After the 2010 midterms, you could almost hear conservative pundits dismissing California as the land of fruits, nuts and irrelevancy. They couldn’t be further from the truth. Even though California doggedly stayed left while nearly every other state veered right, it still remains the supercharged engine for America’s progressive movement. If anything, the midterms just stomped down its accelerator.
California’s accelerated national influence is evident in what many dismiss as a loss for liberals, the defeat of Proposition 19, the marijuana legalization initiative. Most conservative commentators saw the vote against legal pot as proof that even California isn’t that crazy, but look again. More Californians voted to legalize marijuana than voted for Republican Meg Whitman for governor, even though Prop 19’s supporters spent a mere $4 million on their campaign, compared to Whitman’s $163 million.
Like earlier society-bending propositions on the California ballot — gay marriage and global warming are recent examples — the measure blazed the trail for similar efforts in other states. Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the pro-legalization Drug Policy Alliance, put it this way, “California’s Proposition 19 may not have won a majority of voters yesterday, but it already represents an extraordinary victory for the broader movement to legalize marijuana. Its mere presence on the ballot … elevated and legitimized public discourse about marijuana and marijuana policy.” Students for Sensible Drug Policy, another pro-legalization group, added, “One of the greatest hidden victories of the Prop 19 campaign was that it trained the emerging generation of marijuana reformers on how to run a legalization campaign, and left virtually all of them wanting to win on this issue in 2012.” Colorado is a likely target.
Similarly, California’s rejection of Prop 23, ensuring the state would continue its plunge into cap and trade even as Congress is backing away from similar legislation, has reinvigorated global warming activists. As the Daily Green blog put it, “The federal government needs to take a close look at the result.”
Prop 19 was on the ballot in California, not Kansas or Alabama or even Massachusetts, because supporters of liberal social change know they’ll get more publicity and possibly even a winning vote in unrepentantly liberal California. The state nurtured progressivism a century ago and has given the movement staying power through its modeling of liberal legislation and policies and the sheer number of progressives churned out by its universities — so much so that it’s not likely Barack Obama would be president today were it not for the very blue Golden State.
While the established political parties and their consultants will ignore California and pore over campaigns in other states for clues on how to capitalize on — or crush — the Tea Party’s influence, the Left will be studying what happened in California, so they can replicate it the next time around. What they will find is not so much a magic formula but a vast progressive infrastructure they will then work to replicate elsewhere.
I call this infrastructure the PEER Axis, for the progressives, environmentalists, educators and reporters who collectively run California and influence the underpinnings of America. The PEER Axis remains powerful because politicians and political movements may come and go, but government bureaucrats and regulators, environmentalists and social justice activists, and their supporters in education and the media are pretty much forever. The structure of California ensures that appropriately indoctrinated college graduates will continue to fill the personnel pipelines that run from Berkeley, UCLA and other liberal universities straight into the progressive movement.
Many end up in government offices in Sacramento, where they write policies that are parroted in other states around the nation, as evidenced by the fact that the federal government is following California’s lead in setting the next round of vehicle fuel economy standards. Others will go to work at California’s giant environmentalist organizations, social justice NGOs and activist law firms, or the powerful public employee unions. Some will stay on the campuses, turning out future generations of progressives and writing studies to reinforce and justify progressive government policies, and those who graduate into the media will publicize these efforts and belittle any contrarian thinking. Many will find jobs in California’s foremost culture-bending venture, Hollywood, where they will pummel all the world with green messages (The China Syndrome, Avatar), anti-corporate tirades (Metropolis, Wall Street), anti-war propaganda (Apocalypse Now, In the Valley of Elah) and movies challenging conventional values (Milk, Juno).
Wherever they end up, they will be greeted by like-minded alumnae ready to show them the ropes so they, too, can form and implement policy, bring lawsuits, and mold the next generation. Don’t be lulled into dismissing California’s influence just because of one election, because the California progressives will not be content to limit their focus to west of the Sierras. As Gavin Newsome, the San Francisco mayor and newly elected Lieutenant Governor of California, put it when he declared San Francisco open for gay marriages, “It’s gonna happen, whether you like it or not!”
Laer Pearce, a veteran of three decades of California public affairs, is currently working on a book that shows how everything wrong with America comes from California.