California Is Still America’s Most Republican State

Since 1850, GOP Politicians Have Shaped What Has Become a Democratic Stronghold 

California Is Still America’s Most Republican State | Zocalo Public Square • Arizona State University • Smithsonian

Republican Hiram Johnson, pictured here in 1931, served as California’s governor and later as a U.S. senator. He supported women’s suffrage and established California as a leader in environmental conservation. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Did Leonardo da Vinci spray graffiti all over the Mona Lisa? Did Alfred Hitchcock destroy the original print of Vertigo?

Of course not. So why are Republicans waging war against California, their party’s greatest masterpiece?

For all the raging rhetoric against our state as a failing Democratic bastion, the larger, historical truth is exactly the opposite: Modern California is, in almost all respects, the creation of Republicans. Even in the 21st century, when Democrats hold almost every significant elected office, the structures of this place remain fundamentally Republican.

The state of California and the Republican Party were born at the same time and grew up together. Both the party and state were forged by the same man, John C. Frémont, who in 1846 as a U.S. Army captain declared a republic in California, then part of Mexico. Frémont became one of California’s first U.S. senators in 1850, and then, in 1856, he was the first Republican presidential nominee, losing in the general election to James Buchanan. Frémont was a risk-taking explorer popularly known as the Pathfinder, and his volatile personality—including a talent for controversy and insubordination—still define both his state and his party.

But Frémont’s impact pales in comparison to that of Leland Stanford, our first Republican governor, elected in 1861. Employing money and power in scandalous fashion at unsurpassed scale, Stanford linked California to the country with his railroads, and gave us our greatest private university. In the process, as journalist and historian Roland De Wolk writes in the new biography American Disruptor, Stanford established the template for the innovative, paranoid, confoundingly corrupt, (if public-spirited) California oligarch that is embodied by Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk today.

To be fair, Republicans in California did not merely pioneer corruption: they also found new ways to counter it. In the early 20th century, Republicans—most notably the popular governor (and later U.S. Senator) Hiram Johnson—backed women’s suffrage and established the initiative and referendum process that still dominates California governance. Johnson, who briefly left the party to run as Teddy Roosevelt’s vice president on the 1912 Bull Moose ticket, also oversaw the first steps in making California a leader in environmental conservation.

The state of California and the Republican Party were born at the same time and grew up together.

Under Progressive Republicans, the state adopted a professional and corporatized system of government, including a series of independent commissions, such as the Public Utilities Commission, that still hold sway over California life. These commissions were designed not just to assure free enterprise but to prevent immigrants and racial and ethnic minorities from winning the sort of political power they had achieved in patronage-fueled Democratic bastions back East.

Between 1899 and 1958, California had just one Democratic governor—the ineffective, one-term atheist Culbert Olson. So even as the Depression and Second World War built up an American welfare state, California largely skipped the New Deal and remained an ungenerous, if wide-open, place. When Republicans spent money, they preferred to devote the dollars to institutions. Governor Earl Warren, easily the most distinguished California Republican of all time, made plans and saved money for expansion of our universities, roads and water systems—with a subsequent assist from a rare Democrat, Pat Brown, who supervised much of the actual building and spending.

Warren, as chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, went on to impose a California Republicanism on the country: a commitment to civil rights—in law if not in practice—and protection for powerful government agencies and corporations, especially those engaged in national defense. The Warren Court left alone the Golden State defense contractors who established the manufacturing base that turned L.A. into a global city, and also nurtured the companies that birthed Silicon Valley.

California Is Still America’s Most Republican State | Zocalo Public Square • Arizona State University • Smithsonian

California Governor Earl Warren with a small boy dressed as a prospector, likely taken during the Gold Rush centennial celebration. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The cheerleaders for this growth were the two most important Republican politicians of the second half of the 20th century.

California-born Richard Nixon advanced the race-baiting, conspiracy-minded politics that now define our civic lives. But, in the wake of a giant 1969 oil spill off Santa Barbara, he proved a historic champion for environmental protection, establishing the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

As governor, Ronald Reagan set up California’s smog-fighting Air Resources Board while legalizing abortion (which many progressive Democrats opposed at the time). He also embraced the forces that still shape our economy and culture: free trade and immigration. As president, his 1986 amnesty bill established an orderly path for integrating undocumented citizens—the sort of legalization to which California’s business and political leaders still aspire today.

Most profoundly, Reagan inspired the tax revolt, best represented by the Republican-backed 1978 ballot initiative Proposition 13. Even as Democratic politicians have come to win more elections, Prop 13 and its tax limits remain the foundation of California governance. Today’s Democrats have been unwilling to uproot Prop 13—instead, they build new structures upon it. It is California’s Prop 13-based operation system that keeps California school funding at levels closer to those of conservative Republican bastions like Alabama and Mississippi than to those of liberal states like Massachusetts and Minnesota.

More recent Republicans governors have also left their marks. Pete Wilson created much of today’s structure for health and children’s programs in the state (though he is better remembered for fanning the anti-immigrant politics that helped end a century of GOP political dominance). And Arnold Schwarzenegger established the climate change regime—based on the Republican idea of a cap-and-trade system—that stands at the heart of California policymaking today.

Yes, Democrats have now ruled Sacramento for nearly a decade. But, remarkably, they have been willing to accept—and in some cases celebrate—the historic, and very Republican, California consensus. Jerry Brown, on fiscal matters, was more hostile to spending than his conservative predecessors. State leaders have let California tech firms grow as powerful as they like, while resisting bold actions to tackle California’s poverty and inequality, which persist at levels antithetical to Democratic talking points. And while Gavin Newsom has vowed to transform the state, he’s so far governed as a fiscal steward and portrayed himself primarily as a father in a family tableau so white-bread it would make country club members blush.

But now, in the face of all this Republican history and Republican reality, Trump’s Republicans look in the California mirror and somehow see the enemy. And so they make war against all of our Republican-ness—our direct democracy, our commitment to environment and health, our technological supremacy, our love of immigration and free trade, our tradition of independent governance and regulation. Nixon and Reagan, those great California anti-communists, spin in their graves as the president asks for election help from the Chinese Communist Party, and writes love notes to the dictator in Pyongyang.

This is an ugly war that today’s national Republicans now wage against us. Let’s pray the party considers history and retreats from this dark turn. Because you can’t win a war that you fight against yourself.


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