamental issues have not changed.
"We have an appalling housing shortage, our schools are packed to suffocation, and our highways are inadequate and dangerous. We are short of water and short of power, and our sanitation and transportation systems are overtaxed. Our hospitals and corrective institutions are bursting at the seams."
So warned Governor Earl Warren shortly after World War II, reports Kevin Starr, California's state librarian, who has given us the sixth volume of his indispensable "Americans and the California Dream." No one knows the history of California better than Starr, who has given us extraordinarily detailed and insightful studies of various periods of the Golden State. His chapter on Warren will astound those who know him principally as a liberal jurist. Starr treats us to an engaging portrait of an imposing politician. Might Warren have done even more damage to this country as president than he did as chief justice?
Starr portrays a wartime California familiar to us wartime Americans today. Playing major roles are Hollywood, ethnic discrimination, and the entrance of women into the workplace. He argues that the Japanese were then unfairly and irrationally singled out as the enemy. Their relocation following Pearl Harbor was the "inevitable outcome of fifty years of anti-Japanese agitation in California and the persistent fantasy of a Japanese invasion...." Starr emphasizes Warren's leadership in advocating relocation of ethnic Japanese, but says nothing about how he welcomed them back when the war ended. In this conventional view, the relocation was a strictly domestic episode with no national security rationale. In our denial of a possible nightmare ahead, we dream on, aided by Starr's comforting perspective.
The political impact of the current war is raised by Mark Baldassare in his study of California political attitudes, A California State of Mind. The California Institute of Public Policy, the book's co-publisher and home to its author, is a reputable and reliably liberal think-tank on a host of California public-policy issues. What elicits Baldassare's concern most is Californians' skepticism about government, what he calls "the blighting effects of distrust in California politics." The September 11 attacks, he contends, should mean a reevaluation of this skepticism. This curious reasoning reveals the thrust of his polling and his conclusion that somehow the boldness of an enemy combined with a decade of laxity in national defense should make us Californians eager for more bureaucracy. In this skepticism, he sees the key to understanding Governor Gray Davis's plunge in popularity over his handling of electricity politics, Californians' embrace of anti-growth measures, opposition to education reform through school vouchers, and the initiatives and referenda (popular votes that can pass laws or even constitutional amendments) on a variety of controversial issues.
This would seem to benefit conservatives, with their anti-government rhetoric. The success of what liberals regard as controversial propositions, rolling back race and sex preferences in governmental hiring and college admissions, government aid to illegal aliens, gay marriage, and bilingual education are signs of conservative strength. School voucher initiatives fail because they are successfully portrayed as another government scheme—not relief from government's virtual monopoly over the K-12 school system.
But the main failure of conservative Republicans in Sacramento in recent years is that they have not passed legislation dealing with race and sex quotas, illegal immigration, bilingual education, and other principled and politically popular issues. Thus, they received no partisan credit for these potential accomplishments. Instead, the voters have voted, independent of party affiliation, for often clumsily drafted initiatives and referenda that ratify their judgment, while they continue to re-elect liberal Democrats to state offices. This is the fruit of Progressive reforms. This is also how Californians manifest their skepticism about government, while reaping its benefits.
Baldassare would continue the anti-political Progressive trend and tout old goo-goo (good government, i.e., Progressive) reforms: improve the voting process, make the electorate more representative, curb initiatives, and reform the campaign finance system. The results would be to choke off conservative recourse to even Progressive means. Hence the praise heaped on this book by thoughtful liberals such as Los Angeles Times columnist Ronald Brownstein, journalist Peter Schrag, and Senator Dianne Feinstein. They surely heed its warning signs as well as its guideposts.
On some issues, however, Californians are less suspicious of government than other Americans. Baldassare's polling indicates a willingness to use government to prevent growth and to regulate for the environment, for example. The fast-growing Latino population, despite conservative stances on moral issues such as abortion and gay marriage, tends to trust government far more than fellow Californians. But even here conservatives should not feel hapless. Experience shows the folly of restricting growth for others, as it diminishes the quality of life for all. Given Latino desires to own houses, they should want to assail the bureaucratic state's constriction of the housing supply.
Moreover, San Diego, Orange County, the so-called Inland Empire of San Bernardino and Riverside counties, and the Central Valley all supply Republican votes. For example, the Claremont Institute's California Studies Fellow, Victor Davis Hanson, teaches and farms in Fresno. His sensible views on military affairs don't shock most of his neighbors the way they do academic liberals and their epigones up in Berkeley and down in Westwood. Conservatives are not without resources—especially if they recognize the Progressive roots of their misfortunes.
It is premature to conclude that political life and therewith freedom are dead in California. The election results last fall were too close in the gubernatorial and especially the state controller's race to concede this point. Republicans actually gained a few seats in the legislature. What is most needful for California conservatives now, with two liberal feminist senators and an emasculated governor, is to promote politicians who don't behave like bellwethers.