California Has Lessons for Liberals

California Has Lessons for Liberals

California’s progressive image can be misleading. But it’s also home to activists fighting to change the state for the better.

Nurses take part in a nationwide protest organized by the National Nurses United in Los Angeles, California (Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images)

One of my favorite Spanish expressions is “se cree muy-muy.” Literally translated, it means he believes himself to be very-very; more colloquially, that dude is super conceited.

Last week in the New York Times, Ezra Klein echoed a point I’ve made before: California “se cree muy-muy.” We Californians are proud of our role as a “state of resistance” to the Trump regime and we frequently boast of our progressive policies, including a few Klein points to: “electric grid modernization, a deeply progressive plan to tax the wealthy to fund poor school districts, a prison population at a 30-year low.”

Klein rightly argues that this progressive image can be misleading: the state is desperately unequal, with housing prices that are still too high, incomes for working people that are still too low, and public schools that are better-funded but still struggling.

But in his summary, Klein misses some important policy shifts. Our minimum wage is now one of the highest in the nation, and in 2019 we became the first state to grant undocumented adults access to taxpayer-supported healthcare. And he also misses what made all this progressive change possible: the strength of the social movements that changed the underlying political calculus of the state.

Klein’s lack of attention to social movements in California leads him to some misunderstandings. Consider the examples that he raises as evidence of our shortcomings. He begins by decrying the attention paid to renaming schools in San Francisco even as the schools remain shut by COVID. Let’s grant that easy target—I agree it would probably be better to focus our attention on finding ways to increase investments in education and get teachers back safely in our classrooms.

Klein’s next example, though, is not so simple. He laments State Senator Scott Wiener’s failure to pass SB50, a bill that would promote denser development near mass transit. But that bill wasn’t derailed by rich, hypocritical liberals. It was stopped by an organized coalition of advocates from low-income communities who were worried that the bill was based on a “trickle-down” model of housing production that lacked sufficient safeguards against gentrification in their neighborhoods.

Another concern of Klein’s is our failure to make progress on construction of a high-speed rail between Los Angeles and San Francisco. I’ll admit that I’m disappointed by this—I’d love to dash back and forth between the richest areas of the state—but it’s not exactly the pet project of people working for social justice. They have instead been focused on making sure that the funds being diverted from our cap-and-trade system to the rail project be directed instead to communities suffering the most from environmental pollution and socioeconomic deprivation.

Those very same activists have also been laser-focused on the bigger picture: removing the fiscal straightjackets that have prevented the state from making needed investments in public education and social welfare. Last year, a wide range of labor unions and community organizations banded together for a campaign to modify Proposition 13—the famous 1978 ballot measure that locked in low taxes for incumbent (overwhelmingly white) homeowners and corporations, and set off an anti-tax fervor that was taken national by our former governor, Ronald Reagan, and ravaged the country in its wake.

Their proposal—which basically argued for resetting corporate property taxes to better reflect market values—went straight against a “third rail” of California politics that traditional liberal politicians have refused to touch. Tepidly supported at the end by mainstream Democrats, in 2020 it came within a few percentage points of victory, a remarkable outcome against a headwind of millions of dollars in opposition spending, an economic recession that made tax hikes unpopular, and a COVID pandemic that reduced the ground game that has been so essential to progressive victories in California.

Like Klein, I consider myself a native Californian (I was born in New York but my parents moved to L.A. when I was six months old), and I know the state has its problems. But it also has a set of social movement actors that have fundamentally shifted the terrain. For example, last year the state created a first-in-the-nation $125 million relief fund for undocumented residents left out of the 2020 federal relief packages, mostly due to pressure placed on our governor by immigrant rights activists. And in early January 2021—on the same day that Trump aficionados assaulted the U.S. Capitol—Governor Gavin Newsom unveiled a “Golden State Stimulus” package aimed at our lowest-income residents, including undocumented households.

California has become a launching pad for experiments in universal basic income, including in Stockton and Compton, two of the hardest-pressed cities in the state. As the rest of the nation debates whether to “defund the police,” organizers in Los Angeles County led a successful campaign to pass a ballot measure diverting 10 percent of unrestricted funds toward social services, winning against stiff opposition from the Sheriff and his deputies who knew exactly where that 10 percent was coming from.

Californians need to be honest about what works and what doesn’t. Klein has every right and reason to criticize—he was born here, has returned to live here, and he is correct to slam the state’s pretentious liberalism. But before we say that progressivism is not working here, we should compare ourselves to other states—say, Texas, where a combination of foolish pride and market deregulation has left people to literally freeze to death.

We also have to look in the right place to see where we’re coming up short. Policies and political figures matter but they can only accomplish what our social movements make possible. Indeed, the current moment of national change that may help make Biden a transformational hero was brought to you by grassroots organizers, particularly Black women, that persuaded Georgians to elect two of the most liberal politicians to serve in the U.S. Senate and so gave the new president the Congress he needs to enact legislation.

California can and should do better. We need policies to address the affordable housing crisis that is driving out many working-class residents and to construct an economy that values all Californians. But if you look toward the organizing ground floor, California remains a model for what progressives can accomplish when they trust communities, invest in organizing, and build the power needed for long-term change.

Manuel Pastor is Director of the Equity Research Institute at the University of Southern California and author of State of Resistance: What California’s Dizzying Descent and Remarkable Resurgence Mean for America’s Future.

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