Magazine | July 6, 2015, Issue

California’s Balkanized Democrats

Identity politics may splinter the liberal coalition

By any reasonable measure, Loretta Sanchez’s May entrance into California’s U.S. Senate race shouldn’t have made for especially compelling news. Sanchez, a ten-term Democratic congresswoman from Orange County, has always been a somewhat comic figure, known more for scheduling ill-advised fundraisers at the Playboy Mansion and sending out eccentric Christmas cards featuring her cat than for any substantive accomplishments. Cementing that image, she even managed to bollix her campaign announcement, accidentally e-mailing out a rough draft to supporters days before she was set to make it official.

Given her marginal status, no one expects Sanchez to pose much of a threat to California attorney general Kamala Harris, the prohibitive favorite in the race to succeed retiring senator Barbara Boxer. But while Sanchez’s candidacy might not alter the dynamics of the general-election race in this deep-blue state, it does mark a turning point in California politics: the moment when long-simmering ethnic and racial tensions within the Democratic party spill out into the open.

California has undergone a dramatic demographic transformation in recent decades, with non-whites now making up close to 50 percent of likely Democratic voters in the state, according to research released last year by the Public Policy Institute of California. One might imagine this is good news for the Demo­cratic party, but the downside is that these voters are increasingly divided along racial lines. The showdown between Harris, who is half black and half Tamil Indian, and Sanchez, who is Hispanic, is part of this trend. Many states are projected to undergo similar population shifts in the decades ahead, so California’s experience bears observing; it might point to stresses that could one day strain the national Democratic coalition to the breaking point.

California’s transformation has been a long time coming. Next year’s Senate election will mark the first time that the state has had an open seat in the upper chamber since 1992. In the intervening quarter century, the state has become, in demographic terms, an entirely different place. In the 1990 census, California was 57 percent white, 26 percent His­panic, 9 percent Asian American, and 7 percent black. In 2013, the Census Bureau estimated those numbers at 39 percent white, 38.4 percent Hispanic, 14.1 percent Asian American, and 6.6 percent black. Most demographers agree that at some point last year, California became the second state in the nation with a Latino plurality (New Mexico was the first).

If these changes were evenly distributed between the two major parties, the political implications might not be so striking. But with non-white California voters disproportionately flocking to Democrats, the result is a wildly different coalition on the left than the one that first elected Senators Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein in 1992. That creates an implicit tension: While California Democrats are increasingly banking on young, racially diverse voters, the party is helmed by a collection of elderly white people who have dominated the state’s politics for decades.

Governor Jerry Brown turned 77 in April. He won his first statewide election nearly 45 years ago, when he was elected California’s secretary of state in 1970. Boxer, 74, won her first race (for a seat on the Marin County Board of Super­visors) nearly four decades ago. Feinstein, who will turn 82 this month, began her electoral career in 1969. Next year, Boxer will retire. Two years later, Brown will be termed out and Feinstein will probably call it a career. At that point, a new generation of Democratic politicians will take center stage. The odds that three more white candidates will win those offices approach zero. In fact, the chances are better that none will.

While it’s too early to get a good handle on the races to succeed Brown and Feinstein, the campaign for Boxer’s seat is emblematic of the new dynamic. Within days of the senator’s January decision to retire, Harris had thrown her hat into the ring, quickly rolling out a string of high-profile endorsements from Senator Elizabeth Warren, the activist group EMILY’s List, and other influential leftists. It was a bit of shock-and-awe campaigning clearly designed to freeze out competitors. And it worked insofar as it dissuaded Harris’s most prominent potential rival, Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom. One group of Democrats, however, would not be so easily deterred: the party’s growing cohort of Hispanics.

Why, Latino Democrats wondered aloud (often to the press), were party elders flocking to Harris without so much as pausing to consider a Hispanic alternative? Why was Governor Brown publicly suggesting that former Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa — widely considered the Hispanic candidate best positioned to make a senatorial run — ought to defer to the attorney general? Why were Hispanics, whose ranks dwarfed the combined totals of the black and Asian-American populations, being told to sit down, shut up, and go along for the ride?

If you accept the logic of identity politics, that argument has some merit. In the years since Boxer was first elected to the Senate, Hispanics have become one of the most influential forces in the Golden State. From 2000 to 2010, they were responsible for 90 percent of the state’s population growth. And that growth has overwhelmingly worked to the Left’s benefit — 59 percent of Hispanic likely voters are registered Democrats, compared with 18 percent who are registered Republicans.

These gains have had electoral effects down-ballot: The 120-seat state legislature has 22 members in the Latino Legislative Caucus, and ten of the state’s 53 seats in the U.S. House are held by Latinos (13 if you count members of Portuguese descent). Nonetheless, no Latino Democrat has risen to the commanding heights of the Senate or the governor’s office.

Racial fault lines are clearly emerging within the party. When Brown suggested that Villaraigosa step aside (which he did in February), former assembly speaker Fabian Núñez told the Los Angeles Times, “We ought to be more politically mature than to simply dismiss a potential Latino candidate as someone who has to await his turn.” San Diego assemblywoman Lorena Gonzales added, “There was a feeling we were being discounted and discarded.”

The anger wasn’t trained only on the white liberal gentry, however. It also focused on black Democrats such as legendary former assembly speaker Willie Brown and L.A. city-council president Herb Wesson, both of whom rushed to support Harris in the hopes of seeing California elect its first black senator. That didn’t go down well with Hispanics. When Willie Brown joined the chorus of those asking Villaraigosa to step aside, the Sacramento Bee’s editorial board lamented, “Surely someone realizes that dismissing the state’s politically and demographically ascendant Latinos . . . is the wrong way to achieve Democratic party unity.”

The operative question going forward is whether anything will be sufficient to achieve that unity, given the roiling racial tensions within the party. The basic dynamics are as follows: Whites and African Americans are both on the decline as a percentage of the state population, but both punch above their weight within the Democratic party. By contrast, Hispanics and Asian Americans (the latter of whom constitute the state’s fastest-growing demographic group) are ascendant, but both struggle to get their voters to the polls (in the case of Hispanics, dramatically so). That’s a recipe for unhappiness across the board.

In the African-American community, the primary anxiety is that blacks will be marginalized as Hispanic and Asian-American power grows. In San Francisco — the city where Willie Brown once exercised near-monarchical power as mayor — African Americans have seen their percentage of the population decline by more than half since 1970. After the 2010 election, there was only one black member on the eleven-person San Francisco board of supervisors, Malia Cohen — and, with an eye on the changing demographics of her district, she was taking lessons in Cantonese. Shortly after Cohen’s inauguration, the San Francisco Chronicle speculated that she might be the last African American ever to hold a seat on the board. (That proved premature — another black member, London Breed, would join her in 2012.)

Blacks in Los Angeles have similar fears. From 1990 to 2013, the African-American share of L.A.’s population dropped from 14 percent to 9.5 percent. In 2013, L.A. city councilman Bernard Parks, noting that newly minted mayor Eric Garcetti had been elected by a coalition of whites and Latinos, told local public radio: “Our population numbers and our participation are diminishing. What’s worrisome is you could become a non-issue in a city of 4 million people.”

At the same time that African Americans are seeing their political fortunes flag in Los Angeles, the city’s Asian-American popu­lation is demonstrating its rising power. That became clear in May, when the Korean American David Ryu — a relative political outsider — became only the second Asian American elected to the city council since 1850. He probably won’t be the last.

From 2000 to 2010, the Asian-American population in Los Angeles County grew twice as fast as the Hispanic population — and more than five times as fast as the general population. By 2013, nearly 15 percent of Los Angeles County was Asian. And that kind of growth isn’t limited to Los Angeles or San Francisco (where Asian Americans make up more than one-third of the population). Statewide, the Asian contingent is nearly 5.5 million strong — there are more Asian Americans in California than there are people in Colorado — and it’s projected to make up around 20 percent of the state’s population within two decades.

The Asian-American population represents the wild card in California’s game of demographic poker. For one thing, it’s hard to generalize about a cohort that’s so heterogeneous, including vast numbers of Filipinos, Chinese, Vietnamese, Indians, Koreans, and Japanese, in addition to many smaller groups. For another, it’s not clear that Asians are even firmly in the Democratic camp. The 2012 National Asian-American Survey found that most Asians in California (52 percent) did not identify with either major political party, though far more leaned Democratic than Republican.

While most of the state’s prominent Asian-American politicians are Democrats, there are exceptions. In Orange County, Asians hold a majority on the county board of supervisors. All three Asian members — one Vietnamese, one Japanese, and one Korean — are Republicans. In November, of the handful of state-legislative seats that the California GOP picked up, three were won by Asian-American women from the southern part of the state.

Marginal GOP gains aside, this demographic revolution theoretically ought to be a boon for the “diversity is our strength” Democratic party. In reality, however, the party’s emphasis on identity politics — the notion that these blocs (excepting whites) should self-consciously identify on the basis of race — is making the big tent feel a little cramped. Rather than coming together as a real-life rainbow coalition, these groups are learning that the logic of identity politics is zero-sum: For one group to win, another has to lose.

The black–Hispanic feud over the upcoming U.S. Senate race therefore isn’t an anomaly. Last year, it was Asian-American Democrats in the state senate who blocked black and Hispanic efforts to undo California’s prohibition on affirmative action in higher education; they feared that racial quotas would negatively affect the admission rates of Asian-American students. During the redistricting that followed the 2010 census, Wesson (the African-American president of the Los Angeles city council) provoked an uprising among Korean Americans when he attempted to keep L.A.’s Koreatown neighborhood outside the boundaries of a new district being constructed with an eye toward putting an Asian American on the council. And during Loretta Sanchez’s 2010 congressional race, in which she ran against an Asian-American Republican whose family came to the United States shortly before the fall of Saigon, the congresswoman declared in a Univision interview that “the Vietnamese and the Republicans are, with an intensity, trying to take this seat.” Her intended target was a member of the GOP, but the remark earned her the contempt of plenty of Asians in her own party.

Black and Hispanic Democrats — many of whom come from communities that are home to some of the state’s worst public schools — have also bucked the white liberal establishment’s support for teachers’ unions (the largest source of campaign cash for California Democrats), aggressively pushing for education reform up to and including the broader use of charter schools. When Marshall Tuck, a former executive at the L.A. charter firm Green Dot, challenged union-backed state superintendent of public education Tom Torlakson last year, the strength of this trend became apparent. Tuck couldn’t overcome Torlakson’s support from big labor, but some curious data showed up in the final polling before the election. Tuck — by any reasonable measure the more conservative candidate in the field (albeit still a Democrat) — led by double digits among Latinos and African Americans (he also held a lead with Asian Americans, though it was smaller). Given a few more years of demographic churn, elections like that one could start to go the other way.

So far, these are only fault lines in California’s Democratic coalition. But, as residents of this seismically active state well know, you can never anticipate the moment when a major earthquake will arrive. What happens if His­panics continue to feel that they’re being forced to ride in coach in a state where they’re on pace to one day constitute a majority of the population? What happens if the dwindling percentage of African Americans feels increasingly marginalized by the ascendant Asian and Hispanic populations? What happens when Asian Americans — often considered more moderate and pro-business than other members of the Democratic coalition — start taking notice of how much success many of their leaders are having within the GOP?

A gloomy Republican (there’s no other kind in California) might predict that Democrats will somehow find a way to make all these groups cohere. They’ve been at this business for a while, after all. That could well be true, but it underestimates just how big the task will be. Large political coalitions are, almost by definition, unstable. And while it may have been relatively easy to patronize minority groups when they were small segments of the electorate, those days are coming to an end in California. According to “States of Change,” an exhaustive demographic analysis done by scholars at the American Enterprise Institute, the Center for American Progress, and the Brookings Institution, California will be 68 percent non-white within 20 years. The political battles that this change engenders will almost certainly make today’s dust-ups look insignificant.

For the sake of the national party, California Democrats need to demonstrate how to effectively manage the transition — because, as is often the case, what’s occurring in the Golden State today will spread throughout the country in short order. According to “States of Change,” within the next 30 years, eleven other states will also see whites shrink to a minority of eligible voters (if they aren’t already): Alaska, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Maryland, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, and Texas. By 2060, Illinois, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, and Virginia are projected to join their ranks.

In recent years, a cottage industry has developed on the progressive left to peddle the notion that America’s changing complexion will all but guarantee Democratic political dominance in the decades ahead. The most striking feature of this analysis is that it unquestioningly assumes non-white voters’ party loyalty in perpetuity. Is it a mistake to take the loyalty of Asian Americans, Hispanics, and African Americans for granted? In California, we’re about to find out.

– Mr. Senik, a former speechwriter for George W. Bush, is the editor-in-chief of Ricochet and a columnist for the Orange County Register.

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