Right-wing activists like to point to California as an example of what could happen to America if progressives have their way. They're right to be worried — for their own political futures, that is.
As Americans grapple with how to handle a Republican Party that has followed its most extreme fringe off the rails, California provides a useful example. For years, many in this country lamented the woes of California, long thought to be ungovernable. But after years of frustration and hoping that that Republican Party would come to its senses, California voters stopped trying to accommodate or compromise with the right-wing fringe. Progressives actually won the old-fashioned way, by winning. Now, California can enact actual policy and fix actual problems.
In many ways, the implosion of California's Republican Party was predictive of the implosion of the national GOP that we're seeing today. Faced with a growing and changing population with different needs than in previous generations, California's Republicans didn't adapt. Instead, they dug in their heels. By 2012, voters had delivered the governor's mansion, every state office and veto-proof majorities in both houses of the state legislature to Democrats. And this right-wing nightmare has resulted in common sense policy bringing California back from the brink. This year's budget in California increased funding for education and logged a surplus — imagine if the US Congress could do that.
It's easy to spot the turning point in the Republican Party's downfall in California — and it would be a good one for the national GOP to keep in mind as they seem determined to make exactly the same mistakes. In 1994, Republican Gov. Pete Wilson reacted to the state's changing demographics in a very similar way to what the Tea Party is doing throughout the country today. With slumping poll numbers, Wilson decided to roil up anti-immigrant sentiment among his mostly-white base in order to win reelection. He went all-out in backing Proposition 187, a draconian measure that denied undocumented immigrants access to basic services including emergency room care and public education. It worked for Pete Wilson and his reelection but it was disastrous for his party's future. The referendum passed, but the state GOP had written its own obituary.
After Republicans pushed through Prop 187, California's Latino community organized. In 1994, only 53 percent of eligible Latinos in California were registered to vote. By 1996, it was 60 percent. Since then, Latinos have made up a gradually expanding percentage of the state's electorate, from 11 percent in 1994 to 22 percent in 2010.
California went blue. After Bill Clinton's hard-fought victory in 1992, no presidential election in California has even been close.
The lesson of Prop 187 isn't just about California's, and the United States', flourishing Latino population. It's about what happens when a political party that depends on reactionary politics rooted in their version of an idyllic past of privilege and exclusion runs up against an inclusive, vibrant, dynamic future. Republicans aren't losing just because they're digging in on the politics of white resentment in an increasingly non-white country. They're also losing because their mean-spirited policies are so out of touch and affect such a broad swath of the American public that they are simply unsustainable.
Just look at the issue of gay rights, which Republicans used to great effect to rally supporters in 2004, but which less than 10 years later has become a third rail for all but the Tea Party fringe. And the Republican Party has driven away women as it rallies around retrograde policies policing women's bodies. The more they dig in their heels in the past, the more they're left behind as the country moves forward.
That's already happened in California. Bill Maher recently said it best: "Everything conservatives claim will unravel the fabric of our society — universal healthcare, higher taxes on the rich, gay marriage, medical marijuana — has only made California stronger. And all we had to do to accomplish that was vote out every single Republican."
This month's pointless, destructive government shutdown, which earned Republicans record low approval numbers and little else, illustrated yet again that the Tea Party lives in a very different world than the rest of us. If the Republican Party keeps on catering to the Tea Party fringe at the expense of the rest of America, we can't accommodate them so we'll just have to beat them. The national party will have go the way of Republicans in California. And that's good news for all of us.