Why California's Vote Matters

This state is still "America's America." Two lessons the country can learn, as it waits for the votes to come in.

Hiram Johnson, the 23rd governor of California, was the architect of the recall-election process that Gavin Newsom, the 40th governor, is facing today. This portrait by Edward Penfield originally ran as a Collier’s magazine cover in 1917. Image from Cabinet of American Illustration, Library of Congress.

Before the returns come in from today’s recall effort against Gavin Newsom in California, here are two ways the vote already matters.

These are implications beyond the important-by-definition consequences of whatever happens in the nation’s most populous and most economically productive state. These are also beyond the media focus on any high-profile Democratic-vs-Republican showdown anywhere these days.

In both instances, I am thinking of California’s long-standing if imperfect function as indicator of future national trends. In different ways they involve the structure of California’s governance and the nature of its society—and the resemblances of both to the national situation.


1. The curse of good fortune

Australia enjoys calling itself the “lucky country”. As with most things in Australia, the term has a sardonic edge.

For countless reasons, and despite their curses and failures, the “lucky” category applies non-sardonically to the United States as a whole, and to its major Pacific-coast state.

The U.S. is fortunate in its location: oceans on both sides, partners/neighbors to north and south. It is fortunate in its resources; its scale; its waterways; its arable land; its capacity to absorb newcomers; and on down a very long list.

I once sat through an endless lecture on America’s positional “luck” from an instructor at the People’s Liberation Army University in Beijing. To illustrate the contrast, he showed a map of China, with all its vulnerabilities. Its landmass is mostly desert or mountain; it is ringed by countries that are historic enemies of China or are on dicey terms with it; it has more than a billion people to deal with; and so on. “You think your president has problems,” he said—it was Obama at the time. “We’d trade problems in a heartbeat.”

California is “lucky” in the same way America is. Beaches and mountains. Farms and rivers. Gold and oil. Ideal land for growing wine grapes, and marijuana plants, and everything. It even has scale. The highest point in the contiguous United States is in California, and the lowest. Only Alaska and Texas contain more acreage.

How California looked in the 1920s. I know this exact spot. If you can imagine vastly more houses and cars, this is the view I saw every day when growing up in the Boomer era. (Getty Images.)

The modern problems of California need no enumeration, from drought and fires, to homelessness and economic stratification. The point for the moment is that California and the nation share the following trait:

-only a place with so much going in its favor, could have kept on going with such a deeply flawed governmental structure.

I am talking here about the structure of government—its operating rules of the road—rather than “incompetent bureaucrats” or “crooked politicians.” Such bureaucrats and politicians are a given all around the world.

Nor am I leaning on the cliché that “people and businesses succeed despite government, not because of it.” That’s sometimes true, sometimes not—either way, it’s a different topic.

I’m saying that the American—and Californian—problem is the rules by which the government works. In both cases, idealistic-sounding structures from another era have adjusted badly to current times, and penalize the society as a whole.

As a recap on the national level:

  • A three-branch governing system was based on the idea that each branch would be an institutional check on the others. For instance, Congress would, in theory, jealously guard its powers to declare war, against executive-branch overreach. Now the three branches are just three different arenas for the same partisan battle. Mitch McConnell might as well sit on the Supreme Court. The emerging U.S. system has all of the drawbacks of parliamentary governance—iron discipline by party—with none of the advantages.

  • Gerrymandering was seen as a defect in the early days of the Republic. Now it’s just one more partisan tool.

  • Built-in gerrymandering, in the form of the Senate, has reached a scale the practical-minded Founders would never have countenanced. When the U.S. Senate was created, there was a “mere” 10-to-1 population difference between the most and least populous states (Virginia and Delaware). Now it’s roughly 70-to-1 (California and Wyoming).

  • Empowered by the filibuster, which is not mentioned in the Constitution, and weaponized by partisan discipline, the modern U.S. system enables small-population dominance on a scale that, again, pragmatists like Madison and Hamilton would not have endorsed.

  • And so on.

But the U.S. has kept bouncing back and finding its way around barriers—because of everything else in its favor. Only a country so favored could have come back so often.


As for California? Its structural problems are more recent. They were expertly laid out by Joe Mathews and Mark Paul in their 2010 book The California Crackup: How Reform Broke the State, and How We Can Fix It.

The short version of their argument is that many of the “direct-democracy” reforms that Hiram Johnson and his colleagues brought to California in the early 1900s have taken on an unintended, corrupt, chaotic-and-obstructive shape.

The three central Johnson-era reforms, as we had to memorize in grade- school civics classes, were: initiative, referendum, and recall. Citizens could bypass the legislature to get their own measures on the ballot (initiative). They could review what the legislature had passed (referendum). And they could remove elected officials (recall).

Sounds democratic! In practice, the tools mainly have been warped to serve either big-money interests, or general chaos. Or both, as with the current recall.

But—having been pushed almost to the abyss of governance by abuses of these measures—California over the past decade has found ways to deal with many of them. I say this while fully aware of the crises the state still faces. I gave some details in an Atlantic profile of Jerry Brown back during his third term.

To wrap this up: California, like America, is a fortunate but flawed enterprise, falling back on its many resources to overcome handicaps of its antiquated operating rules. California has provided some examples of how to begin changing those rules. A useful guide on how to start at the national level is here, from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

2. Majority minority

Fifty years ago, California’s population was three-quarters white. Twenty years ago, the white share was less than half. Now the Latino proportion is slightly larger than the white share, and California has become the classic “majority minority” state. (Even as the Census Bureau is avoiding those terms and, correctly, emphasizing the multiple identities people might claim.)

Here’s a recent chart from the Public Policy Institute of California. It shows that whites lost their “majority” status around 1995.

Why does this matter?

Back in the early 1980s, I remember talking with the legendary reporter and author Theodore White, about the era’s demographic trends. He was thinking of writing an Atlantic article on California as America’s first big “majority minority” state (not counting Hawaii), and what its shift to that status would mean.

I don’t think he ever wrote that article. But in his autumnal-toned late-career book in 1982, America in Search of Itself, he expressed his concern about upcoming changes in ethnic proportions and identity. In a cover story I wrote about immigration in 1983, I quoted him:

It was "noble, revolutionary—and probably the most thoughtless of the many acts of the Great Society."

Thus did Theodore White, chronicler of all that is brave and optimistic about America, assess in 1982 the thing his country had done to itself seventeen years earlier. He was not talking about the decision to increase the commitment of American ground forces to South Vietnam… Rather, this most thoughtless gesture was the Immigration and Nationality Act amendments of 1965.

The 1965 act greatly broadened America’s immigrant-influx pool. Relatively fewer from Western Europe, relatively more from everywhere else. It was an important part of the changes in U.S. ethnic identities through Censuses of the past 40 years.

This matters, in turn, because with the latest Census, the U.S. is drawing nearer the threshold California crossed a quarter-century ago: whites as less than half the population. According to the latest Census, more Americans claim more identities, but the “white alone” (non-Hispanic) category now is just over 60%, and varies strongly by state.

When the latest Census came out, various news-analysis and big-think pieces wondered about the profound change in U.S.-identity (and “racial resentment”) that the shift away from majority-white would mean.

As a white man from California, I am here to report that when the state attained that status 25 years ago, it was not so big a deal. To be clear:

-Race has always been the central axis in American culture, politics, justice, and opportunity;

-The political story of every city and state, involves racial and ethnic affinities. Irish voters in Boston. Italians (among others) in New York. Cubans in Florida. Every bloc you can think of in Chicago. And so on.

-The cultural and legal struggle for scarce opportunities, including among ethnic groups, has always been a political struggle. It shows up now in “affirmative action” battles of all kinds.

-All evidence suggests that many Californians are angry now. They’re aware, as people always are, of racial and ethnic differences.

But what they’re angry about is: Real estate costs. And homelessness. And high taxes. And fires and drought. And traffic. And crime. And infrastructure. And real estate costs again. And taxes again. And public schools. And the pandemic. And the myriad other real-world problems that demand real solutions

Race, class, gender, religion, ethnicity—these are eternal elements in American politics. But the magical “majority-minority” threshold? My reading of California’s experience is: people took it in stride. As I believe the whole country will.

Now, let’s watch for the results.