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State of Resistance – California Fights Back

At the same moment that Trump was riding his horse Xenophobe through a narrow passageway in the Electoral College to the presidency, California elected only Democrats..., extended progressive tax revenues and ...locked out anti-immigrant policy...

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unhoused man at bus stop
2015: San Francisco, CA.: H&R Block demanding the government give back billions. Unhoused person resting at a bus stop., Copyright 2015: Robert Gumpert

State of Resistance: What California’s Dizzying Descent and Remarkable Resurgence Mean for America’s Future, by Manuel Pastor (New Press, 2018, 278 pages)

California Fights Back:  The Golden State in the Age of Trump, by Peter Schrag (Heyday Press, 2018, 112 pages)

“California is America fast-forward,” says Manuel Pastor in State of Resistance:  What California’s Dizzying Descent and Remarkable Resurgence Means for America’s Future.  I hope he’s right, and the author gives us reason to think so. 

So does former Sacramento Bee editor Peter Schrag in California Fights Back:  The Golden State in the Age of Trump. Schrag foresees an attainable national future in the state’s self-assigned role as lead organizer of the opposition to Trump:  “Given California’s size, demographic diversity, economic heft, and its (mostly) blue political hue, it’s not surprising that the state is both the leader of the resistance […] and, at the same time, a bright model of an alternative.”

Although each book largely presents latter-day California history with accuracy and insight, State of Resistance provides a deeper dive into the state’s complex social relationships, while California Fights Backfeatures a thinner but useful empirical recitation of how the state’s political actors have fought the Trump regime’s offense against immigrants, facts and common decency.

In both books we learn how, by the late twentieth century, the once lustrous Golden State had lost its sheen.  When Governor Pete Wilson found himself behind in the polls in 1994, after his first term in office, the hitherto moderate Republican came up with an explanation for the state’s economic doldrums:  illegal immigrants.  He fashioned a ballot measure, Proposition 187, to deny undocumented immigrants and their children most state sponsored services, including public education, and sailed to reelection on these mean-spirited winds.  (Prop 187 was soon found unconstitutional.)

A decade later, Arnold Schwarzenegger couldn’t plausibly finger immigrants as the source of his failure to deliver on bombastic campaign promises to “blow up the boxes” of government bureaucracy, since he had arrived on these shores from elsewhere himself—although, with Wilson, Iago-like, whispering in his ear, he briefly tried.  Instead, the wealthy governor made scapegoats of public employees and their unions, and called a special election to deal what he imagined would be deathblows to these mortal enemies of the people.  His ballot measures proposed to dismantle pensions, strip away job protections, and wrest for himself dictatorial control over the state budget.

But the electorate didn’t see things his way.  Instead, teachers, nurses and firefighters, powered by grassroots organizing and a much smarter media strategy than Schwarzenegger’s, molded themselves into a secular Holy Trinity, and their union-funded campaign solidly defeated the once and future movie actor’s nasty ballot measures.  Their cause was helped along by the Governator’s contemptuous demeanor, transparent lies about his opponents, and abrupt policy zigazgs. 

Both authors see this as a turning point, or at least the moment that revealed California’s tectonic shift from celebrity media politics, conservative gutter ideologies and austerity policies a couple decades ago, to the present day when the state stands as a bulwark of ethnic tolerance and serious, if insufficient efforts to address the threats of economic inequality and climate change.  Pastor in particular digs below the surface of electoral politics and personalities to diagnose the structural problems that led to the state’s decline and analyze its path to improvement in ways that might help others.

Thus two-time governor Jerry Brown often received plaudits, especially outside California, for the state’s phoenix-like rise from the Great Recession, during which time right-wing pundits enjoyed calling liberal California a “failed state.”  (They still do, not having noticed, or choosing to ignore, the changed circumstances.)  At the moment he was elected in 2010, public education was losing ten thousand K-12 teaching positions a year; services to seniors and the poor were slashed to the bone; and four of the top ten counties in the country hit hardest by the sub-prime housing crisis were to be found in the Central Valley.

During Brown’s tenure the state added more than two million new jobs; the enormous and perennial budget deficits carefully nurtured by tax-averse Republican administrations were supplanted by substantial state surpluses and rainy day funds; and much (if far from all) of the damage to the public sector wrought by long term systemic underfunding and the Recession was repaired.

Brown deserves some credit. But as State of Resistance explains, California’s return from the precipice depended less on Brown and more on the evolution of four interlocking factors: population demographics; the tech economy; progressive strategies; and the ascension of a cohort of seasoned activists to the helms of unions and community-based organizations, as well as to political office.  These leaders’ lengthy trial by fire during the slash and burn days of Wilson and Schwarzenegger forced them to rethink where the state needed to go and how to transform the state’s politics as usual in order to go there.

As Pastor puts it, their “work became more intersectional, linking immigrants and labor, environmentalists and social justice proponents, and community actors and policy makers….[R]ather than merely arguing against the newest inane right-wing idea, groups were rolling out concepts like living wages, community benefits agreements, immigrant-friendly policing, and environmental equity.”

Key to these developments was what Pastor calls “integrated voter engagement” with low-income communities of color, whose self-interest would line up with progressive goals—if the members of these communities voted.  California Calls, a foundation-supported progressive advocacy coalition of community organizations, saw this voter recruitment and education project as one of two essential goals, the other being to reverse Proposition 13, the 1978 property-tax cutting disaster that exemplified Pastor’s vision of California as America fast-forward, only in the wrong direction. 

This template for small government, reduced tax, anti-social welfare and anti-union ideology, initially a California export in the early days of neoliberalism, today of course reigns supreme in Republican-controlled states as well as within the Trump administration.  And this supposedly immutable California political preference was one of the favorite clubs wielded by conservative and liberal political consultants alike for decades to beat back any suggestion for progressive tax proposals that might fund investments in the state’s languishing public sector.

In 2010, Brown received a gift during the same election in which he became governor for a second time.  A gathering sense of possibility among like-minded progressive groups led to passage of Proposition 25, which reduced the undemocratic legislative requirement for a two-thirds supermajority to pass a state budget each year, to a simple majority.  This broke the toxic legislative power of the minority Republican caucus, which hovered just over one third, that had systematically underfunded public services and created the cynical anti-government smokescreen (typically accompanied by a “what can we do?” shrug) that “Sacramento is dysfunctional” when it was actually a conscious conservative scheme that kept the state gridlocked and its services starved.   

The success of Prop 25 encouraged public sector unions and community groups like California Calls to move forward with plans to place a progressive tax measure on the 2012 general election ballot.  Although ultimately supported by Jerry Brown, what eventually became Proposition 30 was quite different from the contours of his regressive initial proposal, which featured a one-cent sales tax increase as well as an across-the-board income tax bump. 

Based on opinion research conducted by the California Federation of Teachers (CFT), a determined and rowdy labor-community coalition created a “millionaires tax” movement, and invited Brown to jettison his regressive proposal and join with them.  After he refused to partner, the dueling ballot measures gathered signatures separately for several months while the contending forces waged a high-profile series of skirmishes in the media.  Brown peeled away all the unions but one—CFT—from the coalition, threatening to veto any legislation they sponsored if they didn’t come over to his side. 

But alongside CFT in the Millionaires Tax coalition remained California Calls, the Courage Campaign, and the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (the former ACORN).  It had just enough funding combined with its grassroots street and online capacities to propel its simple, radical message—”tax the rich for schools and services”—before the public eye and test out the thesis that together, bold progressive ideas and organizing the new electorate could change the state.

The coalition pressed its case in news-catching demonstrations, marches, news conferences, op-eds, and a steady barrage of endorsements by school and college districts and higher education student organizations organized by the coalition.  This nimble juggernaut beat Brown in five straight matchups in opinion polls and put ten thousand demonstrators in the streets of Sacramento with Millionaires Tax signs outside his window.  He finally sued for peace, agreeing to merge his effort with the coalition’s. 

“If it can be done here, why not elsewhere?

Prop 30, a compromise measure that leaned more to the left than Brown’s earlier proposal, overcame an opposition campaign funded by right-wing billionaires in November 2012.  With the governor on board, the entire labor movement and the state Democratic Party supported Prop 30, and beat back an anti-union salvo, Proposition 32, as well.  These victories were critical for the health of the state.  Prop 30 and its successor in 2016, Prop 55, which extended the measure for twelve years, brings California eight to ten billion dollars a year, essentially saving the public sector.

Props 30 and 55 boosted the top marginal income tax rates on families making half a million dollars a year, providing desperately needed relief to the strapped schools and social services that enable low income communities to survive—while similar populations are being hammered elsewhere in states run by Republican regimes propped up by gerrymandering, repressive voter restrictions and a mountain of political cash from wealthy conservatives. 

This is the crux of the argument in these two books.  At the same moment that Trump was riding his horse Xenophobe through a narrow passageway in the Electoral College to the presidency, California elected only Democrats to statewide offices, extended progressive tax revenues and decisively locked out a left-over anti-immigrant policy sharply limiting help for English learner students (Prop 58).  If it can be done here, why not elsewhere?

The path of the nation’s population growth, despite the Trump administration’s efforts, is into this demographic future:  majority minority and immigrant, and California got there first.   

Both authors understand that the California model, while infinitely preferable to what’s happening on the national stage, does not represent Utopia.  They note that big problems remain to be resolved on the Lower Left Coast.  Its own version of economic inequality features the largest proportion of poverty dwellers in the country alongside an insanely rich tech elite.  Transportation infrastructure is crumbling amid housing stock falling farther and farther behind the bulk of the population’s need for shelter, with that scarcity driving housing costs beyond reach.  Despite Prop 30’s assistance, California continues to underfund education and services measured against real needs, thanks in part to various provisions of Prop 13.

(This will be addressed directly in November 2020 by the same coalition that passed Props 30 and 55, with the “Schools and Communities First” ballot measure, now collecting signatures.)

And yes, substantial pockets of resistance to the Resistance remain to be eradicated in traditionally conservative areas of the state from urban San Diego to agricultural-cum-suburban central valleys to the far northern cow counties.  Eyeing the distance still to travel, Pastor says,

“The real need is not for a great leader but for many leaders, not for winning at the top of the ticket but for winning across the board, not for pinning our hopes on one speech, one candidate or even one big march but rather counting on the grassroots organizing that brings people together face to face, race to race and place to place to see their common future.”

Here is where Pastor and Schrag diverge.  Pastor, a USC professor and participant-observer sociologist, helped provide some of the research fueling the leftward push from progressive organizations that breathed new life into the California Dream, and his book’s proposals are undergirded by his direct experience with organizers and activism.  Schrag, liberal author of a number of books on the state and former newspaper editor, marshals a veteran journalist’s care with specifics, but in enumerating many actions taken by California actors and institutions to resist the Trump agenda, focuses on elected officials, state institutions and law suits.  For people who still believe at this perilous moment that facts can help win political arguments, Schrag offers ammunition. 

He is not immune, however, to the occasional glib platitude, crediting Brown, for instance, with Prop 30, not knowing—or, if aware, not thinking it important enough to mention—what Pastor spends a fair amount of time carefully delineating: the convergence of strategy, organizing and leadership development on the broad left that turned the state’s finances around, representing for Pastor a significant part of what California has to offer the rest of the country as a model.

So how do these books, meant to provide a guide out of the Trumpist nightmare and into a brighter day, measure up to their intentions?

There is a slapdash quality to California Fights Back, as if in the haste to get the book out Schrag glued together the events and actions with liberal (and not so liberal) pieties, rather than digging into the more careful exposition we get from Pastor.

Conversely, Pastor’s view is that of the more thoughtful elements of the Democratic Party left since November 2016; in many ways that would be the natural audience for his book.  Of course, it would be better if the centrist wing of the party were to be persuaded by State of Resistance, and by California Fights Back, too, in their shared arguments for following the lead of California toward a more inclusive and progressive United States.  But Pastor’s focus and insistence on the long-term hard work of organizing for progressive change might not win over that particular audience.

That would be a shame, because the thrust of both books, especially State of Resistance, should be taken very seriously.  Just as the xenophobic overreach of conservative policies and politics twenty years ago provided the wakeup call to California’s “sleeping giant” immigrant voter ranks, and seeded a new generation of progressive leadership that arose from struggles against such abusive politics, we may well be witnessing something similar arising on the national stage with the Trumpian assaults on democratic traditions, law, reason, and decency, and the consequent progressive surge—electoral and in other spheres of political life—in response to these insults.

Where we go as a nation from here—and whether it takes these California lessons to heart—remains to be seen. At least part of the tale will be told in November 2020.  Meanwhile, I live in California, the State of Resistance, and for the reasons laid out in these two books, I’m not leaving any time soon.

Fred Glass is the author of From Mission to Microchip: A History of the California Labor Movement (University of California Press, 2016), and the former communications director of the California Federation of Teachers.