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California Here We Come

Why the Golden State is still the future of American politics.

This year's Republican sweep, says the conventional wisdom, stopped at the Sierras in large part because California—the “left-out coast”—is a liberal outlier from the rest of the country. In this telling, the Golden State is a broken relic, a basket-case which has lost its status as the vanguard of American politics. While America embraced the angry politics of the Tea Party, the story goes, California reelected Jerry Brown, a nostalgic throwback to the 1970s.

In fact, the exact opposite may be occurring: California, and indeed much of the West, is far ahead of the country, as it often has been—demographically, economically, politically, socially—and it points to a future in which the whole nation will look much like California does now: multi-ethnic, increasingly tolerant of gays and other minorities, more global in outlook, and more environmentally conscious.

California has always been on the leading edge of changes in the American electorate. It was the first to experience the tax revolt which subsequently swept the country in the form of the Reagan Revolution. It was ahead of the nation in its opposition to the Iraq war; it’s been a leader in energy efficiency and progressive environmental regulation.

In the early 1990s, the state was consumed by an anti-immigrant backlash that resulted in Proposition 187, years before the paroxysms that scuttled George W. Bush's push for comprehensive immigration reform and produced Arizona's notorious SB1070.

But this year’s election showed that California has already moved past that point. In her gubernatorial campaign against Jerry Brown, Republican Meg Whitman tried and failed to use anti-immigration politics to her advantage—even recruiting former Gov. Pete Wilson, the poster boy of 187, as her campaign manager—but ran afoul of Latinos, who are far more numerous than they were during the 1990s. Had only whites voted, Whitman would have been California’s governor-elect and Carly Fiorina, not Barbara Boxer, would now be the U.S. senator-elect.

In a generation or so, California will have a majority Latino population, and while many parts of the Midwest and the Southeast are just now reacting to the first waves of Latinos and other immigrants, they, too, are likely to some day accommodate, and maybe even welcome, them as the Boomers retire.

Similar dynamics occurred in Nevada and Colorado, where Latino voters propelled both Harry Reid and Michael Bennet to reelection. In these states—and in the country as a whole—Latinos are poised to become an increasingly powerful political force. No, they won't all become Democrats. Many Latinos are socially conservative; in California this year they voted overwhelmingly against the legalization of recreational marijuana. Conservative Latino candidates like Marco Rubio, elected in Florida with its Republican-leaning voters, could exert some pull to the right.  But in the main, unless the GOP becomes more accessible to Latinos than it has in been in the past decade—and that means at least a major shift on immigration—its chances of capturing a substantial share of the Latino vote are slim.

Now the GOP is headed in the other direction. Beginning the new session of Congress with an effort to eliminate birthright citizenship for the children of illegal aliens is hardly welcoming. Neither is adamant resistance to the DREAM Act. The great New Deal victories of the 1930s rested in considerable part on the votes of the immigrants and children of immigrants who’d been welcomed by the urban Democratic machines in the prior decades, and if California's experience is any guide, politics in the twenty-first century will witness a similar dynamic.

The other major factor in this election was demographic. The national turnout of young voters this year was lower than in average off-year elections, and much lower than in 2008, while the percentage of older voters, many of them angered and confused by the unfamiliar world that’s grown around them—was much higher.

Those numbers will obviously change in 2012. The actuarial tables themselves tell some of that story. So does the composition of the Tea Party, which is older and whiter than the national average, and which had virtually no impact in the Golden State. Its most prominent candidate, Chuck DeVore, got less than 20 percent in his primary race for the Senate. The great sweep of 2010, in short, more likely marked the end of something, not the beginning. The nation’s young voters, like California’s, are far more comfortable in that new globalized world, accustomed to the ethnic diversity that they grew up with and are going to school with, more environmentally conscious, and untroubled by gay marriage. And of course, a sizeable portion of those young voters are immigrants or the children of immigrants—Latinos and Asian particularly. They are the nation’s future. And so, as ever, is California.

Peter Schrag is the former editorial page editor of the Sacramento Bee, a longtime writer on California affairs and, most recently, of Not Fit for Our Society: Immigration and Nativism in America. (University of California Press).

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