California: Not as Crazy as We Thought?

(Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)
It turns out that Californians generally understand freedom when they see it, even if they’re occasionally baffled by party labels.

Ballots are still being counted, but the data emerging from Tuesday’s California voting offer a fascinating possibility: Californians are conservatives who think they’re Democrats.

Rating the ballot propositions as either for or against more government, Californians have (so far) voted: against tax hikes on business property (Prop 15), against revanchist affirmative-action programs (Prop 16), against a look-tough-on-crime measure to limit the voting rights of ex-felons (Prop 17), and against expanding the prison population (Prop 20). They absolutely crushed rent control (Prop 21), and, in voting for Prop 22, they voted against the government’s right to tell California’s independent contractors they can’t work as freelancers without a permission slip from Sacramento.

On three propositions, I’d argue that Californians voted for bigger government: Prop 14’s tax support of government stem-cell research (as if the private sector and universities aren’t already doing enough); Prop 19’s proposed tax on inherited real estate; and worst of them all, Prop 24’s blob of a new government bureaucracy that will monitor “consumer privacy.” If the state government does that as well as it has administered the DMV, public schools, road construction, forest management, the utility system, and gasoline supplies . . . well, Californians will soon all be celebrities — in the worst ways.

Still, on balance, when it came to thinking about public policy that works, Californians generally voted for the free market.

But in candidate races, where names are often followed by a party designation, Californians voted more often for Democrats than Republicans. The few exceptions — important southern and central California congressional seats moved from the “D” to the “R” column — proved the rule: California’s state and federal lawmakers are more likely Democrat than Republican. So Californians voted for politicians who will support the same big-government policies that the electorate opposed when offered via ballot measure.

How to explain this phenomenon? One possibility is that the Republican brand is damaged, and not (as it would be convenient to suggest) merely because of the recent arrival of Donald Trump. For decades, the GOP opposed many of the more libertarian (not to say libertine) impulses of Californians. We Californians are a freedom-loving people. So the Republican Party’s opposition to gay marriage and legal weed, or its clumsy handling of immigration, looks increasingly bizarre to younger Californians.

But the most powerful reason for the Republican Party’s unpopularity in California is the relentless clanging and horn-honking of the leftist machine. Government unions earn nearly $1 billion each year in dues that they collect from government workers. They pour that cash into campaigns to elect candidates who, once in office, rubber-stamp the demands of union leaders for higher wages, richer benefits, and greater control over our state government.

In this election, as in elections going back decades, unions dumped tens of millions of dollars into ballot and candidate campaigns that ridiculed California companies as tax slackers, and attacked as a czarist-era Russian aristocrat anyone who so much as rents out a house. The unions’ messaging around Prop 22, the measure that protects the right of Uber and Lyft drivers to set their own work schedules, was particularly odious: Surveys of app drivers show their widespread attraction to the benefits of freelancing (the ability to set their own hours and — get this — work simultaneously for competitor companies), but you’d never know that from union-backed ads that feature drivers as ragged characters in a Dickensian workhouse.

Uber and Lyft, of course, spent millions of their own dollars in the campaign, hoping to secure their freedom. And God bless them for defending themselves. But the only real defense against the metastasizing power of government bureaucrats is a citizenry that understands its own self-interest. In that case, we can thank the California electorate: men and women who generally understand freedom when they see it, even if they’re occasionally baffled by party labels.

Will Swaim is the president of the California Policy Center and a cohost, with David Bahnsen, of National Review’s Radio Free California podcast.


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