America is terribly polarized. And it’s on account of California.
The trouble is not only that California itself is so politically polarized. Or that it contributes to the many causes of polarization: partisan media, technological change, income inequality.
No, the artichoke heart of the matter is that California is just too big and 21st-century to fit an America governed by 18th-century rules and mid-20th-century nostalgia.
California divides America precisely because our state balances out the country politically. As a large progressive check on a conservative country, California makes America a 50-50 nation in matters political.
California divides America precisely because our state balances out the country politically.
But America’s political system is simply not set up to work in such a narrowly divided polity. The United States is famously a system of checks and balances, in which governance requires a broad consensus. One path to consensus is a strong – and elusive – ethic of bipartisanship. The other path is to have one dominant political party that can govern easily. California blocks both paths.
As political scientist Frances Lee has shown, the country produced more compromise from 1933 to 1981, when Democrats dominated Congress and presidential elections usually produced landslide victors. But in the ’80s and ’90s, as California transformed into a Democratic stronghold, the dynamic shifted. There hasn’t been a presidential landslide since 1988. And party control of both houses of Congress keeps flipping.
Because elections are so close, American politics has become so relentlessly competitive as to be dysfunctional. To win in this system, parties magnify their differences at the expense of governing, and exploit every tiny advantage, from election procedures to the redistricting process.
“When party control seemingly hangs in the balance,” Lee writes in “Insecure Majorities: Congress and the Perpetual Campaign,” “members and leaders of both parties invest more effort in enterprises to promote their own party’s image and undercut that of the opposition. These efforts at party image making often stand in the way of cross-party cooperation on legislation.”
This dynamic also creates two deep grievances involving the Golden State.
The first is that California is the great nullifier. Many Americans simply can’t accept how California’s cultural, economic and political power frustrates efforts to enshrine their old-fashioned bigotries in national policy. But so what? To quote the famously pithy Austro-Californian philosopher Arnold Schwarzenegger, “Everybody pities the weak. Jealousy you have to earn.”
The second grievance is California’s own. The rickety old American constitution routinely vetoes our democratic choices. In 2016, Californians voted in record numbers for Hillary Clinton, who won nationally by nearly 3 million votes, but saw our choice nullified by the Electoral College. Meanwhile, the House of Representatives gives outsize power to rural voters in other states, and the Senate gives California the same two senators as the 49 lesser states.
My fellow Californians, the next time some American apologist defends the country’s constitutional structure as anything but a conspiracy against California, look them in the eye and say: “North and South Dakota, dude?”
Since California is the heart of the problem, there are two ways to address American polarization. The first and better path is through democratic reform. Let’s elect the president by popular vote, and replace Congress with a 21st-century parliament, in which one state’s huge size doesn’t count against it. In such a system, the Democrats would dominate Congress and the presidency and be able to govern.
But if the Constitution remains inviolate, the United States would be far more governable if California left the union. America would be far poorer but Republicans would be the clear governing party.
For now, however, the country is in stalemate. The rest of America won’t surrender its excessive representation. And California won’t surrender to an anti-democratic American system.
So if the United States is ever going to cure its polarization, something will have to give: The American Republic. Or California.
Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.