California is an Embarrassment for Dysfunctional GOP State Governments

Newson's resounding victory along With Biden's 2020 support by a majority of WHITE Californians highlights limits of GOP scapegoating racial politics

I remember being in California on election night in 1994, as Republican Governor Pete Wilson won reelection and Prop  187, the anti-immigrant ballot initiative, was approved by voters.

That California can vote by 2-1 last night to keep a Democratic governor in office is taken as a given, a weird national outlier, but pundits somehow forget that California elected Ronald Reagan in 1967 and would elect George Deukmejian, Pete Wilson, and Arnold Schwarzenegger, all to two-term stints over the next forty-plus years.

That Reagan’s home state has become so unremittingly hostile to the GOP should be a bigger story.  And it’s not just because California has become a majority non-white state, since Biden won the majority of white voters in California in 2020.   It is a state where the Republican playbook of winning by appealing to the racial fears of alienated white voters has run into a ditch.

Partly this is because white voters there have plenty of reason NOT to be alienated since California’s government continues to produce the most dynamic economy in the nation, delivering jobs and public goods via the taxes on that wealth to improve voters’ lives.  With just 11.9% of the U.S. population, California produces 14.6% of the country’s GDP, driving a disproportionate share of export industries like high tech, movies, and agricultural production that make the U.S. an economic superpower- a far greater proportionate share of economic production than Texas or Florida, the two largest GOP states.

California produces this strong economy not despite its government but because of the strong public sector that supports its citizens.

And here’s a secret: California is a lower tax state than places like Texas for its middle and working-class residents.  Where the middle 20% of Californians pay just 8.3% of their income in state taxes, the middle 20% in Texas pay 9.7% of their income in taxes.  And the bottom 20% in Texas pay a punishing 13% of their income in taxes due to its overdependence on sales taxes to fund the public sector there.  The stark difference is California imposes heavy taxes on its wealthiest residents, while Texas barely taxes them at all.

And California voters like it that way, including its white voters who readily support Democrats for President and Governor because they see government delivering for them.

The nasty reality is that Republicans promote dysfunctional state governments that burden their citizens with high taxes essentially a deliberate policy to “prove” their thesis that government is the problem. Yale history professor Timothy Snyder coined the term “sadopopulism” to describe the modern GOP approach: identify an enemy (blacks, immigrants, liberals), enact policies to create pain for your own constituents, then blame that ensuing pain on those “enemies.”  Whether it’s taxes or the current Republican campaign in multiple states from Florida to Texas to kill their supporters through their Covid policies, their goal is to inflame voters against their perceived liberal enemies and designated scapegoats.

California is an embarrassment to Republicans since its “big government” state is popular with the majority of all races. It actually delivers a better economy and better public services at a lower tax rate for the majority of its residents than so-called “low tax”, “pro-business” states like Texas or Florida.

Republicans are desperate to obscure this reality that Democratic policies are popular when implemented, which is why GOP state legislatures spend so much energy shutting down liberal policies when enacted by local governments in their own states.  They don’t want any demonstration locally of their effectiveness and popularity.  No “laboratories of democracy” allowed within the gerrymandered, one-state GOP regimes.

Going back to that Pete Wilson and Prop 187 victory in 1994. At the time, it was a crushing loss, but the reality is that it was also nearly the last gasp of successful race-baiting politics by the Californian GOP. Georgia and Arizona moving into the Democratic columns in 2020 is a foreshadowing that Trumpist politics may just be a similar last gasp at the national level.

If nothing else, Gavin Newson’s victory should be the occasion for the U.S. media to convene a whole mess of diner interviews in California asking them why Democratic policies are so darn popular in that state. 

I won’t hold my breath on that one.