This past April, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey caused a bit of a fuss on the conservative side of the internet when he tweeted out a link to a Medium post about the future of American politics. The piece, entitled “The Great Lesson of California in America’s New Civil War,” is the latest entry in an ongoing series from co-authors Peter Leyden and Ruy Teixeira. In this series, Leyden and Teixeira contend that California’s recent successes can be attributed to the state’s new and improved progressive political model, a model they say will soon begin to blossom in towns, cities and states all across the country once the Republican Party self-destructs and is formally renounced by an embittered electorate. They explicitly state that Republicans “deserve” precisely that fate and that “the entire Republican Party, and the entire conservative movement that has controlled it for the past four decades, is fully positioned for the final takedown that will cast them out for a long period of time in the political wilderness.”
California is indeed a lovely place to live and work, and I can testify to that. Having briefly lived and worked there myself when I was younger, I’m intimately familiar with everything that California has to offer. I’ve feasted on the cultural casserole that is San Francisco, indulged in the warm winter sunlight of Los Angeles, and sampled the savory wines of the Napa Valley Vineyards. To be sure, I enjoyed every minute of my time there.
It’s also true that California is in a much better position now than it was in the 90s and early 2000s. The economy there is booming, and the state has enjoyed remarkable job growth over the past several years. And yes, you most certainly can thank the infusion of progressive politics into the day-to-day governance of the Golden State for much of its recent good fortune.
That being said, Leyden and Teixeira are a bit charitable in their portrayal of the current state of affairs in California.
The extremely high costs of living in California’s coastal cities are well documented, as is the state’s growing homelessness problem. And as Gale Holland of the Los Angeles Times notes in a piece from last February, homelessness in Los Angeles “has only gotten worse since Mayor Eric Garcetti took office in 2013 and a liberal Democratic supermajority emerged in 2016 on the county Board of Supervisors.” Additionally, a recent analysis by Zippia ranks California 4th in the nation in income inequality.
In the third entry in their series, entitled “The New California Democrat and America’s New Way Forward,” Leyden and Teixeira talk a bit about education. They applaud several propositions that were passed between 2000 and 2012, as well as two more propositions passed in just the last couple of years. Despite the passages of those propositions, though, California’s public education system continues to struggle. In the latest U.S. News & World Report Best States rankings, California ranks 26th overall in education, but that’s largely because of its well-deserved higher education ranking; it finished 4th in that category. Comparatively, it ranks just 44th in NAEP reading scores and 41st in NAEP math scores. In the “college readiness” and “pre-kindergarten quality” categories, it ranks 38th.
It’s safe to assume that all of these problems — the state’s subpar public education system, high costs of living, growing homelessness population and extreme income inequality — are either contributors to or byproducts of California’s highest-in-the-nation poverty rate.
These issues are bound to start getting even more attention after the conclusion of yesterday’s primaries. It’s doubtful that the state’s progressive leaders will suffer much at the polls for their past mistakes, but they certainly won’t be able to avoid addressing the failures they’ve experienced on multiple socioeconomic fronts.
In the first entry in their series, Leyden and Teixeira acknowledge that California has some pretty serious problems on its hands, but they seem eager to give the state’s leadership a free pass for its lack of progress on many of those problems. Instead, they point to the approval ratings for Governor Jerry Brown and the California state legislature, both of which peaked at around 60% early in 2017, as proof that California’s government is doing a fine job. Admittedly, those numbers are impressive. But if we’re using snapshot approval ratings to measure the success of state governments, it’s only fair to point out that at the beginning of 2018, the ten most popular governors in the country were all Republicans.
To be clear, it isn’t my intention to disparage the Golden State or denigrate its leadership, nor would I suggest unleashing a red wave of conservative politicians on the California State Capitol this November. To the contrary, I am not now, nor have I ever been, a conservative. Like Leyden and Teixeira, I find the GOP’s lack of concern for climate change to be both impractical and scientifically indefensible. I’m not terribly fond of the idea of raising taxes, but I’m not entirely opposed to it if it serves to balance budgets and maybe even eliminates a sizable chunk of our growing national debt. When it comes to the marijuana issue, I stand proudly with the pro-legalization citizens of California. On criminal justice reform, most would categorize my views as radically progressive — or perhaps libertarian, depending on your point of view.
Furthermore, I wholeheartedly agree that if the Republican Party suffers decisive losses at the federal, state and local levels this November, they’ll have only themselves to blame.
I do not believe, however, that it would benefit either California or the nation at large if the Republican Party as a whole were to be “cast out” into the “political wilderness” for an extended period of time. Single-party dominance is not the cure to what’s ailing America.
Like every other state in the nation — both blue and red — California has its fair share of problems. Some of those problems have mostly been solved, or are in the process of being solved, by the state’s progressive governance, while other problems have only gotten worse, such as the aforementioned growth in the homeless population. And if you don’t believe that any of these problems could be alleviated in the slightest by just a small dose of conservative thought, think again.
Consider, for instance, the potential benefits of occupational licensing reform. “The effects of occupational licensing extend well beyond people encountering hurdles to entering an occupation,” notes Chairman Pedro Nava in a 2016 report from California’s Little Hoover Commission. “When government limits the supply of providers, the cost of services goes up. Those with limited means have a harder time accessing those services. Consequently, occupational licensing hurts those at the bottom of the economic ladder twice: first by imposing significant costs on them should they try to enter a licensed occupation and second by pricing the services provided by licensed professionals out of reach.”
Occupational licensing laws have a particularly damaging impact on individuals with criminal records, many of whom already struggle to find steady work and attain financial independence. “Earlier this fall, approximately 4,000 state prison inmates helped battle destructive wildfires in Northern California,” explains Jennifer McDonald in an op-ed for the Orange County Register. “Despite receiving on-the-job training and literal trial-by-fire, most of those inmates can’t become firefighters after they’ve served their time. In California, firefighters must obtain an emergency medical technician license — a credential convicted felons are typically disqualified from obtaining.”
So if the California state legislature wants to make a real, measurable dent in the state’s poverty rate, shrink the exceedingly large income gaps between the state’s low, middle and high-income earners, and open up new avenues to employment for citizens who desperately need a steady paycheck, it would do well to consider — wait for it — a little deregulation in the department of occupational licensing.
The point is this: Progressives, conservatives, libertarians, anarchists, socialists — not a single one of these groups can claim to have all the answers to society’s problems. The realization of this basic, universal truth ought to be accompanied by a healthy dose of humility. The absence of such humility in Leyden and Teixeira’s series underscores the inherent risks of a one-party government; the ruling party’s leaders, vulnerable as they are to their own biases and often convinced of their intellectual superiority, will inevitably pull the wheel a bit too far to the left or right when they’re in the driver’s seat. And what happens when you pull the wheel too far in one direction for too long? You make a U-turn and end up moving backwards. Those are the times when it’s most important to have a second pair of eyes on the road, which is the role that the minority party often plays in America — a role that obviously cannot be fulfilled when one of the nation’s two major parties has been rendered toothless and is left stranded in the “political wilderness.”
The importance of ideological diversity in our nation’s institutions cannot be understated. When one faction fails to achieve its objectives, there must be some other faction waiting in the wings, ready to step into the void and seize upon the opportunity to try a new and different approach that just might succeed where other strategies have failed. States must permit themselves to consider a variety of policy proposals from across the political spectrum and experiment with both left-wing and right-wing ideas until a workable solution to the issue at hand — preferably one that most people on both sides of the aisle can live with — has been discovered.
Leyden and Teixeira are very much aware of the benefits of policy experimentation, but it would appear that they only approve of such experimentation when it’s carried out in a purely progressive laboratory. This logic seems to contradict their stated commitment to diversity by challenging the presumption that diverse points of view are essential to a healthy, democratic society.
To their credit, though, Leyden and Teixeira anticipate their audience’s potential concerns regarding the lack of alternative voices in a government dominated by a single party. However, their response is to suggest that we should all simply be content with choosing between moderately progressive and very progressive candidates. “Politics in California today still has a range of political differences that get worked out within political bodies,” they explain. “The city council of San Francisco is made up of all Democrats but is often trapped in fierce policy battles between supervisors who are more left of center than their colleagues who are more moderate and supportive of the tech industry. However, everyone on that city council is a Democrat and would be considered a progressive Democrat in the national context. They all embrace creating a diverse society, fighting climate change, etc.”
In other words, when one progressive policy fails to fulfill its purpose, the authors’ solution is to try another progressive policy. They leave virtually no room for the possibility that the progressive option isn’t always the best option. The reason for this is simple; Leyden and Teixeira are of the opinion that there is no place for conservatism in modern America. They spell that out quite clearly when they claim that the “Republican Party over the past 40 years has maneuvered itself into a position where they are the bad guys on the wrong side of history.”
These days, more and more activists, pundits and commentators are pulling the same page from the same playbook, habitually framing every disagreement between the left and the right as a contest between good and evil. In so doing, they paint a mostly inaccurate picture of conditions on the ground. In reality, most Americans recognize that such two-dimensional thinking isn’t applicable to a three-dimensional world.
Just so we’re clear, I’m not of the opinion that Leyden and Teixeira wrote their series with a view to driving an even wider and deeper wedge between the left and the right. Despite their occasionally provocative rhetoric, they seem more focused on converting readers to California-style progressivism than lashing out at conservatives. What I do believe, however, is that they are inadvertently perpetuating a myth that doesn’t quite capture where America really is right now.
It is true that President Trump has done just about everything he can to alienate everyone outside of his core constituencies. His cantankerous disposition and controversial rhetoric have undoubtedly put the GOP in a suffocating bind, one so tight that the percentage of voters identifying as Republicans dropped by roughly five points in 2017. Additionally, most polls put his disapproval rating at around 53%. These numbers could easily lead one to conclude that both the Republican Party and its conservative base are on the verge of collapse, leaving the door open for a progressive revolution the likes of which haven’t been seen in over half a century.
Yet it is also true that while the Trump wing of the GOP has pulled the party farther from the center on a wide array of issues, Democrats have been following a similar trajectory away from the middle, happily shuffling along to the beat of a much more left-wing drum for quite some time. For instance, as Peter Beinart noted in a 2017 piece in the Atlantic, it wasn’t all that long ago that high-profile Democrats, including former President Barack Obama and noted economist Paul Krugman, were willing to acknowledge the very real and not-entirely-unfounded concerns of conservatives regarding the impact of illegal immigration. “Prominent liberals didn’t oppose immigration a decade ago,” Beinart explains. “Most acknowledged its benefits to America’s economy and culture. They supported a path to citizenship for the undocumented. Still, they routinely asserted that low-skilled immigrants depressed the wages of low-skilled American workers and strained America’s welfare state.”
And immigration is hardly the only issue on which Democrats have shifted further to the left. A September 2017 poll from UC Berkeley shows that more than half of Democrats in California support restrictions on the first amendment rights of “hate groups.” On the issue of gun control, a February 2018 poll from YouGov and the Economist shows that more than one-third of Democrats support repealing the second amendment altogether.
According to the numbers, however, most Americans have not enthusiastically embraced the ideological shifts in either party. They also haven’t exactly warmed up to the President’s polarizing brand of right-wing populism or the progressive left’s fixation on identity politics.
Polls have consistently shown that a significant majority of voters across the political spectrum support a pathway to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants covered under the DACA program. Majorities of Democrats, Independents and Republicans — and, yes, even Trump voters — also favor a pathway to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants currently working in the United States. On the other hand, other polls have shown that a majority of Americans agree with the President’s contention that it is time to end the diversity visa lottery program. Moreover, a 2017 ABC News and Washington Post poll shows that nearly two-thirds of Americans would support a compromise that both provides a pathway to citizenship for DACA recipients and strengthens U.S. border security.
There are two big takeaways here. The first is that these polls make it clear, despite Leyden and Teixeira’s insistence to the contrary, that Republicans on the whole are not “anti-immigrant.” The second is that the gaps between left, right and center aren’t nearly as wide as the one between Democratic politicians and President Trump. There absolutely is a bipartisan way forward on this issue, one that provides a pathway to citizenship for at least some of the people here illegally while simultaneously strengthening security at the country’s borders.
This is not something we see only with immigration. A recent poll from Public Opinion Strategies shows strong bipartisan support for various proposals related to criminal justice reform, which is something that quite a few Republican and Democratic politicians have already been working on. According to the poll, 71% of Republicans, 80% of Independents and 84% of Democrats “strongly support providing first‐time, low‐level, nonviolent offenders under the age of twenty‐five the ability to expunge that conviction after successful completion of court‐imposed probation.” The poll also found that a majority of Americans support “fair chance hiring” and believe that rehabilitation should be the primary focus of the criminal justice system.
According to a 2016 YouGov poll, the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits federal funding for elective abortions, is supported by a healthy majority of Americans, including 41% of Democrats. On the other hand, most Americans, including a majority of moderate Republicans, agree that abortion should be legal in most or all cases.
When it comes to gun control, an overwhelming majority of Americans support universal background checks. Despite some resistance from millennials, majorities of Americans across all generations agree that the government should not be able to censor hateful speech. And nearly 90% of Americans give medical marijuana two thumbs up.
At the end of the day, there’s a lot that Americans can agree on. Bipartisanship may be tough to come by right now, but the blame for that ought to be laid at the feet of our elected leaders rather than rank-and-file Republicans and Democrats. Granted, we all have certain principles that we would never dream of sacrificing under any circumstances, and that’s something we should both expect from our fellow Americans and respect about our fellow Americans. After all, who among us would want to live in a nation full of fence-straddling nihilists? But no matter how stubborn we as individuals may be about specific issues, there remain countless opportunities for effective, bipartisan compromises that could potentially deliver us into a future just as bright and as prosperous as the one Leyden and Teixeira dream of.
The alternative is not nearly as promising. As counterintuitive as it may sound, our disagreements are what propel us forward as a society. The difficult work of finding bipartisan solutions to complex problems is what spawns the diversity of ideas that accelerates the evolution of a nation. Single-party dominance threatens to impede that process by discouraging the consideration of policy proposals and legislative fixes that fall outside of the typically rigid ideological framework of one-party governance.
Make no mistake about it; bipartisanship isn’t dead yet. Conservatism still has a vital role to play in American politics. As does progressivism. And libertarianism. And socialism. And yes, even more radical ideologies like anarcho-capitalism and anarcho-communism. The ideas inspired by the competition between these philosophies are almost always more fruitful than the ideas produced by intellectually monotonous, ideologically uniform governments, which is precisely why diverse, pluralistic democracies have been so successful — and why the United States, with the assistance of Democrats and Republicans alike, will continue to be successful for many years to come.