by Neil H. Buchanan
If nothing else, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo's downward spiral should remind everyone that state-level politics can be messy. As Virginians discovered a few years ago, when the governor, lieutenant governor, and attorney general simultaneously faced assorted scandals, people who look good one day can look bad the next (and sometimes bounce back again later, although I would not bet on that outcome for Cuomo).
Beyond personal scandals, the deeper political structures and cultures in the various states present a different set of questions. It is not as though states cannot change. For decades, Maryland was accurately reputed to have an insanely corrupt state government, most famously including former Governor Spiro Agnew's crime-a-palooza that ultimately ended his stint as Richard Nixon's first Vice President. That reputation no longer fits Maryland today, although there are surely still many problems there. Illinois has witnessed extensive political problems as well, but there is no guarantee at this point that reforms will take hold there to move it in the right direction.
The two most populous states in the nation present us with a unique comparison. California has for the past few years solidified its position as the bluest of blue states, whereas Texas -- which has been ruled forever by a deeply conservative political class (first under Southern Democrats, then under converts to the other side like former Senator Phil Gramm, and now under the Trumpiest of Republicans) -- has been the ever-elusive "just about to turn purple and then blue" fantasy of those of us who view demographics as destiny. Even if Texas ultimately flips, for now its government at all levels is still firmly in the grip of some of the most reactionary conservatives in the United States.
As things currently stand, then, California is run by Democrats and Texas is run by Republicans. Given that both states have unsolved problems, should we conclude that neither party is capable of solving problems? No, not at all. In California, Democrats are trying to solve problems, whereas in Texas, Republicans are denying that problems even exist while doubling down on their own disastrous political agenda.
Both California and Texas have endured epic disasters, many of which were at least initially weather-related. The states' halting and often unsuccessful efforts to respond to their citizen's needs offers opportunities for pundits to criticize one state or the other. Recently, for example, the usually excellent New York Times columnist Ezra Klein wrote, "California Is Making Liberals Squirm." To be clear, he means liberals including himself, and he suggests that liberals in general should feel uneasy about California, because that state's political dysfunction makes it difficult for liberals to claim that they can run a state better than Republicans can.
Meanwhile, Texas has still not emerged from the horrendous damage caused by the failure of the state to require utilities to be run in the public interest. People died, power was interrupted for millions of Texans for days, and water problems destroyed homes and threatened public health. Thus far, it appears that the state's fully-red state government will do nothing to prevent it all from happening again.
The key difference, however, is that California's many problems are the result of a political structure that is dysfunctional in a nonpartisan way, whereas Texas's politics are not in fact dysfunctional at all. That is, whereas Democrats in California are genuinely trying to fix their system of governance while solving real problems, Republicans in Texas like their system just the way it is, because it is functioning as they want it to function.
Not that long ago, California was quite competitive politically, regularly sending conservative Republicans to Sacramento and Washington, D.C. Republicans then badly overplayed anti-immigration cruelty in the 1990's with Prop 187, which galvanized liberal opposition in the state in what appears to be a permanent way, leading to the rump status of the state's Republican Party.
Because that all seems like ancient history to most people, California's problems now look like "Democratic problems." But even without worrying about political consequences, Klein is right to say that liberals should be distressed to see the homelessness and other problems in the Golden State. Among other things, he describes the nimbyism that grinds public projects to a halt, and he suggests that surely Democrats could do better than this.
The problem is that California's political mess is largely driven by features and bugs that predated California's transition to blue-state status. The state's uniquely permissive ballot initiative process (of which Prop 187 was only one outstandingly bad example) can cause real problems, such as the 2020 measure by which Uber and InstaCart spent millions of dollars convincing voters to negate the Democratic legislature's effort to provide basic labor rights to gig workers. That was an especially clear example of the dangers of direct democracy, where "but it will cost you some money" can -- in a well-funded propaganda campaign -- become the only thing that drives voters' decisions.
And we should not forget the mother of all bad California initiatives, Prop 13, which resulted in insane inequities in school and other local funding. I have a colleague who lives in the Bay Area who points out that comparing property tax bills among one's neighbors (which is possible because of sunshine laws) is practically a blood sport. The inequities exist not just across the state or even within cities but within individual neighborhoods.
But Democrats are in charge, so why do they not fix the system? The simple answer is that change is always difficult, especially from a baseline that contains so many veto points. For example, people who do not like it when environmental review procedures are abused for someone else's benefit are perfectly happy to use those procedures for their own purposes, so when they consider whether to give up something that they have used successfully and could use again, they balk.
After all, Democrats in the U.S. Senate cannot unanimously agree even to slightly change the filibuster rule (by, say, allowing reconciliation to cover non-budgetary issues), much less repeal it entirely. If it did not already exist, however, no one would consider creating anything like the current filibuster rule. And so it is with much of California's system. (To his enormous credit, Klein has written brilliantly about how nonsensical and damaging the filibuster is.)
The subtitle of Klein's piece is: "If progressivism can’t work there, why should the country believe it can work anywhere else?" This confuses "Democrats are in charge" with "progressive policies are being adopted." It is not that progressivism is not working but that people who are otherwise progressive -- and plenty of Democrats who are not meaningfully progressive at all -- are not all of one mind when it comes to fixing the system, because each of them would fix in different ways. Inertia is the result.
Still, it is true that there is a branding issue involved, making it too easy to blame Democrats for everything that is wrong in California. And it is always a simple matter to point to supposed hypocrisy among liberals. For example, because people can be in favor of more progressive taxes -- and even favor tax increases for themselves -- yet hire accountants and tax lawyers to minimize their tax payments, we will always hear Republicans claim that liberals are hypocrites: "If you don't think people should be rich, why not give your money away and leave the rest of us alone?"
There are, moreover, quality of life issues that should not be dismissed as nimbyism. New York City lacks adequate, affordable housing, but people who would oppose plowing up Central Park to build Hong Kong-style high-rise forests are hardly being merely selfish. Locating public services and affordable housing within metro areas is fraught with issues too numerous to mention, but opposing, say, putting an opioid treatment clinic in every cul-de-sac is not evidence of being a limousine liberal.
What about mitigating the worst effects of pure, partisan politics? California certainly earns a gold star for using citizens redistricting commissions rather than having politicians redraw the lines. That was a result of a ballot initiative in 2008, showing that plebiscites can serve the public good as well as harm it. The state's current Democratic leaders, meanwhile, live within an apolitical system rather than trying to seize back the power to gerrymander. Texas, by contrast, began the Twenty-first Century by putting gerrymandering into hyper-drive, not even bothering to wait until the end of a decade to press their partisan advantage. Texas Democrats actually fled the state to try to stop the legislature from acting at the time, but Republicans prevailed in the end.
When it comes to dealing with actual policy issues, moreover, Texas's Republican leaders think that their approach to utility regulation is just dandy, with former three-term governor Rick Perry saying that other people's discomfort is worth it, because it keeps the federal government from having any say in setting the rules for basic public infrastructure in the second-largest state in the country. They are not interested in fixing problems, because they do not see any problems other than culture-war grievances. California, meanwhile, has had wildfires and other disasters, but those did not happen as an inevitable consequence of liberal ideology.
Klein concedes that "[t]here are bright spots in recent years — electric grid modernization, a deeply progressive plan to tax the wealthy to fund poor school districts, a prison population at a 30-year low — but there’s a reason 130,000 more people leave than enter each year. California is dominated by Democrats, but many of the people Democrats claim to care about most can’t afford to live there." That is a pretty offhanded way to dismiss three extremely important progressive successes, especially because there is no single reason that California is experiencing net emigration for the first time in decades.
Politics involves taking credit for every good thing and shifting blame for every bad thing. Donald Trump famously refused to take responsibility for anything, while trying to say that the anti-COVID vaccines are all his doing. Ronald Reagan took credit for bringing down inflation, even though that was entirely a result of the Fed's policies (and the Fed is independent of the political branches), yet he refused to take responsibility for the huge recession that those same policies created.
In that sense, it is of course true that liberals would prefer not to have to explain why states run by Democrats are not utopias. That, however, simply is part of being in power. Republicans, meanwhile, are perfectly content to say that the people's problems are not the government's problems, because the vaunted free market is supposed to fix everything. Democrats say: "We're trying, and even though problems still exist, we're doing the best we can within the constraints of reality." Republicans say: "We're not even trying. Freedom!"