Over the past few years, I've posted on this blog frequently about the progress California has made during that same period. Once a state that seemed to perpetually exist on the edge of the insolvency, California has run a series of surpluses that have enabled it to plan proactively for its future and the challenges it faces. Not coincidentally, all of this good news has been generated during a period in which California has not only had a Democratic governor--Jerry Brown, in one of the greatest second acts in the history of American politics--but a Democratic legislature with a two-thirds majority. I guess that proves how much you can accomplish when you don't have Republicans getting in the way.
California was not always like this. True, in the 1960s and 1970s, it helps to launch a major countercultural revolution. But its statewide politics during that period were resolutely and reflexively conservative. In fact, it was in California in 1978 that the anti-tax mood of the nation first began to gather steam with the passage of Proposition 13, a property-tax cut measure that helped to launch the fiscal problems that bedeviled the Golden State for much of the past 20 years. It's fair to say that the so-called Reagan Revolution was launched in the state governed by the Gipper for eight years.
Indeed, during Reagan's subsequent presidency, conservative commentators like George Will were fond of citing California as the nation's bellweather, and viewed its launching of the tax revolt as the harbinger of a conservative revolution that would dominate national politics for decades to come. As Will is fond of saying, in contradiction to commonly-received wisdom, "Well." I would agree with him that California is a bellweather of national trends, including political ones. But I think that California's recent history suggests how quickly trends can change.
Why did California suddenly flip in politics from red to blue? Some have attributed it to then-governor Pete Wilson's anti-immigration crackdown of the 1990s. Some have also attributed it to the Rodney King assault by police, documented via television for a national audience. Some have attributed it to the threats presented by climate change to a coastal state whose economic and social life depend so heavily on proximity to water (including drinking and irrigation water piped in from other states).
I don't think there's any one factor that explains the change. But I do think there's one thing to which all of the factors are related, and that perhaps binds them together conceptually as well. We have lived for the past four decades in an era in which our ability to live with a reduced level of government involvement in our lives has been tested severely. In the process, we have discovered that perhaps less government is not all by itself better government. We need strong government at all levels of our federal system to ensure that the freedoms promised to us by the Framers of our Constitution can be exercised in a meaningful way.
Government should provide us with a floor through which we cannot fall, and a ceiling through which public menaces cannot reach. As long as it does those things, and otherwise lets us have the freedom to move around as we wish, it doesn't matter how "big" or how "small" government is. All that matters is that we, the people, have the ability to keep it headed in the direction we want it to go. Sometimes, the nature of our problems may push us to the right but, other times, it may lead us back to the left.
We are in one of those times in which the problems we face--changes of a global nature, involving diverse populations and world-wide upheavals--are best dealt with by governments attuned to the nature of those problems and the best ways to solve them. By definition, those problems are not ones that lend themselves to market-based solutions. They lend themselves to those with the knowledge and experience to make government work as effectively as possible. That's why our national politics, and California's politics, have shifted leftward. They have done so in response to the specific challenges America faces in the early 21st century.
And, as long as the problems we face remain ones that are best addressed by government at all levels, you can expect more stories like this one to come out of California. And you can also expect the things California tries to not only work, but to spread across the nation as well. Sorry, George. That's the problem with bellweathers. Bells can swing in both directions and, right now, California is helping to swing America to the left.