Nick Burns joins Theodore Kupfer to discuss “Referendum Rebukes,” his feature in the Summer 2021 City Journal on California politics.

Audio Transcript

Teddy Kupfer: Welcome back to the 10 Blocks Podcast. This is Teddy Kupfer, an associate editor of City Journal, filling in this week for Brian Anderson. Joining me on the show today is Nick Burns. Nick is a contributing writer to The New Statesman and has written articles for many different publications, including American Affairs and Foreign Affairs (thereby covering the sum total of human affairs). Nick is also the author of “Referendum Rebukes,” a feature on California politics that appears in this summer’s print edition of our quarterly magazine and ran on our website last week. Nick, thank you very much for joining us.

Nick Burns: Glad to be on.

Teddy Kupfer: So to start off, I’m going to read a quote from the late James Q. Wilson that appeared in a 1967 story for Commentary magazine. Wilson writes, “‘Explaining California,’ especially Southern California, has always been a favorite pastime for New Yorkers and Bostonians who have changed planes in Los Angeles, made a two-day trip to the RAND Corporation, or just speculated on what state could be responsible for Hollywood.” Now, I’m not a Californian—in fact, I went to L.A. for the first time just this past March—but you very much are one, which means I’m going to rely on you to be our guide to long-term political trends in the Golden State.

So let’s dive into your piece. You start by noting a number of ballot initiatives that last November yielded results which would, at first glance, appear to herald a rightward shift in the state. California voters rejected attempts to allow 17-year-olds to vote in primaries. They rejected attempts to raise commercial property taxes and to scrap the current cash-bail system. They reversed a recent state law that had targeted gig-economy companies, such as Uber and Lyft. And they handed a resounding defeat to a bid to reinstate affirmative action in state hiring.

One might look at all this and say, Wow, California is throwing it back to the 1990s, a time when the state Republican Party was a real force that channeled voter dissatisfaction with liberal overreach into sweeping initiatives and got its politicians elected to high office. But you don’t think so. You write in the story that the initiative process has “become a largely symbolic vehicle for expressing discontent with Democratic party policies—a constitutional release valve for the off-gassing of accumulated pressure.” What do you mean by this? How have times changed in California, and why don’t these ballot-initiative results signal a bigger shift to the right?

Nick Burns: Imagine what things would be like without the ballot measure. There’d be no recourse for discontent with the Democratic Party except electing candidates from the Republican Party or independent candidates who weren’t affiliated with the California Democratic Party. But, with the current system which was put in place by progressives and further left movements in the early twentieth century, there’s this tempting other option that seems to promise a way to short-circuit the two-party system. The Republican Party is quite unpopular in California although there are a lot of independent voters, so there’s always this tempting idea to try to do end-run around the state Democratic Party—and its less popular or more controversial policies—by passing ballot measures that go against them.

And we saw that, as you mentioned, in the most recent round of ballot measures. There were maybe half a dozen that passed and went in directions that opposed the direction taken by the Democratic majority in the legislature and the policy of the current Democratic governor, Gavin Newsom. But if you look to the history of ballot measures that have gone in a direction that the state Democratic Party hoped they wouldn’t, most of the issues end up going the way of the Democrats sooner or later anyway . . . which can happen in a couple of different ways. Either the measuring question can be rerun once the political territory seems more favorable to the other side—that was the case with the measure on bilingual education, which passed in the 1990s, banning bilingual education, then was rerun a couple of years ago and went the other direction—or the courts will sometimes step in to strike down a measure that's judged unconstitutional. And the most bald-faced example of this maneuver was having to do with the double referendum on capital punishment in 2016.

What happened then was Californians voted by not an enormous majority, but certainly a definitive one—the margin, I believe, was the same as that of the Brexit referendum, 52 to 48, more or less. Californians voted to preserve and expedite the death penalty in the state. The current state of play had been that the death penalty was legal but not practiced. So there’s this long and constantly increasing death row list which has become newly relevant in recent months because it’s part of the massive fraud of the state unemployment benefits scheme, it was discovered that a fraudulent claims had been made using the names of many of the inmates on California’s death row. But in the referendum which gave Californians the choice, scrap the death penalty or do it for real, Californians voted to do it for real, and when the current governor, Gavin Newsom, was elected, he simply reversed that with executive action.

So, I think all of these examples suggest that the ballot measure isn’t really the tool that it may have first seemed, to avoid having to do the tougher work of political organizing through more or less inevitably the party system and really isn’t the obstacle to the policy of the party in power that it may seem to be. I think—this is of course also mentioned in the article—Pete Wilson discovered that it can be quite exhausting for conservative donors in the state, a somewhat limited force—increasingly the largest accumulations of political capital in the state are Democratic and associated with the entertainment industry and with the tech industry, which tends to be liberal.

So, these ballot-measure proposals can win the interest of conservative donors. Then they exhaust their funds pumping money into these and have little patience and spare cash, at least that they’re willing to donate to actual candidates who would have a chance of having a more lasting impact on state politics. With all of that, I think the prospects for change are really not so . . . frankly, they are not so extensive and this brief round of congratulations on the center-right after the results of the recent set of ballot measures came out was almost touching in its naivety.

Teddy Kupfer: Interesting. So, let’s talk about another potential source of naivety and another electoral mechanism that would reign in left-wing excess: recall elections. There have been pushes to recall the District Attorney of San Francisco, Chesa Boudin. There’s been a push to recall the DA of L.A. But by far the most high-profile recall push is that to recall Governor Gavin Newsom, who will indeed face an election on September 14. The Boudin and Gascón pushes may not be as successful, but as far as Newsom is concerned, polls actually show that the challenge is appearing to be tougher than people had expected. Talk-show host Larry Elder recently entered the race and has gained some real momentum, reports indicate that the Democratic Party is concerned that their voters are not fully aware of what’s going on, and polls indicate that likely voters in the race are about evenly split on whether or not they would vote to retain Newsom in office.

I’m not going to ask you to prognosticate on the result, but if I might press you a little bit, sure, I’ll grant that the ballot-initiative process may not be the mechanism to effectuate long-term, right-wing change in California politics. In fact, it actually in a way could be seen to help the Left by reining it in and allowing voters to continue voting Democratic in good conscience. But what about this recall race? In the web version of the article, you discuss the recall race and you suggest that even a Newsom defeat is unlikely to undo Democrats' structural advantages in the state. So talk a little bit about why you think the recall of Newsom is also not as big of a deal as some are making it seem.

Nick Burns: I should note before we get into the recall specifically that the Democratic advantage in the state is not a new phenomenon. Democratic registrations in California have outstripped Republican ones since the 1940s—so well before the parties took on their contemporary political connotations, of course—but Republicans continued to win high office, the governorship specifically well into the 1960s and 1970s. Of course, Reagan’s governorship interested the nation and created an image of California as a reactionary capital. The James Q. Wilson article you mentioned goes into this in detail and explains its sociological basis in what the historian Mike Davis calls “yahoos with Goldwater bumper stickers,” namely the denizens of the L.A. suburbs. But, despite that fact, despite Republicans winning the governor’s office including after the most recent recall election of Democratic governor Gray Davis in 2003, Arnold Schwarzenegger, another actor of course, held the Governor’s office for two terms.

But despite that fact the legislature has been almost monolithically Democratic for a long time. The one exception to that was one of the houses did have a tiny Republican majority under Pete Wilson. But besides that, it’s been pretty firmly in Democratic hands for a long time and the majorities have only grown over time over the last couple of decades. So those advantages are very much longstanding.

As far as the recall goes, this is only the second gubernatorial one in California history. They’re always very interesting phenomena; you get the whole cast of characters, there are relatively few barriers to running. The Davis recall election featured all characters: sumo wrestlers, pornographic actresses, you name it. Arnold Schwarzenegger stood out as well-known and made a convincing argument for why he would do a decent job. It seemed fairly clear going into that election that he would come out on top as in fact he did.

This election is less clear. I think the forces militating against Newsom are somewhat less strong than the ones that had entangled Davis. Although, as you mentioned, the polls indicate that Newsom is actually in a decent amount of trouble here—among likely voters, his margin of advantage is almost within the margin of error. So, it could be close; we’ll see what happens the field in terms of candidates to replace him is a little more crowded, Elder, a conservative libertarian talk-show host, has emerged as something of a front runner. I think Elder has been doing his best, as I think did Schwarzenegger, to carry on a tradition of what Republican candidates have done historically in California, which is to try to run as more or less nonpartisan candidates.

The winning strategy historically has been to deemphasize the connections to the national Republican Party and deemphasize partisan politics generally and just emphasize competence, common sense, and of course increasingly criticizing perceived left-wing excesses in the Democratic Party. There’s much fodder for all of that currently, especially with a number of scandals that have hit the current governor . . . the most famous one, of course, being his dinner at the tony French Laundry restaurant with healthcare lobbyists in contravention of his coronavirus protocols. And so, it seems like Elder does have some chance, of course we’ll see how that goes.

It’s worth noting here a procedural element of the recall, which is that the first part of the ballot is an up-or-down vote on Newsom, if he doesn’t get 50 percent on this initial round of voters wanting him to stay in office, then he’s out and someone will replace him. That then goes to the second part of the ballot and this is all done on the same ballot. People are then asked after they vote yes or no on whether the governor should stay in office, they get to vote on who they’d like to replace him if he’s out and the winner of that second portion is just a simple plurality and since there’ll be dozens of candidates on the ballot, the overall proportion could be quite small, as little as say 20 to 30 percent—it’s very hard to know in advance.

But even if, say, Newsom were to be ousted and Elder or someone else were to replace him, there’s only a year to go before the next set of gubernatorial elections. Newsom’s term is due to end in a year and that’s just not so much time to establish a reputation of competence for anybody.

Of course, the Democratic majority in both houses of the state legislature will be unchanged, none of those legislators are up for reelection during this recall process. And what did two terms of Schwarzenegger do to change the balance of power in the state? Probably not so much, looking at it from this remove. Without some threat to the Democratic Party’s control of the legislature, I think the horizons are rather narrow. Of course, that doesn’t mean a potential replacement for Newsom might not prove to be a success, but I think the factors militating against it are rather strong. As I mentioned, the traditional GOP strategy in California—that is, deemphasizing the connection to the national party—is a tougher sell in the current climate, though we may be past the peak of party polarization during the Trump era. I suppose we’ll see. But, I think in general the past four years have been especially difficult for people who are looking for this middle-of-the-road moderate Republican strategy: only a few guys clinging on to this in New England or Maryland, things like that.

Teddy Kupfer: Well, we should talk about the California Republican Party and what its strategy is. Because I think lurking in the background of this entire conversation is the GOP’s collapse in California as a relevant political force. They were not really the ones who organize this recall petition. They aren’t so relevant anymore, let’s put it that way. But as for this collapse, the historiography here is contested. The reasons why it happened are not so apparent.

The conventional wisdom points to 1994 as the turning point. That’s when then-governor Pete Wilson, a Republican facing a tough reelection challenge, backed Proposition 187, the “Save our State” initiative, which enacted draconian restrictions on illegal immigrants. The initiative won in a landslide, but was gutted by the courts. And Wilson won reelection, but in the process made his party kryptonite to Latinos and liberals. That spelled its demise and an era when politics was polarizing nationally, the state was growing decreasingly white. Or so the story goes.

But this conventional wisdom has some problems. The state did become majority-minority at some point in the 1990s, but research indicates that 1994—and, therefore, Proposition 187—was not actually a turning point for the state’s Hispanic voters. So, what are the real reasons for the decline of the California GOP? This is the party of Reagan. Reagan of course was governor. California has seen prominent Republicans before be successful, but no longer. So what are the reasons behind the California Republican party’s decline? And is any of this relevant to contemporary California politics?

Nick Burns: I think it’s as you mentioned—the role of Prop. 187 is sometimes exaggerated, it’s sometimes made out as this cruel hubristic gesture which came at exactly the wrong time that’s galvanized this groundswell of Latino activism and aligned a whole generation that was coming of age with the Democratic Party. That, as you mentioned, there’s research that shows that the voting habits of Hispanic Californians did not change so dramatically in 1994.

But, I think in general, perhaps that’s a bit of a technicality. It’s certainly true that Hispanic Californians were throughout the 1990s and into the 2000s a demographic that was growing in California and they were moving to the left over a period of several decades. So, the failure of the state Republican Party to appeal to this demographic does seem like a fairly obvious ingredient in the party’s diminished relevance. And it’s also worth noting that the strides that Donald Trump made surprisingly with Hispanic voters in Texas and Florida in the 2020 election were not nearly as palpable in California—and why might that be? One can say it’s anti-communism and the Cuban population in Florida, perhaps greater social conservatism among Texas Hispanic voters. I think that’s something that’s worth looking into. Certainly the future of the California Republican Party runs through Hispanic Californians and with no support among this very large and crucial element of Californian society today, I don’t think the party has too much of a future.

But I would say that class is just as important, perhaps even more important, than ethnic differences in this regard. I think it’s fair to say that the past several decades in California have seen increasing pressures on the state’s middle-class. I know that a number of City Journal contributors—including Fred Siegel and Joel Kotkin—have written about this. We have seen the Democratic Party especially in California as a top–bottom coalition bringing in wealthy elites in the tech and entertainment industries and people who work in these industries and live on the coasts with people who are disproportionately poor and also from minority groups in the state.

As cost of living has increased in California, as housing prices rise with lack of supply of new housing, cost of living has also increased in the Golden State. Of course it’s a very high-tech state. It’s been the state’s middle-class that has been squeezed. I think direct outmigration can be over-exaggerated as a factor here, but that’s certainly a part of it: middle classes fleeing to other parts of the Sun Belt, to Arizona, Texas, or the Mountain West.

But, the numbers show that’s been happening. It’s becoming harder to be the lower middle-class, middle-class, upper middle-class homeowner that was the backbone of that Reagan revolution that [James Q.] Wilson writes about in his article that we’ve been talking about.

I think it’s worth noting that Wilson explains differences between the more left-wing culture of San Francisco and the Bay Area and the more conservative culture of Los Angeles and its suburbs by referring to homeownership rates. He notes that in 1940 in the height of the depression, more than 50 percent of people in Los Angeles lived in single family homes that they owned. In San Francisco that number was less than a third. It’s also worth noting that in the thirties, San Francisco was a union town while L.A. was dominated by the open shop: unions did not have a foothold at all and were very much frowned upon by city authorities, the L.A. Times, and the major families who were influential in the city’s politics.

So, if you compare those home ownership numbers, more than 50 percent in L.A. and less than a third in San Francisco, to today—I’ve just looked at the census numbers, and they are now almost the same: 37.6 percent in San Francisco, 36.8 percent in Los Angeles. So, there’s been a real change there and I think the lack of that middle-class home-owning base is really a major factor in this decline.

I think it would be a tough sell to try to revive the fortunes of a recognizable Republican Party in California without some major changes in housing policy. I’m personally a little more skeptical of what exactly can be achieved by building lots of new housing: the obstacles to this policy are considerable and I think everyone needs to do some more deep thinking on what the shape of a more dense California would look like. To make California more dense, which seems necessary to make it affordable, to make it friendly to the middle class again, would change the very nature of Californian civilization, which had always been imagined—and Wilson mentions this in the piece, too—as an alternative to the crowded conditions of life in the Northeast. Californians really thought of themselves, and continue to think of themselves, as a people apart. A people who live in a place with more space and density—it doesn’t have to be high rise buildings on the order of New York City, but it necessarily involves a little less space for everybody. That’s the idea.

And that may be the only way forward. I think no one is too thrilled about the future of California as composed of these citadels of the wealthy, and with a growing and increasingly desperate underclass, politics will only become more radical in that California, but a California that becomes significantly more dense in order to prevent that will be a different California, too, and I suppose there’ll be pros and cons that come out of that as well.

Teddy Kupfer: Fascinating. I’m glad you bring up the Wilson article, because the convergence of these homeownership rates does seem to be an interesting explanation for the decline of that political regionalism. But, we should move on.

You gestured in this direction, but as we move from the political history of California through the political present of California, and think about the political future, this is a state that has a reputation for being something of a bellwether. And so it has been treated by both sides of the aisle. Progressives look at California and almost salivate at the notion of sustained political dominance delivered by a more diverse electorate. Think of the policy universe that opens up, imagine the possibilities when you have this dominant position. Conservatives, on the other hand, feel pessimistic, even despondent, as they understand the country will as a whole eventually have California’s demographics. They mourn their loss of influence in such an enormous, wealthy, and culturally powerful place. This may explain why the vanguards of both the progressive Left and, if you will, the realignment Right—the ultra-woke on one hand and the true-believing Trumpists on the other—call California home.

They think they’ve seen the future. They’re reacting to it. I read an article on a conservative website that made reference to an emerging “dissident California Right”: people who have seen what they take to be the fruits of left-wing governance and are pushing back. And, of course, many of the forces and people that were early to align themselves with Donald Trump in his early political rise were Californians. So, my final question to you, Nick, before we sign off, is this: Do you think that our country is headed in the direction of California, that we are all destined to be more like Californians? Or are they overlooking important idiosyncrasies that the rest of the country might not possess that the Golden State happens to have?

Nick Burns: Yes. I certainly think at least politically speaking, it’s not the only possible future. Of course, conservatives are increasingly excited about Florida as an alternative example of what a large and diverse state can look like, or Texas as well, which is civilizational in a similar way to California. These continue to represent a set of values that’s more amenable to a conservative state of mind, but also the continued relevance of the Republican Party in these places.

But I do think that the future will look like California in one way or another and I think that has to do with the way that California and its civilization in a more abstract way demonstrate a tendency in modernity that I think was summed up well by—and perhaps this will be the first time that the Frankfurt School is mentioned on a City Journal Podcast but, I think that Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer in Dialectic of Enlightenment, identified something quite distinctive, well, something that on the one hand is distinctive about California and about Los Angeles, but it’s also in some way indicative of the future of the United States and indeed of the world. Which is this strange mixture of reason and irrationality, this tendency to delve into a promising innovation and to apply all the power of human reason to this pursuit of improvement or the establishment of greater certainty about some topic, but in this very-badly-thought-out way that can produce a range of results from the tremendously impressive to the catastrophic.

I think the susceptibility of California to wildfires and other natural disasters is one example of this. I felt this very profoundly driving through the port of Los Angeles just a couple days ago. This is the biggest container port on the West Coast, and it was built from nothing, from mudflats. There’s no natural harbor in Los Angeles. In fact, the natural harbors in California are San Francisco and San Diego, but these haven’t been as successful as this port that was crafted purely from the human imagination. So, I think California testifies in this way to the power of the human will, but also to the weakness and folly of human efforts in relation to this natural order—and that is something that I think the whole country will have to deal with in one way or another.

Teddy Kupfer: Well, on that note, thank you very much Nick for coming on. Don’t forget, listeners, to check out Nick’s work on the City Journal website, we will link to his author page in the description. You can also find City Journal on Twitter @CityJournal and on Instagram @cityjournal_mi. And you can find Nick on Twitter @NickBurns. As always, if you like what you heard on the podcast, please give us a five-star rating on iTunes and Nick, thank you very much again for joining us, my friend.

Nick Burns: Thanks for having me.

Photo by Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

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