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Lessons for progressives from California’s plastic bag ban

Women walk with plastic bags through Chinatown in San Francisco. California voters narrowly upheld a statewide ban on single-use plastic bags in November.
Women walk with plastic bags through Chinatown in San Francisco. California voters narrowly upheld a statewide ban on single-use plastic bags in November. The Associated Press

When Californians voted twice last month to uphold our statewide ban on throwaway plastic bags, the result showed that the progressive social consciousness of the state is deepening even as diversity grows.

It also shows a promising path to making progress during the Trump administration by advancing social and economic justice through city halls and state capitals across the country.

The pair of victories, earned by grass-roots organizing to stop blight and stimulate green jobs, reinforced the 2014 state law that was built on 150 municipal ordinances. The success by California activists in passing and preserving the bag ban, despite a hefty disadvantage in lobbying and campaign spending by out-of-state manufacturers, also shows the appeal of reining in polluters and their outsized political influence.

And it highlights the political danger to any lawmakers seen as defending polluters at the expense of taxpayers and the public interest. Through his rhetoric and appointments, Donald Trump already shows signs of walking out on that limb.

Making progressive policy goals concrete and relevant to California voters was one key that has implications for other states. Environmental justice advocates portrayed the issue of plastic bags as a costly menace to local communities and an artificial barrier to jobs in the green economy making and marketing reusable bags.

That opened the door to a much broader coalition along the lines of the great movements for human rights and social justice of the past 50 years. Those who spoke up for the bag ban included labor heroine Dolores Huerta, Latino astronaut Jose Hernandez, African American and Native American leaders, congregations of various faiths, and influential scholars and student activists.

Striking those chords of social conscience helped bag ban supporters reach voters concerned about corruption of the democratic process. Plastic manufacturers from outside California spent $6 million to get the measures on the ballot, a fact that backfired badly.

Local and state governments in California are yielding breakthroughs in progressive public policy that could make techies and biochemists envious. Victories like the bag ban are why forward-thinking leaders and policymakers throughout the country and around the world look to California for solutions, even under the shadow of Trump’s presidency.

How progressive activists apply California’s lessons and build on them will determine what gains are possible over the next four years.

Hans Johnson of Los Angeles is president of Progressive Victory, an advocacy and strategy group. He can be contacted at hansj@progressivevictory.com.

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