The conventional wisdom among conservatives in most of the rest of America is that California is a lost cause. Rather than fight inside California, where you are up against the most powerful and monolithic alliance of progressive special interests in the world, dedicate resources to flipping purple states, and keeping red states red. But to invert a popular quote attributed to Nietzsche, even if you do not gaze into the abyss, the abyss will still gaze back into you.
California’s role in influencing the future of the entire country is unparalleled. In addition to its economic and demographic weight, California remains the epicenter of America’s media and entertainment industry, as well as its high-tech industry. Even if several American states defy the momentum of California’s political class, laws governing California frequently end up becoming federal policy. The abyss is coming for us all, and its epicenter is in California.
It is expensive to engage in public education in a state with a population of nearly 40 million, including 22 million registered voters. California’s political culture is almost completely dominated by social radicals and environmentalist extremists. But if the challenges to changing the political culture in California are daunting, the potential rewards are even greater.
There is an immediate financial incentive for conservatives to take the fight into the belly of the beast, which is that whatever money California’s well heeled public sector unions and progressive billionaires have to spend on defense in their own state is money that will not be used to swing close races in other states. The question then only becomes how to engage in asymmetric warfare to ensure that California’s progressives spend far more money on defense than their attackers spend on offense. In this manner, even if the political battle is lost, the money battle is victorious.
An example of this strategy is Proposition 32, waged in 2012 by conservative reformers attempting to force government unions to obtain consent from their members before they could spend any of their dues on political campaigning. A lot was at stake for these public sector unions, which in California spend an estimated $600 million on political campaigning and lobbying each two year election cycle. That’s a lot of money even in California. Voters rejected Proposition 32, but proponents spent $10 million, whereas the union defenders spent over $108 million. That’s $98 million that did not flow into the rest of the U.S. in the election of 2012.
In general, ballot initiatives are a good way to keep California’s progressive elites off balance and drain their treasuries. Qualifying a ballot initiative in California today will cost proponents between $5 and $10 million. But if it represents a serious threat to the environmentalist industrial complex, the woke tycoons, or the government unions, they will spend many times that amount to defeat it. And as proven as recently as November 2020, when eight of the nine state ballot propositions supported by unions were rejected by voters, California’s electorate should not be taken for granted.
California’s Electorate is Ready for a Change
This fact, that sometimes voters can surprise the experts and completely flip the political script in a state or a nation, is another reason for conservatives to refocus on California. Also unique to California is its demographic composition, which is likely to be mirrored in America within a generation. California’s population by ethnicity is roughly 40 percent Hispanic, 35 percent non-Hispanic white, 15 percent Asian, 5 percent black, and 5 percent multi-racial. Among Californians under 20 years of age, non-Hispanic whites are now less than 22 percent of the population.
Any effort to change political culture in California might benefit by first recognizing that the hardest bloc of big government supporters to convert are its diminishing cohort of white liberals. Living by the millions in inherited homes and thus not liable for either a mortgage or significant property taxes, they are exempt from the worst consequences of California’s failing institutions. For California’s financially secure white progressives, the rising cost for essentials is an inconvenience instead of an existential threat. They live in upscale neighborhoods where the public schools have better teachers and more resources, or, equally likely, they don’t have any school age children. And they are concentrated in areas where crime rates are low. California’s white voters support progressive Democrats because they don’t suffer the consequences of progressive Democrat policy failures. It’s much easier to believe the abstract Democrat mantras about climate change and systemic racism when more tangible challenges don’t exist. That’s the reality for millions of white progressives in California. Write them off.
When it comes to realigning California politics, white conservatives are already on board, and the white progressives are immovable fanatics. The future opportunity for conservatives in California today are Asians and Hispanics who are increasingly receptive to three primary messages: (1) Policies that create scarcity and high prices are by design, and only benefit crony capitalists, (2) public education at all grade levels in California is failing, and (3) punishing crime deters crime. With respect to scarcity and the cost of living, and also with respect to rescuing public education, deregulation to encourage competition is the answer. As for California’s crime problem, which like skyrocketing utility bills and lousy schools is disproportionately harming nonwhite communities, if criminal penalties were enhanced instead being scrapped as per the progressive agenda, crime would be deterred and eventually fewer criminals would need to be incarcerated.
Two misconceptions have driven unsuccessful efforts to change political culture in California. First, that the primary political concern of nonwhites, primarily Hispanics, are social issues such as pro-life sentiments, and second, that more generally, nonwhites favor bigger government. Neither of these assumptions are true. To be clear, California’s non-white residents care greatly about social issues, and are generally pro-life voters. And while their consistent support for Democrats might imply a big government bias, all it really indicates is that Democrats have made more alluring promises to nonwhites, while successfully stigmatizing Republicans as racist. Those promises have not been kept, and as the Democratic mantra of equity ascends into the stratosphere of absurdities, accusations of racism are wearing thin. The most urgent concerns for nonwhite voters in California, becoming more urgent all the time, are to live in a state with an affordable cost-of-living, good schools and safe streets. Consequently, efforts to realign California should target Asians and Hispanics, and should emphasize pro-abundance policies, school choice, and support for law enforcement.
When running the numbers, realigning California isn’t that far fetched. Not generally acknowledged is the fact that more voters in California in 2020 supported Trump – over six million – than any other state. More than Texas. More than Florida. Also largely missed is the fact that for all their money, the Democratic machine in California still misfires. In November 2020, 17.8 million voters cast ballots in California. In November 2022, only 11.1 million ballots were cast. This is an astonishing statistic. It belies the notion that the Democrat vote harvesting operation is consistently activated and effective. It also suggests that a Republican vote harvesting operation, had it been activated in 2022, might have led to surprising victories for Republican candidates across the state. And it suggests that if California’s conservative populist base, six million strong, were to consistently turn out and vote, it would not take a significant shift in the voting patters of Asians and Hispanics to flip California red.
Democrats in California are the party of big business, tech companies, environmentalist extremists, and government unions. Their self-serving policies have made the state unaffordable, punitively hostile to small businesses and independent contractors, with a public school system that’s a joke, and huge swaths of its urban neighborhoods that are now crime infested no-go zones. Nobody who is victimized by this reality is happy with it, and if they are offered credible alternatives they will dump the Democrat incumbents who created this mess.
What is happening in California is not only a threat that cannot be ignored. It is an historic opportunity for conservatives across America. As goes California, so goes the nation.
This article originally appeared in American Greatness.
Edward Ring is a contributing editor and senior fellow with the California Policy Center, which he co-founded in 2013 and served as its first president. He is also a senior fellow with the Center for American Greatness, and a regular contributor to the California Globe. His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Economist, Forbes, and other media outlets.
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