Sorry, Mr. Obama. Unity Is Not Coming, and One Side Has To Win

One side has to win, and California has already shown the way forward.

Former president Obama is to be admired for many reasons. Among them is his relentless optimism and willingness to see good in others. He’s as close to a Luke Skywalker archetype as we are likely to see in modern politics (mercifully ignoring the last entry in that saga), and his infectious goodwill and happy warrior attitude helped carry him to two mostly successful terms as president. The idea that we are, in his formulation, not a liberal and a conservative America but a United States of America has been his central guiding belief, a lodestone to which he returned again and again in an attempt to create the most effective policies he could with the hand he was dealt. He has maintained this enthusiasm throughout his life and career, despite some of the most vicious rhetorical attacks ever to greet an American politician in the modern era.

He has kept to this theme into his post-presidency, albeit less as a matter of enduring faith than as a warning. Most recently he told a tech conference in Las Vegas that American democracy will not survive in its current state of division:

The challenge Americans face today is “how do we maintain that sense of common purpose, our ‘in it together,’ as opposed to splintering and dividing? As we are seeing in some debates in social media and elsewhere, it’s harder to do today. But I think it becomes more necessary than ever, because if we don’t figure it out, not only will it be hard for our economy to survive but it is going to be hard for our democracy to survive…”

“Right now part of our polarization is that if you watch Fox News all day, or you read the New York Times, you are occupying two different realities. We have to be able to figure out, in this multiplicity of platforms, to have some common baseline of facts that allow us to meet and solve problems,” he said.

If the future truly depends on Fox News viewers and Breitbart readers agreeing on a baseline of facts similar to that of New York Times readers, then we are headed for dark times indeed. But is it accurate?

I don’t think it is. There is no reason to believe that the conservative media ratchet effect will be mitigated, or that social media siloing will be reversed in the short term. But that doesn’t mean all is lost–and there is a real world example to indicate that a divided future can also be a successful one for the country.

As tech media guru Peter Leyden wrote, the answer lies in California. The California experience is a window into what America could easily become in the next one or two decades even without a political rapprochement in America’s increasingly hardened divide.

California was the home of Ronald Reagan, and during the entire 1990s when America was helmed by Bill Clinton California was governed by hard-right anti-immigrant politician Pete Wilson. Wilson’s most famous political move was the promotion and passage of Proposition 187, which denied most social services to undocumented immigrants. The same white backlash that America is facing today under Donald Trump, California faced in equal measure before the turn of the new millennium.

But it was even worse. Due to Proposition 13, California required–and still requires–a two-thirds majority to raise taxes and (until recently) to pass a budget. So not only was California in the grips of an anti-Latinx racist backlash, even a crumpled minority of Republican legislators in Sacramento could hamstring the entire state and grind its workings to a halt. These facts brought the state to multiple fiscal crises, ensuring destabilization, polarization and populist groundswells, including the recall of Governor Gray Davis and the election of Arnold Schwarzenegger. If California had been the nation as a whole, pundits would have said that the end of democracy was nigh.

But then something interesting happened. Slowly but surely, a combination of cultural and demographic changes weakened Republicans’ structural advantages and ability to obstruct reasonable policy. In November 2008, California voters narrowly passed Proposition 11, replacing partisan gerrymandering with a non-partisan redistricting commission. Suddenly Democrats (unwillingly at first!) had the opportunity to win in a large number of newly competitive districts, at the expense of making a number of their own seats somewhat less safe. Seemingly all-powerful conservative AM radio personalities became more like niche buffoons than kingmakers.

Fast forward to 2018, and California has no Republican statewide office-holders. Democrats control two-thirds of the legislature and every statewide office. The Republican Party now has fewer registered voters to its name than the number of independent “no party preference” voters. It is, in essence, a third party. The key policy arguments in the state are not between Republicans and Democrats, but rather between the center-left and the progressive left. The Golden State has risen to the 5th largest economy in the world, runs budget surpluses, and its biggest policy problem is that it’s so desirable to live here that housing is far too expensive and in too short supply.

Despite all of this, the Republican Party in California has not moderated an inch. Republicans in California love Trump almost as much as they do anywhere else, and consume Fox News all the same. It’s just that they’re an irrelevant minority of holdouts in a state that has culturally and demographically simply left them behind.

It will take time, but the same thing can and will happen state by state all across the country. The Trump Republicans won’t moderate any more than the Pete Wilson ones did. Liberal and conservative California didn’t meet in the middle and operate on common ground and common facts. Liberals simply won the day over time.

Much as Mr. Obama’s desire for ideological unification is to be admired, it’s unrealistic and unnecessary. One side has to win, and California has already shown the way forward.

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.