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National Review

September 25, 2000

As Goes California . . .: Still the leader-ominously so

By John O'Sullivan

When Fred Barnes published his article "Why California Doesn't Matter" in the July 31 Weekly Standard, he seemed to be arguing a straightforward thesis: that California was no longer a significant influence on American politics because it was no longer a leading indicator of the political future. In the past California had decided presidential elections, as when its votes gave Richard Nixon his squeaker victory in 1968, and pioneered voter rebellions, as when Proposition 13 sparked the tax revolt of the late 1970s. But that was all over now. The Golden State had become too eccentric politically, too remote from national trends, even too Democratic, to be a reliable weathervane in politics. It was the wave of the past.

Barnes's article attracted a great deal of attention. It received a liberal rejoinder, contesting both halves of its thesis, from Peter Schrag, who pointed out in the Sacramento Bee that the state containing both Hollywood and Silicon Valley could hardly be called politically irrelevant. It provoked skeptical responses in The Weekly Standard's correspondence section from, among others, Ward Connerly, who defended his Proposition 209-which prohibited race and gender preferences-against Barnes, who had dismissed its national impact. And because Barnes is both a firm conservative and a fair-minded professional journalist, the article aroused particular interest on the right. Ron Unz, the Silicon Valley millionaire who funded Proposition 227 (the measure that overturned bilingual education in California), and human-biodiversity guru Steve Sailer both made essentially the same criticism: that, in Unz's words, Barnes's article had put "a positive spin on the near-complete collapse of the California Republican party."

For the most part, these reactions were provoked by the sheer novelty of Barnes's thesis; we are so used to hearing California discussed as the lodestar of American politics that it was refreshing to hear it roundly dismissed as unimportant. The article was therefore taken with a certain anti-California schadenfreude by many readers. But there was more to it than that. The more one read it, the more it seemed to be written in a sort of code. Though Barnes is usually a writer of exemplary directness, he seemed here to be saying both less and more than he meant. Signs pointed readers in one direction, but when they followed them, they ended up at the other end of town. It was almost as if Barnes were planting forbidden thoughts in the heads of his readers by the subtle device of not mentioning them.

This roundabout odyssey began with the arguments employed to prove that California was no longer a significant political influence on the rest of America. Almost every one of them was either a transparent irrelevancy or plainly false. Thus, Barnes pointed out that the last time California's votes had decided a presidential election was in 1968. True enough-but what of it? The reason-namely, that all recent elections have been won by margins too large for any single state to make a difference-tells us nothing at all about California.

Similarly, he suggests that California by itself is unlikely to hand over the House of Representatives to the Democrats in November. But the reason he adduces is that California will likely split its votes, or that Democratic victories there will be offset by losses elsewhere. Again, so what? The same could be said of any state; but California is the only state we can now imagine swinging the House to the Democrats by virtue of its votes alone. And, third, he maintains that California's referenda are no longer genuine populist initiatives that inspire national trends. But the reasons he gives are that Proposition 209 has not persuaded George W. Bush to end race and gender preferences (when, surely, the more important evidence is that it sparked a similar victory in Washington State and was kept off the ballot in Florida only by the courts) and that Proposition 187 has been vetoed by the courts (when the vetoing by courts of legislation is itself the single biggest trend in American politics).

Of course, none of these arguments addresses the basic facts of California's political life. As Peter Schrag pointed out, California has 12 percent of America's population and one-fifth of the electoral votes needed to become president; by the 2002 election, it will likely have 54 House seats as a result of a redistricting controlled by Democrats. Such a state would be politically significant even if all its inhabitants were to vote for the rump Reform party's John Hagelin in the hope of being taught how to fly (a contingency that cannot be completely ruled out).

Now, Barnes is not a stupid man. He must be as aware as his readers that his arguments about California prove nothing more than that he possesses a greater verbal agility than the average political commentator. So it is of some interest when he passes from notably failing to demonstrate that California is no longer important to proving conclusively that it is atypical. He writes: "By the late 1990s . . . California was more Democratic, more pro-President Clinton, and more pro-abortion than the rest of America. Its population was more Hispanic and Asian. Its business community was more culturally liberal." His explanation of these changes is also persuasive-indeed, undeniable. They are produced by dramatic demographic changes-"notably the doubling of the Latino electorate . . . The new Latino voters tend to be younger, less likely to speak English, and monolithically Democratic." The result of the new ethnic composition of the electorate is that only one statewide office is at present held by a Republican.

At this point, the attentive reader may wonder how on earth this happened. How did the ethnic composition of California change so dramatically in the space of a dozen years that it turned the Golden State from a solid link in the "Republican lock" on the electoral college into a safe house for recidivist liberal Democrats? Barnes offers no assistance on this question. One is left to imagine that, in a scene reminiscent of the movie Watermelon Man, a lot of Anglo suburbanites woke up one morning to discover that they could read Don Quixote in the original.

The missing link in Barnes's argument is, of course, immigration. California's changing ethnic makeup can be traced directly to large-scale immigration, legal and illegal. The state has imported, in particular, two groups: largely unskilled Mexican immigrants and mainly high-skilled Asian immigrants-the first to be cooks, gardeners, janitors, and low-paid workers, the second to provide Silicon Valley with medium-paid programmers. These new arrivals have transformed California's political identity. It is plain (to me, at least) that Barnes intended his readers to leap to this conclusion. The gap in his argument is too glaring to be missed, especially since the other signs of California's decline to which he points-the deterioration in social services, the population pressure on the environment, and the flight of white and black Californians to the hinterland-are also the direct results of very high levels of immigration.

But the missing link that explains California's transformation also undermines Barnes's central argument that the state no longer foretells America's future. For immigration is transforming America as a whole, not simply California. The other major immigrant-receiving states are New York, Illinois, Florida, Texas, and New Jersey-coincidentally, the states with the largest numbers of electoral votes. And if current policies continue, the Census Bureau estimates (and these are its "middle series" estimates, not the most dramatic ones available) that the ethnic makeup of America in 2050 will be very similar to that of the Golden State today. In particular, non-Hispanic whites will become a minority nationwide in about 2055-just as they became a minority in California this year.

How will that new American population vote? As it happens, that question has been answered before in National Review. In our June 16, 1997, issue, Peter Brimelow and Ed Rubenstein took the 1988 election, in which George Bush obtained 53 percent of the popular vote, and estimated what the Republican percentage would be in future elections if all the ethnic groups were to vote as they did in 1988 but in an electorate gradually changing its ethnic composition in line with immigration-driven Census Bureau projections. The results are sobering: The GOP wins its last election in 2004, after which it goes steadily into an ever-deeper electoral deficit. My own article of December 23, 1, 996, applied the same technique to past elections. An America with the ethnic composition forecast for 2050 would have voted for the Democratic presidential candidate in every election since 1968, with the sole exception of 1972. Even in Reagan's landslide year of 1984, the Democrat would have won 52 percent of the popular vote.

So the lesson of Barnes's article, rightly interpreted, is not that California is no longer significant because it no longer foretells America's political future, but quite the opposite: namely, that because California foretells a future of Democratic political hegemony for America, the state has to be dismissed as insignificant. And this latter lesson is so manifestly nonsensical that Barnes can be advancing it only to draw attention to perils that he prudently forbears to name.

Some conservatives have seen this future and proposed actions to avert it. A few have argued both for reducing the level of legal immigration and for changing its rules so that more of the reduced total of immigrants enter the U.S. as skilled workers who will be more likely to prosper and become Republicans in short order. But these are "controversial" thoughts, and in general the Republican establishment has resolved not to think them. Most GOP strategists have sought an approach compatible with support for continued high levels of unskilled immigration.

Ron Unz has been the most creative in arguing this case, which goes roughly as follows: Hispanic immigrants are hardworking and enterprising people, also socially conservative, and thus natural Republicans. If in recent years in California they have voted heavily Democratic, that is because in 1994 Gov. Pete Wilson and the grass-roots organizers of Proposition 187 (which prohibited the use of non-emergency social services by illegal aliens) fought a bitter anti-immigrant campaign. That saddled the California GOP with a reputation of hostility to Hispanic-Americans. As a result, Latino support for the GOP has fallen to the low 20s in polls.

Instead of this disastrous policy, the argument continues, we need to combine support for immigration with a strong assimilationist policy that would reject official bilingualism, preferences, multiculturalism, etc. We might then win the Latino vote.

This is a comforting explanation, but it has a number of flaws.

One. There is nothing inherently Republican about hard work and enterprise. And most Latino immigrants in California are poor people. Their economic interests push them toward the party most associated with labor unions, the welfare state, health and safety regulation, etc.-namely, the Democrats.

Two. Though Hispanic immigrants come usually from Catholic cultures, that may not be the best predictor of how they will behave in the liberal climate of the U.S. Thus, the illegitimacy rate among Hispanics in California is 40.5 percent-compared with 32.8 percent for all races there. As for abortion, Hispanics are approximately 11 percent of the U.S. population but account for 22 percent of all abortions. And, as we have seen with other Americans, moral opinion tends to follow moral behavior rather than the other way round. So the likelihood is that Hispanics will become less conservative morally the longer they live in the U.S.

Three. Even supposing that Hispanics continue to hold moral views similar to those of the Religious Right, that will not necessarily drive them into the GOP column. Black Americans are more conservative morally than whites, but they consistently vote for the most liberal candidates. In effect, their conservative political values are outweighed by appeals to their racial loyalty. Latinos can be similarly swayed. Ron Unz experienced this in the battle for his own Proposition 227 opposing bilingual education. Although 227 had led consistently in the polls, a campaign that demonized it as anti-Hispanic ensured that it received only 40 percent of Latino votes when its statewide total was over 60 percent.

Four. For these reasons, the Hispanic vote in California is a naturally Democratic one. And mass immigration tends to make it more so in two ways. First, given that new Latino immigrants tend to be overwhelmingly Democratic, their arrival cancels out any shift to the right by prospering and assimilated Hispanics already here. Second, they slow down the rate of Hispanic assimilation-and thus the rate of switching to the GOP-because they strengthen the cultural separateness of Hispanics by, for instance, making it less necessary to learn English in order to work or make friends.

Five. As a consequence, the GOP's share of the Latino vote has indeed been on a declining path. But how responsible is Pete Wilson or Proposition 187 for this? Wilson himself received 23 percent of the Hispanic vote in 1994-a better performance than that of Dan Lungren, who received only 17 percent of Latinos in 1998 after running a campaign that stressed his support for immigration and his Catholic sympathy for Hispanic values. It is highly implausible that Latino voters would punish Lungren more harshly than Wilson for Wilson's sins.

In short, the Unz theory makes Pete Wilson the scapegoat for a secular Republican decline that is the result of large social forces, including mass immigration. By doing so, it encourages us to do little or nothing about such forces. Indeed, Unz himself has a policy prescription-combining support for mass immigration with assimilationist social policies-that treats these forces as amenable to a good sermon.

Yet, as Steve Sailer has pointed out, one very important verdict is already in on the immigration/assimilation mix: The professional politicians themselves shrink from it. When did you last hear a Republican politician with hopes of higher office denounce quotas, official bilingualism, or the multicultural rewriting of American history? None of this should surprise a cold observer of the political game. The politicians are simply responding to the market-or to what they perceive to be the electorate of the future. They assume that America will go the way of California. And they calculate that the only way for Republicans to prosper is to make the same kind of appeal the Democrats are making.

This strategy ignores the fact that the Hispanic voters who lean to the GOP are the very ones who respond to an assimilationist message. Though they may be a minority of all Latinos, they are nonetheless the Latino Republican base. Embracing a multiculturalist message leaves them feeling abandoned, resentful, and finally apathetic. And since that policy also depresses GOP support among whites, the net effect is to drive down the overall GOP vote.

How do we prevent America from "tipping" into a Democratic hegemony as California has done? The answer is simple: Reduce immigration to a level at which the new arrivals can be assimilated comfortably into an American identity. The more easily they feel themselves to be Americans, the more likely they are to vote Republican-just as the Irish, the Poles, and the Italians gradually switched to the GOP during a period when immigration was held to the low levels that dry up ethnic separatism.

This strategy is simple, but not easy: It requires courage, eloquence, and a grasp of principle.