It’s hard to overstate the significance of Donald Trump’s improbable presidential victory Tuesday, yet the GOP tide barely fazed the nation’s most populous state. Democrat Hillary Clinton won by more than 28 percentage points, besting Trump by a number of votes (2.5 million) that’s larger than the total population of 15 states. Clinton even won a solid victory in Orange County, the heart and soul of (what’s left of) Republicanism in California.
The rest of the country gave a giant rebuke to the political establishment, but California’s election yielded little more than an affirmation of the status quo. In the state Senate, voters left the Democrats with the same 26 to 14 majority they had before the election. Although two seats have yet to be called in the Assembly, Democrats appear to have gained enough seats to regain their supermajority (letting them raise taxes without GOP support).
A handful of U.S. House races have yet to be called, but Trump’s unpopularity in California doesn’t appear to have helped Democrats make hoped-for gains. It’s more status quo. Exactly as the polls predicted, Attorney General Kamala Harris, a liberal Democrat, trounced U.S. Rep. Loretta Sanchez, a slightly less liberal Democrat, to win the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Barbara Boxer.
The 17 initiatives on the statewide ballot also went largely as expected. The state’s voters approved a slew of tax hikes: extending by a dozen years a supposedly “temporary” income-tax increase voters approved in 2012; dramatically hiking tobacco taxes; approving a $9 billion school-bond spending spree. They rejected an effort by a Stockton farmer to require a public vote before the state could OK massive projects funded by revenue bonds.
Voters approved via referendum a new law that torments grocery shoppers by forbidding stores from handing out free “single use” plastic bags. Now we’ll have to pay for other types of bags. Voters even rejected a wonderful mischief-making initiative from the plastic-bag industry that would have redirected those bag fees from the grocers’ pockets to some “environmental” fund. They voted to speed up the death penalty, but also to reclassify many felonies as misdemeanors, which is a continuation of a long-running trend in the state. They approved background checks for ammo purchases, but rejected a plan to force porn actors to wear condoms.
The state’s voters did approve two measures with bit of a reformist spin. One requires legislators to publish the final version of any bill for 72 hours before a vote to stop Democratic leaders from sneaking through controversial measures during the last moments of a session. The other initiative legalizes recreational marijuana, which had been de facto legal here since the 1996 vote approving medical marijuana. Now you can just go to a dispensary and buy “weed” rather than tell a doctor you have anxiety as a means to get a “card.”
But overall, Californians voted as expected and showed no inkling of the “throw the bums out” fervor that drove voters in the rest of the country. Apparently, most people here have no interest in challenging the Democratic hegemony, reining in the growth of government or rolling back state regulations. The economy is OK here, but it’s not like there aren’t massive and contentious problems, many of which I document in this column every week (highest-in-the-nation poverty rates, rapidly escalating housing costs caused by growth controls, business flight to states with less oppressive regulations and tax rates, etc.).
It’s not that Californians are incapable of revolting against their masters, but it’s been awhile since they’ve done so. One of the great nationwide revolts of the peons came in 1978, when California voters approved Proposition 13, by nearly 63 percent to 37 percent. That effort slashed property-tax rates, capped their growth, and required a public vote for new increases. It was widely described as a “political earthquake” that spread across the country and contributed to Ronald Reagan’s election as president in 1980.
“Why was Proposition 13 so overwhelmingly approved in 1978?” asked Stephen Moore in a 1998 Cato Institute article. “Few expected it to win. In fact, on two separate occasions, less draconian versions of Proposition 13 had failed. But by 1978 raging inflation had sent property tax bills in the Golden State soaring so high that many families had to sell their homes because they couldn’t afford to pay their taxes.” Voters did so “despite a torrent of horror stories from teachers’ unions, politicians, newspapers and corporate lobbyists in Sacramento about the potentially devastating effects of Proposition 13,” he added.
Those same groups still decry the supposed evils of the proposition, even though they’ve managed to tax and spend California into the poorhouse anyway. In recent years, voters have shown strong support for pension-reform initiatives, but our senator-elect (currently attorney general) could be counted on to give such initiatives a biased title and ballot summary that would harm their chances of winning widespread support. The courts routinely reject pension reforms. And the Legislature doesn’t even consider them. The current system is truly “rigged” when it comes to efforts that would rein in the power of the public-employee unions.
California’s last real revolt came in 2003. Back then, the nation was in something of a status-quo mood. George W. Bush was still enjoying relatively high approval ratings. Here in California, we were suffering through rolling electrical blackouts caused by a poorly designed electricity “deregulation” scheme — and by the inaction of Democratic Gov. Gray Davis. Budget deficits were soaring into the tens of billions of dollars, while Davis was handing out massive pay hikes to his union allies and granting drivers’ licenses to illegal immigrants.
A charismatic outsider with no political experience, Arnold Schwarzenegger, grabbed nearly 49 percent of the vote in a historic and highly unusual recall election. There were 135 gubernatorial candidates, including some with rather unusual backgrounds (i.e., former actor Gary Coleman and “smut peddler” Larry Flynt). Schwarzenegger promised to “blow up the boxes” of government, streamline public services, and channel Milton Friedman. He did try to implement a reform-minded agenda by placing four initiatives on the 2005 ballot. They would have limited state spending, instituted redistricting reform, limited public-employee union political spending, and lengthened the time it would take for teachers to get tenure.
He lost on all the measures. The Governator then essentially apologized to the public after the loss and did something of a 180-degree change, placing his love of popularity above his interest in public policy. His most notable accomplishment after that election was to pass a “landmark” climate-change law that created the foundation the current Democratic leadership still builds upon today. That revolt ended in shambles, and Californians have basically just been going along with the liberal political program ever since that day.
Granted, our state is far different from what it was in the 1970s and somewhat different from what it was even when Schwarzenegger was in charge, but I haven’t totally given up hope that things could possibly change. I’ve never liked Trump in any way, but his victory shows that paradigms can shift — and in a rapid and dramatic way. Can it happen in California? I think so, someday. But we do things in our own way and our own schedule. Until something changes, however, we’ll have to suffer through the same kind of awful policies the rest of the nation just rejected.