It’s Okay that California Republican Party Is Irrelevant

by Robert Cruickshank on March 21, 2012

One would think that in a democracy, the preferences of voters would drive political analysis. If voters abandoned one of the parties in droves to the point where that party became irrelevant, it would be a sign of a healthy political system that was adaptable and flexible to changing public views. If, however, one party became massively unpopular yet still wielded power and influence, that would be the sign of a failing political system – one that did not reflect the views of a democratic people.

In California, we have witnessed the long yet inevitable death of the Republican Party. Driven by a base that hates everything about 21st century California, from its diversity to its social and economic values, California Republicans have made themselves irrelevant by their refusal to abandon that crazy base or their own unpopular ideologies.

They lost every statewide election in 2010. They have not picked up a Congressional or legislative seat from Democrats in nearly a decade. The independent redistricting process found that the previous lines had been gerrymandered for Republicans and when they produced a fair redistricting, Republicans faced the loss of numerous seats. Republican party registration has been in decline for years. And the last time Republicans controlled the Legislature, the Beatles were still making records together.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with that. California Republicans do not reflect the values or desires or diversity of their state and so they are a dying party. Parties that get out of step with their electorates die – it has happened before (Federalists and Whigs aren’t on the ballot) and more importantly, it is a good thing. It is a sign that democracy still works, even in a state with serious structural problems.

Yet it is wrong if you are someone like George Skelton who prefers to believe that a healthy democracy requires not a party system that reflects voter preferences, but an artificial one that represents left and right equally, even if the right has been rejected by the state’s voters. In a column for this week’s Los Angeles Times, Skelton sees it as bad for democracy that the right is no longer part of governance in this state – even though voters have made it absolutely clear they want nothing to do with them:

A Democratic governor – basically a moderate – doesn’t find it worthwhile to dicker with conservatives. Brown futilely tried for several months last year to reach a deal with Republican lawmakers in which they’d provide the necessary two-thirds legislative vote to place a tax measure on the state ballot.

Republican leaders wouldn’t negotiate at all. A handful of unranked GOP senators agreed to talk. But for whatever reason – Brown wouldn’t cross labor, Republicans feared anti-tax demagogues – bargaining broke down.

So Brown went the signature-collecting initiative route. To achieve his goal of placing a potentially winnable tax increase on the ballot, the governor felt compelled to deal with the far left. The right – the GOP – was irrelevant.

That’s unhealthy in a democracy. And it’s nobody’s fault except the hard-right GOP’s. The party allowed itself to become so weak in California that it has little to offer Democrats in bargaining. And what it does have, it refuses to offer.

This is absurd. The only reason Brown is going to the ballot is because of the undemocratic rule requiring a 2/3 vote of the legislature to raise taxes. Without that, Brown could have passed a tax increase in the legislature (as the Constitution intended) or he could have put something on the ballot for voters directly.

More importantly, there is nothing at all unhealthy about refusing to negotiate with a party that has been consistently rejected by California voters. If Republicans had made big gains in 2010, if they were a growing rather than a shrinking party, then maybe Skelton might have a point that they’ve earned a role in negotiating a ballot initiative.

Californians have made it clear they don’t like Republicans and they don’t like right-wing ideology or values. They have consistently rejected them. That’s true of tax policy, where local tax increases routinely pass, and where most receive 50% of the vote even if passage requires the undemocratic 66.6% mark. The debate in California is about which taxes are the right ones to levy. To Republicans, the debate should be about whether any taxes at all should be levied.

But voters have rejected that too – Meg Whitman promised no new taxes and she lost to Jerry Brown by 13 points. Brown promised “no new taxes without voter approval” – indicating he was indeed open to tax increases – and is now governor.

Skelton’s focus on an artificial and obsolete left-right equality means he doesn’t grapple with the more interesting and relevant questions as to why Republicans and the right are dying in California. Just 20 years ago right-wing politics was quite viable in the Golden State. California was a swing state in the 1992 election, after having voted for Republican presidential candidates in each of the past five elections. In 1994 Republicans re-elected a right-wing governor, narrowly won the Assembly, and came close to taking the Senate.

It’s been all downhill since then. The 1994 victory came by rallying whites against Latinos. But in the subsequent 20 years Latinos have soared in population and gotten politically organized to oppose the right and the Republicans. Many conservative whites left the state and those who remained have steadily grown more progressive.

California has changed, and its political system and its parties ought to change with it. If a party refuses to change and adapt, then that party should rightly suffer the consequences at the ballot box. That’s exactly what has happened to the Republicans. And that means they have lost any claim to playing a role in the governance of this state.

Ultimately, this raises the question of whether Skelton is still a useful political commentator on California issues. He clearly has a lot of background and expertise. But he also seems to not understand modern California. Until he realizes that the death of the Republican Party is a healthy thing for democracy, he’s going to keep advocating for unhealthy political practices merely out of a misguided desire to uphold political balance at the expense of political reality.

Ed. Note: This piece was first published at Calitics.

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