The beat of a different drum.

Photographer: David McNew/Getty Images

California Is Democratic America's Capital

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
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Now more than ever, California is the capital of liberal America. It will be a kind of Democratic government-in-exile starting in January, when a popular liberal president is succeeded by a 70-year-old who built his campaign on resentment of two of the Golden State's most ornate pillars: the creative class and multicultural ideals. 

Governor Jerry Brown, who signed into law a graduated $15 minimum wage (by 2021) earlier this year, has tried to advance progressive policy with pragmatism. According to the state Legislature's nonpartisan fiscal analysis, California now has sufficient budget reserves to "weather a mild recession without cutting spending or raising taxes through 2020–21."

California's liberal instincts are nonetheless unmistakable.  

On Nov. 8, the state voted in favor of new regulations on guns, including mandatory background checks on ammunition purchases. Voters supported legalized recreational marijuana, extended a state tax surcharge on the wealthy, imposed a $2-per-pack tax on cigarettes, and adopted local housing and transportation measures along with local tax increases and bond proposals. (The vast majority of tax and bond proposals on California ballots were approved.)

While they were at it, Californians returned large Democratic majorities to the Legislature in Sacramento, where representatives work alongside the exclusively Democratic statewide elected officials, including the governor. For good measure they sent Democrat Kamala Harris, part Asian, part black, all Californian, to the U.S. Senate.

If Hillary Clinton is looking for a burst of sunshine amid the storm clouds, she knows where to find it. In preferring her over Trump by a 2-to-1 margin, with votes still coming in, Californians gave Clinton a buffer of three million votes -- accounting for all of her national popular vote margin over Trump and then some.

Trump, said Democratic consultant Bill Carrick, "never got any traction here."

The president-elect has work to do if he wants to make the terrain less inhospitable. The state's marquee industries, Hollywood and Silicon Valley, have little interest in his 1950s manufacturing fantasies, and each has much to lose if a clumsy misstep on trade complicates global film distribution or tech supply chains. Both industries were founded with heavy contributions from immigrants.

In the governor's race to succeed Brown in 2018 (he is 78 and term-limited), Trump will likely be assigned the role Obama played in the 2016 GOP presidential race: piñata. "Every California politician who has dreams of being president will make their national image by standing up to Trump," said Thad Kousser, a political scientist at the University of California, San Diego. "That's good politics in California, and good politics in the Democratic primary for president."

Conflict could come sooner than 2018 if Trump pursues policies he championed in the campaign. After Trump's "60 Minutes" appearance Sunday, in which he vowed to deport 2 million to 3 million undocumented immigrants, California Senate Leader Kevin de Leon mobilized. "We will protect our people and prosperity," he said in a statement short on political ambiguity. Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck added that his officers don't enforce laws "based on somebody's immigration status."

The state won't prove any more eager to abandon its aggressive environmental standards, or the more than 12 million Californians who get their health care through the state's partnership with Medicaid. But Trump and a Republican Congress could squeeze the state on both counts, increasing the relative costs of being green and the absolute costs of delivering health care.

Predictably, given its polar distance from Washington's reactionary fervor, there are stirrings of secession. You can quibble with the state's incessant bragging about its rank among world economies -- sixth place seems to be the current claim -- but no other state comes close. California's population is now more than 39 million, up more than 5 percent since 2010. That's enormous compared with sparsely populated conservative states -- Wyoming has fewer than 600,000 people -- that routinely blunt California's power in the U.S. Senate. 

If California continues growing, and its federal influence doesn't, eventually something's gotta give.

One-quarter of California blacks and more than one in five Hispanics are poor. If the state becomes a magnet for undocumented immigrants fleeing a federal crackdown, its problems will surely grow. California's dynamic industries, and universities, contribute to inequality, although the universities also provide a stepping stone for the working class and progressive taxation of wealth generated in Silicon Valley and Hollywood contracts the gap between rich and poor. 

The contrast with Washington, already pronounced, will grow starker if Republicans succeed in delivering huge tax cuts to the wealthy and spending cuts to the poor, which is Speaker Paul Ryan's agenda.

Given total Republican control in Washington, Ryan's plan can be enacted without Democratic votes, as can much of the gutting of Obamacare. Both decisions contain enormous political risk, given the certainty that millions would suffer. If Republicans go off the deep end in Washington, either through ideology, incompetence or the political wormhole that is Trump himself, California will beckon as a liberal antidote. The state seems ready for a fight.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net