California Isn’t What You Think

California is liberal, that’s for sure. But it’s not the center of Democratic politics or an “experiment in liberalism,” and it’s certainly not the grim picture conservatives make it out to be.

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Most people hear the phrase “Democratic state” and think immediately of New York, and maybe even Massachusetts or Vermont. But if they had to choose one, it would probably be the state of Hollywood, perfect weather, and the Kardashians: California and for a good reason. The Golden State is one of the most consistently Democratic in the country, voting blue in the last eight presidential elections. State politics are dominated by Democrats, who hold the state’s two Senate seats, 42 out of its 53 seats in the House, and more than three-quarters of the seats in both houses of the California State Legislature.

Being the bastion of American liberalism, however, comes with increased attention. As the largest American state, with a population numbering close to 40 million people, and one of the most Democratic—ranking seventh in the country with 29 percent of voters identifying as liberal—Californian politics has been the subject of great contention, especially for conservatives.

Many conservatives look to California as a “great experiment in liberalism,” a laboratory for Democrats to prove their superior governance and political prowess. But, conservatives argue that Democrats have failed spectacularly in California. They are not wrong when it comes to numbers as California has some of the highest tax rates in the country, including an 8.66 percent sales tax rate and an 8.84 percent corporate tax rate, ranking ninth and eighth in each respective category nationally. Taxes aside, the state of finances and public services is not great either; California ranks 37th in education for K-12 students and third in per capita homeless rates, and pension liabilities are estimated to be higher than $1.1 trillion. Californians, disheartened by high tax rates, an ever-increasing cost of living, sky-high housing prices, and poor social services, are leaving in droves, joining what has now become a statewide exodus. In fact, between July 2019 and July 2020, 135,400 people left the state for surrounding areas in search of lower tax rates and easier living, and in 2018 and 2019, the state recorded the lowest growth rates in population since 1900. Even so, conservatives are not right to use California as an example of the disaster Democratic leadership brings. California’s torn economy and social strife are not a specter of what’s to come should Democrats one day control the entire country. Thinking so presents an inherently flawed argument.

The first flaw in this logic is that California is not some “great experiment in liberalism” as conservatives claim. While some of the issues California faces today can be attributed to the failure of Democratic leaders to act effectively, the majority of the problems stem from the state’s history. Take California’s pervasive homelessness. Governor Gavin Newsom’s inability to pass legislation like Senate Bill 50, which would have expanded housing by allowing construction of new homes near transportation hubs, is not the sole reason why California housing prices are through the roof. In fact, the California housing market has been inequitable since the 1930s. For decades, the Californian and federal governments promoted single-family living as opposed to more efficient multi-family housing. This encouragement, coupled with the overregulation of buildings by way of laws in the California Code of Regulations and tedious construction laws, has made California housing prices some of the highest in the country.

Similarly, California’s failing and inept education system is not a consequence of Democratic leadership, but a culmination of decades of an inequitable education system that has disproportionately affected people of color. Californian Democrats do, however, deserve some blame. They have failed to combat many of California’s most pressing issues, including the pandemic, the housing crisis, and homelessness. Holding politicians accountable is the only method through which real change can be impacted, and Democrats in the state have fallen far short of their constituents’ expectations as the coronavirus situation worsens.

While Democratic leaders deserve some blame for California’s recent economic and political failures, they should not shoulder the burden for difficulties that began long before they assumed office. Rather, we should hold them accountable for their actions in office and their response to the current situation. On the flip side, conservatives should not be turning California into a guinea pig “trial run” for Democratic politics when Californian politics are in no way representative of national Democratic politics. While Californian politicians tackle local issues like housing, national politics concern larger, overarching issues, like the American economy and social welfare. Projecting the successes or failures of California onto America as a whole does not yield a realistic picture of Democratic leadership. Instead of using California as a baseline for Democratic politics, Republicans should examine key issues and Democratic politicians’ responses to those issues in order to establish a more accurate understanding of Democratic politics on a national level rather than a local one.

California is surely liberal, but its position does not reflect the Democratic party or its governing. California is not the center of Democratic politics or an “experiment in liberalism,” and the grim picture conservatives paint of the state is not emblematic of national Democratic politics but more a consequence of the state’s turbulent history and the struggles of local Democrats.