California’s Left Swing Is Very Good News for Progressives Nationwide

Tuesday’s primaries show that from universal healthcare to early childhood education and taxing the wealthy, progressives are winning the battle of ideas in the Democratic Party.

Theo Anderson June 7, 2018

In California's HD 45, Katie Porter, a progressive who supports Medicare for All, beat her moderate challenger. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Cal­i­for­nia is set­ting the agen­da for the next gen­er­a­tion of Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty pol­i­tics. And while Tuesday’s pri­maries saw mixed results for left chal­lengers, and some races won’t be decid­ed for days, that is a big win for the pro­gres­sive movement.

In California, we can see the outline of an alternative vision to neoliberalism and Trumpism shaping political debates—and the Democratic Party—on a statewide scale.

Last year, the bat­tle between pro­gres­sives and estab­lish­ment Democ­rats for the soul” of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty focused large­ly around uni­ver­sal health care. That fight goes on, and Medicare for All has become a ral­ly­ing cry for pro­gres­sives, but it isn’t the only issue that’s reshap­ing Demo­c­ra­t­ic pol­i­tics in Cal­i­for­nia and across the nation.

The Brook­ings Insti­tu­tion, which has been track­ing Demo­c­ra­t­ic cam­paigns this year, recent­ly pub­lished a list of the issues most often talked about by both estab­lish­ment and pro­gres­sive Democ­rats. Health­care is at the top of both lists while pre K‑12 edu­ca­tion sits in the top-five for both groups.

The com­mon ground on edu­ca­tion is hard­ly sur­pris­ing. But there is a twist in Cal­i­for­nia, where the debate has gone beyond the usu­al, pro for­ma nod to the impor­tance of ear­ly child­hood edu­ca­tion. It was actu­al­ly a cen­tral issue in the Demo­c­ra­t­ic pri­maries, gain­ing strong sup­port from across the spec­trum of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Party.

For exam­ple, Gavin New­som, the estab­lish­ment Demo­c­rat who eas­i­ly won the most votes in the guber­na­to­r­i­al pri­ma­ry, made sup­port for uni­ver­sal pre‑K, along with pre­na­tal care, one of his key cam­paign promises.

That’s a sharp depar­ture from the cur­rent Demo­c­ra­t­ic gov­er­nor, Jer­ry Brown, who cites the high costs of uni­ver­sal preschool as a rea­son not to extend it to all low-income chil­dren. Cal­i­for­nia has about 3 mil­lion chil­dren who are 5 and under, and it has among the high­est child pover­ty rates in the coun­try. In L.A. Coun­ty, accord­ing to KQED, more than half of babies and tod­dlers are eli­gi­ble for state-sub­si­dized care, but only 6 per­cent are get­ting it.”

Avo Makdess­ian, direc­tor of the Cen­ter for Ear­ly Learn­ing at the Sil­i­con Val­ley Com­mu­ni­ty Foun­da­tion, not­ed that this is the first time that babies, tod­dlers, preschool­ers are being talked about by the lead­ing can­di­dates for gov­er­nor and it’s real­ly, real­ly exciting.”

In the state leg­is­la­ture, mean­time, there’s already strong momen­tum for change. The Cal­i­for­nia Leg­isla­tive Women’s Cau­cus, for exam­ple, has recent­ly pro­posed a bil­lion dol­lars of new invest­ments in ear­ly child­hood pro­grams. The like­ly next gov­er­nor and the leg­is­la­ture are, at least in their rhetoric, in com­plete harmony.

Left coast

This piv­ot mat­ters — and it amounts to a defin­ing moment for the future of Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty — for two rea­sons, one philo­soph­i­cal and one practical.

First, the bat­tle for the soul of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty isn’t just about where can­di­dates stand on par­tic­u­lar issues. It’s about whether the par­ty has a broad vision for our pol­i­tics and for whose inter­ests should be served.

In a polit­i­cal sys­tem dri­ven by cam­paign dona­tions and the influ­ence of wealthy donors and cor­po­rate PACs, the inter­ests served are often those of the wealthy and cor­po­ra­tions. That’s true among both Democ­rats and Repub­li­cans, and it’s the source of much of the anger among pro­gres­sives towards the Demo­c­ra­t­ic establishment.

Ear­ly child­hood edu­ca­tion, like uni­ver­sal health­care, goes right to the heart of this ten­sion. It’s impos­si­ble to talk about the issue with­out talk­ing about who wins and who los­es in our polit­i­cal sys­tem — and why. By age 3, as a head­line in the Wash­ing­ton Post recent­ly put it blunt­ly, inequal­i­ty is clear. Rich kids attend school. Poor kids stay with a grandparent.”

There are now sev­er­al decades of research show­ing the dra­mat­ic impact of invest­ments made in the ear­li­est stages of life on indi­vid­ual out­comes. Last year, in sum­ma­riz­ing that moun­tain of research, sev­er­al schol­ars not­ed that, while the qual­i­ty and con­tent of preschool pro­grams varies wide­ly, the evi­dence for their over­all effec­tive­ness is clear, and chil­dren attend­ing pub­licly fund­ed pre-kinder­garten pro­grams are bet­ter pre­pared for kinder­garten than sim­i­lar chil­dren who have not attend­ed pre‑k.”

James Heck­man, a Nobel Prize-win­ning econ­o­mist and expert in the sub­ject, has writ­ten that the evi­dence is quite clear that inequal­i­ty in the devel­op­ment of human capa­bil­i­ties pro­duces neg­a­tive social and eco­nom­ic out­comes that can and should be pre­vent­ed with invest­ments in ear­ly child­hood edu­ca­tion, par­tic­u­lar­ly tar­get­ed toward dis­ad­van­taged chil­dren and their families.”

These invest­ments, Heck­man not­ed, are not only moral imper­a­tives. They make eco­nom­ic sense. They help reduce the achieve­ment gap, reduce the need for spe­cial edu­ca­tion, increase the like­li­hood of health­i­er lifestyles, low­er the crime rate, and reduce over­all social costs.” The upshot? Every dol­lar invest­ed in high-qual­i­ty ear­ly child­hood edu­ca­tion pro­duces a 7 to 10 per­cent per annum return on investment.”

That’s the argu­ment for pro­gres­sivism in a nut­shell. Valu­ing peo­ple over prof­it is the right thing to do, and it pays off the long run, whether in health­care, eco­nom­ics or education.

Such an argu­ment can’t always over­come the deep cor­rup­tion of our pol­i­tics and the influ­ence of spe­cial inter­ests. But, it is a win­ning argu­ment, polit­i­cal­ly. A poll of Cal­i­for­nia vot­ers last fall found that 70 per­cent con­sid­ered ear­ly child­hood edu­ca­tion a high pri­or­i­ty, putting it on par with pub­lic safe­ty. The cost of health care was the num­ber one vot­er con­cern, with 79 per­cent rank­ing it as a top or high priority.

As goes California

The prac­ti­cal rea­son that any of this mat­ters is that California’s tra­jec­to­ry may very well be the nation’s trajectory.

That’s true in the short term, espe­cial­ly since Democ­rats nar­row­ly man­aged to avoid the worst-case sce­nario of not field­ing a can­di­date in some House races. Under California’s pri­ma­ry rules, the top two vote-get­ters advance to the gen­er­al elec­tion, regard­less of par­ty, and in sev­er­al races the Demo­c­ra­t­ic vote was divid­ed among a large field of candidates.

To win con­trol of the House, Democ­rats need to pick up 23 Repub­li­can-held seats, and Cal­i­for­nia has sev­en prime pick-up oppor­tu­ni­ties — seats in a dis­trict that vot­ed for Hillary Clin­ton but are now rep­re­sent­ed by a Repub­li­can. Tuesday’s results in Cal­i­for­nia fea­tured good news for pro­gres­sives in a num­ber spe­cif­ic races. In the 4th U.S. House dis­trict, for exam­ple, pro­gres­sive Jes­si­ca Morse (who promis­es to be a strong advo­cate for uni­ver­sal preschool in our district’s school sys­tems”) won the chance to chal­lenge one of the most con­ser­v­a­tive House mem­bers, Repub­li­can Tom McClin­tock. In House Dis­trict 45 – wide­ly con­sid­ered a bell­wether—a pro­gres­sive who sup­ports Medicare for All, Katie Porter, won the Demo­c­ra­t­ic nom­i­na­tion over a can­di­date who cam­paigned on a more cau­tious agen­da of improv­ing Obamacare.

But there is a much a big­ger pic­ture to keep an eye on, beyond the results of par­tic­u­lar races and their impli­ca­tions this fall.

Twen­ty years ago, California’s pol­i­tics looked very much like our cur­rent nation­al pol­i­tics. With the sup­port of both Repub­li­cans and Democ­rats, the state had recent­ly passed major tax cuts that ben­e­fit­ed the wealthy while starv­ing the pub­lic sec­tor, and it had adopt­ed some of the most anti-immi­grant poli­cies in the nation.

Soci­ol­o­gist Manuel Pas­tor calls Cal­i­for­nia a fast for­ward” ver­sion of the nation in his recent book on the sub­ject, State of Resis­tance. But, he writes, a fun­ny thing hap­pened on the way to the state’s long-pre­sumed dis­as­ter. Cal­i­for­nia stopped skid­ding and began to turn around. … Pub­lic pol­i­cy is final­ly turn­ing to the issues of income dis­tri­b­u­tion, with the state extend­ing an income tax increase on the wealthy, rais­ing its min­i­mum wage in dra­mat­ic fash­ion, and shift­ing pub­lic school fund­ing to stu­dents most in need.” 

In truth, even in light of its recent trans­for­ma­tion, Cal­i­for­nia has nev­er ful­ly deserved its rep­u­ta­tion as a bas­tion of pro­gres­sivism. Its senior sen­a­tor, Dianne Fein­stein — one of the most con­ser­v­a­tive Democ­rats in Con­gress — should put that notion to rest for good. Fein­stein will face a pro­gres­sive chal­lenger this fall, Kevin de Leon, but will like­ly win the race eas­i­ly. On Tues­day, she received 44 per­cent of the vote to de Leon’s 11 percent.

And yet, it’s also true that California’s polit­i­cal sys­tem is begin­ning to engage with the prob­lem of inequal­i­ty and grap­ple with pro­gres­sive pol­i­cy solu­tions in ways that will, hope­ful­ly, make it a bell­wether. That’s true not only in the realm of ear­ly child­hood edu­ca­tion but on cli­mate change, afford­able hous­ing, health­care, infra­struc­ture invest­ment and a broad range of oth­er issues. As Pas­tor notes, these trans­for­ma­tions have been in large part the result of orga­niz­ing by social move­ments. Rather than what we saw in D.C. in the admin­is­tra­tion of Barack Oba­ma — in which a mod­er­ate­ly pro­gres­sive pres­i­dent found him­self unable to accom­plish his agen­da as the grass­roots excite­ment of his cam­paign fiz­zled and the red-hot heat of Tea Par­ty activism shift­ed the dynam­ic — change in Cal­i­for­nia was pro­pelled by a buzzing band of orga­niz­ers who pushed for a more inclu­sive and more sus­tain­able state.”

In Cal­i­for­nia, in oth­er words, we can see the out­line of an alter­na­tive vision to neolib­er­al­ism and Trump­ism shap­ing polit­i­cal debates — and the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty — on a statewide scale. The par­ty still suf­fers from many deep-seat­ed prob­lems. It is, like our entire polit­i­cal sys­tem, awash in cor­po­rate mon­ey and large­ly run by elites. But not being naïve about the state of play doesn’t require being entire­ly cynical.

While we won’t know for decades what effect this pro­gres­sive swing in Cal­i­for­nia will have on our nation­al pol­i­tics, it does give plen­ty of signs of hope. 

Theo Ander­son is an In These Times con­tribut­ing writer. He has a Ph.D. in mod­ern U.S. his­to­ry from Yale and writes on the intel­lec­tu­al and reli­gious his­to­ry of con­ser­vatism and pro­gres­sivism in the Unit­ed States. Fol­low him on Twit­ter @Theoanderson7.
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