California-style dominance eludes Democrats nationwide


U.S. President Barack Obama is greeted by California Attorney General Kamala Harris (L), California Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom (2nd L) and San Francisco Mayor Edwin Lee (R) upon his arrival in San Francisco February 17, 2011. Obama is visiting nearby Woodside to meet with business leaders in technology and innovation, including Apple Inc Chief Executive Steve Jobs, at a private residence.  REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS)

At a moment of unprecedented dominance in California, Democrats woke up on Election Day to a painfully changed national landscape, raising sharp questions about how poorly their approach to outsized success on the west coast is translating in vast swaths of the nation’s interior.

Golden State officials to the left of center did not hesitate to put a brave face on their newfound feeling of isolation. “Today, we woke up feeling like strangers in a foreign land,” wrote Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, D-Paramount, and state Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León, D-Los Angeles, in a joint statement released on the heels of Donald Trump’s victory and reported by the Press-Enterprise. “We are not going to allow one election to reverse generations of progress at the height of our historic diversity, scientific advancement, economic output and sense of global responsibility.”

Their party did strengthen its grip on power in places where it was already robust. Democrats “expanded their majorities in chambers in California, Washington and New York,” according to The Fix at the Washington Post. “In two other states that Donald Trump won big (Montana and West Virginia), they held onto the governorship. But Democrats’ success came in isolated pockets. When you look at the post-2016 map, the story is still one of absolute Republican dominance.”

Cloudy future

Frustrated liberals and progressives have focused on California as a symbol of the limits of Democratic politics as it took shape under President Obama. “The Democratic Party is dependent on the presidency. Without it, the multi-racial, multi-class, water-hugging, tree-hugging party of the 21st century will enter 2017 obliterated, clinging to California as a government in exile as Washington falls to a political opponent that no longer looks like the Republican Party of even 2014, and may prove to be something American democracy has never seen,” Francis Wilkinson wrote at Bloomberg. 

With intraparty divisions sharpening over whether to shift away from culture-war politics to bread-and-butter economic issues, it was too early to tell whether California’s bench of young and ambitious Democrats will be able to cross over onto the national stage. “Kamala Harris, the newly elected senator from California, is viewed as a rising star, but she is just that, a newly elected senator, so it’s hard to know her future,” David Graham noted at The Atlantic. Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, gunning to replace Gov. Jerry Brown in 2018, has shaped up as another test case — a white male from a wealthy coastal enclave who has aggressively staked out a liberal agenda on social issues.

In response to questions about how the national party ought to move forward, de León sought to cast the choice as one between Trump’s vision of America and a broader, more traditional consensus. “Given the extreme, vitriolic, pernicious rhetoric of the campaign, the Democrats have an obligation to their constituents to prepare for anything that undermines the progress of America,” he told Politico. “I’ve said this within the context of California, but it’s the same thing for the direction of the Democratic Party: We can’t allow one election to reverse generations of progress.”

Exit option

But the newest trend on the left in California to gain national attention has pointed toward a polar opposite future — one in which all the state’s Democrats simply opt out of the United States altogether. “While the Yes California campaign has been considered a fringe movement in the past, it began trending on social media Tuesday night, attracting mainstream notice and interest from California progressives dismayed by Trump’s impending win,” KTLA reported. 

“The rising interest in Calexit comes as protests have erupted across the U.S. On Wednesday night, thousands gathered in at least a dozen major U.S. cities. In Los Angeles, protesters chanted ‘¡Si se puede!’ in the streets of downtown. The refrain ‘not my president’ rang out from angry crowds in L.A., San Francisco and elsewhere.”

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