Will Democrats Learn from Their Identity-Politics Disaster in California?

An election worker places mail-in ballots into a voting box at a drive-through drop-off location at the Registrar of Voters for San Diego County in San Diego, Calif., October 19, 2020. (Mike Blake/Reuters)

Golden State voters — and especially immigrants — overwhelmingly rejected racial preferences.

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Golden State voters — and especially immigrants — overwhelmingly rejected racial preferences.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE P rogressive groups were shocked on Election Day by the fate of Proposition 16 in California.

Prop 16 would have amended the California Constitution and repealed the prohibition against preferential treatment based on race. That prohibition was put into the state constitution by 55 percent of the state’s voters in 1996. But the proposed repeal of the prohibition against racial preferences was rejected this month by a larger margin of 57 percent to 43 percent.

What makes this remarkable is that California has drifted far to the left since 1996 — Bill Clinton carried it for president by only 13 points that year. Joe Biden won the state by just under 30 points this year.

So what happened?

A new post-election survey called the California Community Poll and run by the Institute of Governmental Studies at Berkeley provides some answers. It was conducted on behalf of some groups favoring Proposition 16 who couldn’t understand why they lost. It makes for fascinating reading.

Proposition 16 had all the advantages. Virtually the entire political and media establishment endorsed it. The state’s Democratic attorney general produced a ballot summary biased in favor of the measure. Major corporate and labor-union donations allowed proponents to spend $23 million. Opponents spent only $1.8 million and had zero money for television ads.

The Los Angeles Times summarized the results of this David vs. Goliath struggle as follows: “The findings of the survey provide the clearest evidence so far of the disconnect between those political leaders and many of their ostensible followers.” While there is widespread support for diversity and outreach to minority groups among the general public, the California Community at the same time found “broad skepticism about allowing government officials to use race, ethnicity or gender in making decisions.”

That skepticism extended across racial groups. Among Latinos, only 30 percent said Proposition 16 was a good idea, compared with 41 percent who called it a bad idea. Among Asian respondents, 35 percent called the proposition a good idea while 46 percent saying it was a bad idea. Whites were only slightly more opposed, with 32 percent thinking Prop 16 was a good idea and 53 percent a bad idea.

Proposition 16 was backed by a majority of African Americans. But only 56 percent of them called it a good idea, 19 percent said it was a bad idea, and a surprisingly high 25 percent weren’t sure.

The survey included the fascinating finding that immigrants were more opposed to racial quotas than native-born Americans were. “Many immigrants came to this country for equal opportunities” and are suspicious about preferences for specific groups, Charlie Woo, the board chairman of an Asian economic empowerment group, told the Los Angeles Times.

“The stunning defeat of Prop 16 sent a powerful national message that voters viewed the use of race as divisive, even toxic,” Arnold Steinberg, who served as chief consultant to the “No on 16” forces, told me.

If progressives learn anything from the crushing of Proposition 16, it should be that it’s time to rethink the outdated concept of racial preferences and return to the original vision of Martin Luther King Jr., who famously dreamed of a time when “people will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

Sadly, progressives in Washington State are already planning to put a measure on the ballot in 2022 to repeal that state’s ban on racial preferences. They already lost a similar attempt in 2019, when voters statewide rejected the idea despite massive infusions of campaign money from left-wing groups.

If liberals fail to learn from their twin defeats in liberal California and Washington, it will be pure political malpractice.

In California, Democrats may have lost two congressional seats in Orange County because Prop 16 was on the ballot. Republicans Michelle Steel and Young Kim, two Korean Americans, ousted liberal incumbents, with each getting 51 percent of the vote. Steel told me that Proposition 16 brought Asian voters who opposed it to the polls, and they then supported her and other candidates who also opposed it.

Leftists’ attempt to repeal bans on racial preferences in Washington State bring to mind a comment by the late German playwright Bertolt Brecht: After workers revolted in East Germany in 1953, Brecht observed that what their pigheaded Communist leaders really wanted was “to dissolve the people and elect another.”

There was a time when liberals learned from their political overreach. It was only after they abandoned efforts at strict gun control, for instance, that they recaptured the House and Senate in 2006. Today, liberals can learn from that example, or they can repeat their misbegotten attempt in California to emphasize identity politics — and expect similar results.