Politics

Why Isn't the Golden State Having Its Own Fiesta de Té?

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Can a grassroots political movement really be grassroots if it's not composed of white Anglos? That's the implicit question in a New York Times roundtable on Tea Party politics in the Golden State.

They're bears, see, and a bear is the symbol of California, and it's a tea party.

The Grey Lady asks: "Where Are the Angry California Voters? With Tea Party politics less of a factor than elsewhere, what issues will determine the outcome in November?"

It's a great topic. Insurgent candidates have been winning primaries all over the country, yet California is once again looking at an election in which both parties will field the blandest and most establishmentarian candidates available in the free world. Why?

Claremont McKenna scholar Douglas Johnson says the state's population is just too big to be susceptible to grassroots challenges. Former Sacramento Bee columnist Peter Schrag says California's history of ballot initiatives and anti-tax movements should be considered the Tea Party's precursor movement—which he blames, incongruously, for the state's high unemployment rate and pension-driven structural deficit. Former John McCain flack Dan Schnur says California voters are more glum than angry (which strikes me as kind of true).

The San Francisco Chronicle's Debra J. Saunders—last seen running to the left of her liberal paper by supporting the legalization of marijuana—says the Democratic Party's lock on the state doesn't allow for extra-institutional challenges:

[T]he demographics skew too far to the left. California voters are 45 percent Democrat and 31 percent Republican.

Nonetheless, voters don't want to pay higher taxes. By 2 to 1, last year they rejected a proposition to extend a temporary broad-based tax increase. Now politicians of both stripes are scrambling to find savings. And they're looking at payroll…

The left has begun to realize that too-generous public-employee benefits — like lifetime health coverage for state workers who retire at age 50 — mean less money for the services they cherish.

Pacific Research Institute's Steven Greenhut, author of Reason's February cover story on the reign of government employees, gets specific on California's political economy and history:

This isn't a state where grassroots politics matters as much as money. The G.O.P. has had to rely in recent years on candidates who can self-fund—witness billionaire [Meg] Whitman's record-setting $119 million investment in her campaign. California Democrats are so disagreeable to the G.O.P. base that conservatives are still influenced by arguments about supporting electable candidates. The mere mention of the names Barbara Boxer and Jerry Brown offers plenty of motivation.

Referring to the recall of Gov. Gray Davis and his replacement with Arnold Schwarzenegger, John Seiler, a former editorial writer for The Orange County Register, says, "We had our Tea Party in 2003 and it backfired."

But the most interesting response comes from Lisa García Bedolla, an associate professor at Berkeley. Bedolla effectively calls for one-party rule under the Democrats; blames a shadowy cabal of Kochs, Fox executives, and "cynical billionaires"; and says California has been spared the ravages of political activism and peaceful assembly because "white discontent" doesn't play in a majority-minority state.

It's a long drive (through several Republican districts!) from the East Bay to L.A. County, but is Bedolla even paying attention to what's happening down here?

The eruption in Southeast L.A. County—which has been building up for several years, though the Los Angeles Times deserves its inevitable Pulitzer for exploding the story—is not a case of the white overclass getting angry about a threat to its privileges. The Bell activists are Latino Democrats, largely Spanish-speaking, less than fully marinated in small-government sensibilities and inclined to believe, as activist leader Cristina Garcia puts it here, that "for the most part the government works."

Yet there they are, protesting not just excessive taxation but excessive spending. They are exercised about the very same thing—being preyed upon by a self-enriching public-sector bishopric—that motivates the Tea Partiers. And with the city government facing a massive general fund shortfall and destroyed credit, they can't avoid the deadly question "What will you cut?"

Strangely, Saunders—the conservative in the roundtable—is the only one who notes that there are similarities between the Bell recall movement (or for that matter, the Golden State's broad popular outrage about government employee pay at all levels) and the Tea Party.

I confess that I was not aware of how many people believed the white-bigotry slander against the Tea Party movement until I was accused last week of giving aid and comfort to people who support "the strafing of Mexican children." I want to make it really clear that the only Mexican children I support strafing are the ones who live in my building. But a lot of things make more sense if you look past party affiliation and skin tone (never terribly reliable indicators of a person's character), and see the same situation playing out in the same way. You don't need white people to help you figure out that the government fucks everybody (though not always equally).

As for why Californians aren't engaged in more strenuous activism, I go with the simplest explanation: The weather's nice, there's abundant high-quality weed, and if you don't have to think about politicians why would you?