In California, a new dominant coalition — led by tech oligarchs, identity politicians, and Greens — is rising to usurp control of the Democratic Party.
The California Democratic Party’s refusal to endorse the reelection of Senator Dianne Feinstein represents a breaking point both for the state’s progressives and, arguably, the future of the party nationwide. Feinstein symbolizes, if anyone does, the old Democratic establishment that, while far from conservative, nevertheless appealed to many mainstream businesses and affluent suburban voters. The rejection of Feinstein reveals the eclipse of the moderate, mainstream Democratic Party, and the rise of Green and identity-oriented politics, appealing to the coastal gentry . It offers little to traditional middle-class Democrats and even less to those further afield, in places like the industrial Midwest or the South. In these parts of the country, bread-and-butter issues that concern families remain more persuasive than gestural politics.
To its many admirers back east, California has emerged as the role model for a brave new Democratic future. The high-tech, culturally progressive Golden State seems to be an ideal incubator of whatever politics will follow the Trump era.
Certainly, California is an ideal place to observe this shift, as radicalism faces no restraints here. The Republican Party has little to no influence in politics and culture and not much even among business leaders. For the Democrats, this vacuum allows for a kind of internecine struggle resembling that of the Bolsheviks after the death of Lenin. And just as happened then, a new Stalinism of sorts seems to be emerging—in this case, to the consternation not only of conservatives but also of traditional liberals and moderates of the Feinstein stamp.
Yet as California Democrats exult in what they see as a glowing future, they are turning away from the models that once drove their party’s (and the state’s) success—a commitment to growth, upward mobility, and dispersed property ownership. California’s current prosperity is largely due to the legacy of Governor Pat Brown, who, a half-century ago, built arguably the world’s best transportation, water, and power systems, and created an incubator for middle-class prosperity. Ironically, the politician most responsible for undermining this achievement has been Pat’s son, Governor Jerry Brown. Long skeptical of his father’s growth-oriented, pro-suburban policies, Brown the Younger put strong constraints on growth, especially when these efforts concerned the fight against global warming—a quasi-religious crusade. Battling climate change has awakened Brown’s inner authoritarian; he has lauded the “coercive power of the state” and embraced “brainwashing” on climate issues.
Brown’s stridency on climate, however, does not extend to all leftist issues. Like Feinstein, Brown has some appreciation of the importance of infrastructure, such as the need to increase water supplies, and he exercises at least a modicum of caution on fiscal matters like the state’s gargantuan pension debt. He is not a strict identitarian, having vetoed an attempt to enact Title IX standards of evidence for campus sexual-assault cases, a measure embraced by the state’s vocal feminist leaders.
As Brown prepares to depart, and Feinstein struggles to retain office, a new dominant coalition—led by tech oligarchs, identity politicians, and Greens—is rising to usurp control of the party. This new coalition of the privileged and aggrieved marks a departure both from Pat Brown’s social democracy and his son’s more elitist but still measured politics.
State senator Kevin de León, the emergent leader of this new configuration and cat’s paw of billionaire Tom Steyer, the San Francisco hedge-fund billionaire epitomizes the new approach. Having made much of his fortune in oil sands and coal, Steyer is now the Democratic Party’s prime bankroller, and his largesse extends to the drive to impeach President Trump. He has made common cause with hard-Left politicians like de León, and even embraced unionism—as long as labor follows his extreme position on climate change.
Steyer and other oligarchs are working to eliminate the last vestiges of the old Democratic Party. Climate activists have been targeting, with some success, the so-called Mod Squad—centrist Democrat legislators from the state’s less-prosperous interior and working-class suburbs. This shrinking group, occasionally financed by energy, homebuilding, and other pillars of the old economy, sometimes holds the balance of power in Sacramento, and has managed to slow some of the most draconian climate measures.
De León’s enthusiastic embrace of climate-change dogma may seem odd for a politician whose impoverished district suffers from Los Angeles’s continued de-industrialization, hastened by strict environmental regulation and high energy costs. Instead of backing policies that would create more high-wage jobs, de León’s priorities are largely redistributive. This jibes with his support among public employees and from the militant California Nurses Association. He endorsed the union-backed single-payer health-care plan, a measure that assembly speaker Anthony Rendon tabled as impossibly expensive (it would more than double the state budget). Immigration is another key de León issue. He is a fervent supporter of illegal immigrants, in a state that houses one in fourof the nation’s total, bragging about his own relatives’ use of false IDs.
Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom, the former San Francisco mayor and frontrunner in the governor’s race, also embraces these policies. After briefly trying to appeal to mainstream business, Newsom has fallen into line with Bay Area-dominated progressives and the big public unions on virtually every issue, including single-payer. His likely election suggests a continuation of California’s current drift, but without Brown’s occasional restraint and intelligence.
The Golden State’s progressive tilt would not be possible without demographic change. The state’s majority-minority makeup has made the capture of middle-class and moderate voters less important. As middle-class families leave California, the electorate is increasingly dominated by racial minorities—with whites, 70 percent of the population in 1970, now less numerous than Hispanics and destined to be roughly one-third of the population by 2030. California’s demography is more and more dominated by the poor and near-poor (roughly one-third of the population), the young and unattached, and a residual population of older whites, many luxuriating on generous state pensions or inflated property values.