Louis Warren: Liberal Policies Didn't Lead to California's Collapse





[Mr. Warren is a professor of history at UC Davis and guest blogger at Edge of the American West.]

California’s crisis is such that the number one manufacturing and farming state is unable to sell its bonds. As I explained in my last post, this condition stems in part from constitutional requirements of the supermajority.

Some commentators on the right prefer a different explanation. This is the useful canard that California is congenitally left, and that liberal policies lead inevitably to financial collapse.

To be sure, the left is not blameless in this debacle. But much of California’s political upheaval of the last decade and a half has been driven by the collapse of the state’s once-formidable Republican Party. Alarmingly, national Republicans now seem to follow their lead. Progressives may think this cause for celebration – - but if the Republican Party in the U.S. becomes what it is in California, America has some hard days ahead.

To absorb the lessons that California provides, we first must understand that California was once, not so long ago, a Republican stronghold. Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and the tax revolt all came from here. There were eighteen governors of California in the twentieth century, and fourteen were Republicans. California saw 25 presidential contests between 1896 and 1996, and Republicans won 15 of them, including every presidential race between 1952 and 1988 except for 1964 (the year almost every state went for Lyndon Johnson).

California had a powerful, even dominant Republican Party just twenty years ago. What happened?

The watershed year that ended GOP fortunes was 1994, but the stage was actually set four years earlier, in 1990. That was the year a Republican, Pete Wilson, handily defeated Dianne Feinstein for the governorship. A so-called “moderate” Republican, Wilson took a page from a predecessor, Ronald Reagan, to sign on to what was then the biggest tax increase in California history to balance a budget reeling from the decline of defense spending at the end of the Cold War.

Indeed, the state’s condition was dire. The nation remembers the recession of the early 1990s as a mild one, but in California it was the worst downturn since the Great Depression. Huge defense companies such as General Dynamics, Raytheon and others laid off hundreds of thousands of engineers and other white collar workers. Housing values fell far from their 1980s peak, and many new homeowners soon held mortgages greater than their property values. The poor endured steep service cuts and high unemployment. In 1992, in the aftermath of the verdict exonerating the LAPD officers who beat Rodney King, the city of Los Angeles exploded in the biggest civil insurrection since the Civil War.

So as 1994 approached, Wilson’s re-election was in trouble. His tax increase had balanced the budget, but Republicans were furious at their own governor for agreeing to it, and the economy seemed stuck in a death spiral. Wilson was a Marine Corps veteran with a “law and order” reputation, and the 1992 riots seemed symptomatic of his failing administration. His poll numbers were atrocious, with some surveys putting him twenty points behind the Democratic nominee, state treasurer Kathleen Brown (daughter and sister, respectively of Pat and Jerry Brown, the state’s most famous Democratic governors).

Perhaps it is not surprising that the state which produced the first two presidential candidates to ride the Southern Strategy to victory (Nixon and Reagan) would now produce a governor who created the southern border strategy. The social context for this maneuver was the state’s rapidly expanding Latino population. In 1960, most of California’s immigrants were from Canada or Europe, and the number one immigrant language was English. Even as late as 1970, California was less than 12% Hispanic. But upheaval in Mexico’s economy and particularly the collapse of the peso in 1982 drove millions of immigrants north, where legally and illegally they crossed into the U.S. By 1990, California’s population was 25% Hispanic. The large number of Mexican immigrants helped insure that by about 1994, roughly one in three of all foreign born people in the U.S. lived in southern California – - and the largest proportion of these was Mexican.

California’s racial animosities often flare in bad times. The Panic of 1873 occasioned anti-Chinese riots so vast that authorities worried about a revolution. The Great Depression fueled fierce anti-Okie and anti-Mexican political policies and vigilantism. The recession of the early ‘90s was about to produce a virulent anti-Mexican hysteria – -and Pete Wilson would turn it to his advantage.

In the summer of 1994, faced with a rapidly growing Mexican immigrant population and the worst economy in memory, many Anglo Californians suspected all Latinos were illegal immigrants and blamed them for the state’s hard times. The primary expression of their fury was Proposition 187. Introduced by Republican Assemblyman Dick Mountjoy, the initiative sought to deny public services to illegal immigrants (which by the 1990s was code for Mexicans). Any suspect person would have to prove they were a legal resident in order to remain in a public school, receive medical care, welfare, or virtually any other non-emergency service.

Staring defeat in the eye, Pete Wilson showed himself a savvy and ruthless campaigner. He hitched his career to Proposition 187. He not only endorsed it. He made anti-immigrant fervor the center of his campaign, and behind him his party climbed on the anti-immigrant bandwagon. White anxieties about the rising Latino population soon boiled into racial resentments, driven in no small measure by Wilson’s gritty, noir advertising that played to fears of lawless, dark-skinned immigrants overwhelming the state of California.

Mexican-Americans, some of whose families had been in California since the eighteenth century, were soon enduring taunts and challenges to “become a citizen or go back where you came from.”

Following what had become one of the most racially divisive campaigns in recent California history, Proposition 187 passed by large margins. Courts soon ruled the measure unconstitutional, but for Republicans it had provided a path to triumph. Not only did it carry Pete Wilson to a fifteen point victory, it brought California Republicans to dominance in the state senate (although the assembly remained narrowly Democratic).

But in the end, for the Republican Party the victory proved to be the political equivalent of a suicide bombing. Most of the engineers and technicians who lost jobs in the defense industry were Republicans, and hundreds of thousands of them had already left the state in search of new opportunities. In future years, California’s white population growth would be comparatively low. The party would have to recruit new supporters from some other group.

So, if the immediate result of Wilson’s immigrant bashing might have been to inflict grievous losses on Democrats, soon it became apparent that it had also sacrificed Republican prospects among the Latino population, which was (and is) California’s fastest growing demographic sector. Historically, Mexican immigrants were often wary of becoming U.S. citizens, and when they did they were only slightly more likely to vote Democrat than Republican. Many harbored dreams of returning to Mexico to retire.

But 1994 changed all that. By tarring Latinos as “illegals,” Republicans drove far more legal Mexican immigrants to become not only citizens and voters, but Democrats.

In this way, the campaign of ’94 destablilized the political establishment. The first temblor to strike came in the state elections of 1996. Latinos went to the polls in unprecedented numbers, helping to return the state senate to Democratic hands.

The gubernatorial election two years after that was a full-blown earthquake. Prior to 1994, in California gubernatorial elections, Latino voters had favored Democrats by about 6 percentage points. In 1998, Latinos helped elect Democrat Gray Davis to the governor’s office, giving him a whopping 61 point margin of the Latino vote, and helping carry Democrats to victory in five of seven statewide offices. Perhaps we could say that the “Big One” arrived in the elections of 2002, when Republicans failed to win a single statewide office. Their poor performance helped drive Republican donors to finance the notorious recall election the following year. In 2003, they succeeded in installing Arnold Schwarzenegger (an immigrant who broke with his party on immigration and so drew immigrant votes), but they have had precious few victories since then.

After 2003, in other states, as immigration from Mexico and elsewhere has reached new heights, national Republicans have mostly failed to heed the lessons of California history. (For that matter, so have California Republicans.) The anti-immigrant vitriol of the 2006 congressional elections could have been borrowed from Pete Wilson’s playbook. By the election of 2008, many leading Republicans were channeling Wilson’s campaign.

The results have been utterly predictable. Last fall, with critical margins from newly energized and many newly-registered Latinos, Democrats swamped Republicans in once reliable southwestern bastions like Nevada and Colorado. Back in the state where it all began, Republicans have not won a presidential election since 1988. In 2008, Barack Obama won California by margins not seen since the days of Franklin Roosevelt.

Today, the Republican Party in California lags far behind in registrations and in elected officers. The only strategy of their legislative delegation is to deny Democrats the supermajority they need to determine budgets and taxes. Party prospects have seldom looked dimmer.

And yet national Republicans seem hell bent on repeating California’s mistakes even now. Newt Gingrich has denounced Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor as a “Latina woman racist.” Gingrich, of course, was the visionary of 1994, who that year led Republicans to dominance in the U.S. Congress for the first time in forty years. He dreamed of a “permanent majority,” and pundits spoke of a national party realignment. In fact, the days of Republican dominance were already numbered. Nowhere was that clearer than out in the Golden State, where the overwhelming GOP triumph of 1994 paradoxically foreshadowed their party’s national unraveling.

Republicans should take heed – - but so too should Democrats and everyone else. In California, Republican self-destruction has not empowered Democrats as much as you might think. By some measures, since 1994 California has become less progressive, not more. The supermajority requirements for tax increases have taken a terrible toll. Elementary school funding has not improved. State funding for higher education takes up a smaller proportion of the budget than it did in 1994 (when it was already on a downward curve). The Democratic coalition of Latinos, Anglos, and African-Americans is often testy, and its fault lines helped bring on the recall of 2003 – -as we shall see in a future post. With minority Republicans blocking any tax increase, Democrats are girding themselves to slash state aid to the poor, medical care for children, higher education, state parks, and a host of other services. So the political structure of the Golden State continues to rattle and shake, and it’s impossible to tell if these are aftershocks or the precursors of the Big One headed our way.

In a two-party system, the collapse of a major party is a shock that takes years to absorb, particularly if the minority party is invested with extraordinary powers. Whether the majority can achieve supermajority status and drive the agenda might not be clear for some time. But another possible outcome is to change the system of governance and make the minority party less powerful. The prospects for a constitutional convention are looking better every day.


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Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 6/8/2009

The downward slide of the public schools is not unique to California and Oregon, but is nationwide. While reasonable people can disagree about its causes, only stakeholders in the system will attribute this decline to a shortage of money--which would necessarily follow if Propositions #13 and #5 could be blamed. There may be some other deleterious effects of those propositions, but not that one.

Apart from the huge increases in inflation-adjusted spending on schools just since Prop. #13, one can also look at the woefully underfunded conditions that prevailed in all the years of their best performance in the early 20th century. The current failure of the public schools cannot be reversed by higher funding, and probably cannot be repaired by any means, until we revert to 100% private schools, perfected by letting parents spend government vouchers on tuition--a solution which would not only turn out much better-educated children, but also would save the taxpayers enormous amounts of money.


Thomas R. Cox - 6/4/2009

And if anyone remains unconvinced about the deleterious effects of Prop 13, they should take a look at Oregon, which is a smaller less complex state and thus a more effective test case of the effects of social policies. Expatriate Californians pushed for and got a northern version of Prop 13, Prop 5, and with it the inexorable downward slide of Oregon's public schools and much else began. No wonder bumper stickers appeared pleading "Don't Californicate Oregon"!


J. Michael Bergstrom - 6/2/2009

I think you need to read more carefully. "Legal and illegal" was in the text and Mexicans were not singled out as the cause of problems. Rather, the author is pointing out how immmigrants, mostly Mexican (or Latino) were demonized for political gain, and how that has played out over time.

Where'd you get your education? Maybe it's time some money was spent there.


Paul Benedict - 6/2/2009

Louis' blog shows that she can, at times, be an adaquate and helpful historian; this information is important and relevant:

"In 1960, most of California’s immigrants were from Canada or Europe... as late as 1970, California was less than 12% Hispanic. But upheaval in Mexico’s economy and particularly the collapse of the peso in 1982 drove millions of immigrants north, where legally and illegally they crossed into the U.S. By 1990... The large number of Mexican immigrants helped insure that by about 1994, roughly one in three of all foreign born people in the U.S. lived in southern California – - and the largest proportion of these was Mexican."

The cause given the collapse of the Peso is very relvant considering the collapse of the dollar in the 1970's and for similar reasons the possible collapse of the dollar in our near future. Such things have severe consequences.

After this, Lois' article decends into bias "largest proprotion Mexican" could easily have been stated as largest part was illegal. Bias has no place in the treatise of any historian.

Ultimately, Lois' blog must worry any taxpayer. If this is the best the UC system can produce, perhaps cutbacks should begin here.


Craig Michael Loftin - 6/1/2009

While I also think the article is astute, I suspect Prop 13 also has a lot to do with it. It began a slow drain of the state's prosperity, education, and infrastructure.


Thomas R. Cox - 6/1/2009

This is an astute and revealing assessment, but there is more. There are sizable sections of California that are rigidly conservative, but financial problems abound there too, so the right-wing efforts to paint the state's problems as the result of liberal failure are again flawed. San Diego, incidentally Pete Wilson's home town, is solidly conservative, but like rthe state as a whole it skates the thin edge of bankruptcy and his difficulty finding anyone to buy its bonds. The San Joaquin Valley is, if anything, even more conservative (and Republican) than San Diego, but the financial problems of Stockton and Fresno are as bad as anywhere in the nation. It is easy for right wing pundits to denounce "liberal" California and use it as example of what not to do, but like much of what they try to sell, it is pure demagoguery.

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