California Has Become the Far Left Coast


California’s descent into a one-party state accelerated in 2018. Golden State Democrats picked up seven seats in the House. They now control almost 87% of the state’s congressional delegation—46 of the 53 representatives. Orange County, one of the original strongholds of the conservative movement, is now a liberal bastion. Democrats hold both U.S. Senate seats and all eight elected statewide offices.

It has been widely reported that in the California Legislature Democrats won supermajorities of two-thirds. This understates their control, which is more like three-fourths of each chamber: 28 of 40 Senate seats (with two vacancies), and 61 of 80 in the Assembly.

At the local level, the GOP’s last redoubt, Democrats advanced, too. Earlier this decade, Republicans filled almost half of California’s 2,500 mayoral and City Council seats, which are officially nonpartisan and hence offer camouflage to candidates from an unpopular party. This election flushed them out of that cover. Republicans now hold only 38% of those positions.

The Democrats’ crushing dominance allows them to use California as a progressive policy laboratory. As a result, the state has the highest welfare numbers (a third of all Americans on welfare live in California), the largest contingent of illegal immigrants, a burgeoning homeless population, onerous regulations on business and private property, mediocre public schools, high income taxes (the highest marginal rate is 13.3%) and sales taxes, a yawning gap between rich and poor, its own summer blend of expensive gasoline, bedraggled and crowded roads to punish people further for driving, and a widely mocked high-speed rail boondoggle.

To risk an analogy, California is to today’s Democrats roughly what South Carolina was to pre-Civil War Democrats: the showcase state, the vanguard of enlightened public policy offering itself for emulation. Yet it’s been a long time since the state produced political figures of obvious national importance such as Earl Warren, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.Pete Wilson, the senator and governor, seems to have been the end of that line. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s governorship was a box-office flop. Jerry Brown, after 16 years in the gubernatorial chair, still wrestled with the mystery of Jerry Brown.

Even so, the state has one declared presidential candidate, Sen. Kamala Harris, and one potential contender, newly elected Gov. Gavin Newsom. Having moved its primary election up to March 2—Super Tuesday—the state may actually play a significant role in picking the Democratic nominee this time.

One-party California seems to follow more than lead the Democratic policy dance. Yet its example remains instructive—especially its attempts to implement some of the party’s 2020 enthusiasms.

Take infrastructure. Rather than repair freeways or build new ones, Mr. Brown decided to construct the high-speed rail line between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Vowing “hard decisions” and “tough calls,” however, his successor announced in February that “the project, as currently planned, would cost too much and take too long.” The train’s cost, at last estimate, was between $77 billion and $88 billion, four times the funds available. Incredibly, however, Mr. Newsom didn’t cancel the project. He merely postponed it indefinitely, except for the rump railroad between Merced and Bakersfield, for which not a single mile of track has been laid.

Or consider health care. A bill to create a single-payer system in California passed the Democrat-controlled state Senate in June 2017, only to stall in the Democrat-controlled Assembly when Speaker Anthony Rendon confessed that his party had no idea how to raise the $400 billion annually the system is estimated to cost. (The whole state budget amounts to $201.4 billion.) Last month Mr. Newsom endorsed “the long-term goal of single payer” but pointedly didn’t introduce a bill to achieve it. In the long run, liberals used to say, we are all dead. It will be interesting to see which arrives first: the train or the government doctors.

The promises of California’s government programs are too good to be true, but also, apparently, too attractive to resist. Karl Marx called his kind of socialism “scientific,” as opposed to his predecessors’ “utopian” fantasies. California appears to be pioneering a third kind, which might be called “infantile.” Our Democrats strongly suspect their programs won’t work and know they can’t be paid for—but want them anyway. To analyze that perversity, Freud might be more helpful than Marx. At any rate, California’s experience offers cautionary lessons on the way to 2020.

Mr. Kesler is a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and the editor of the Claremont Review of Books.