A shortened version of this post appeared on the CNP website under the headline “Why Rural California Votes Red, and Why We Should Listen“
Like many Californians who grew up here, I have always considered myself a Californian more than an American. In my 20’s I spent years travelling back and forth across the United States as part of various environmental and social justice campaigns and that feeling only deepened. When outside the US I always tell people who ask that I am a Californian* when they ask my nationality. My daughter is a ninth generation Californian and there is nowhere else in North America I would even consider living. As I have said for years – long before becoming involved in the independence movement – I am a Californian by birth, culture, and inclination and an American because they conquered us. As you might expect, identifying as a Californian first has an impact on how I view American politics.
A tremendous amount of ink has been spilled about the recent American elections. As tempting as it is to rant about everything the Democrats did wrong along the way, I’ll save that rant for another day. Instead, I want to talk a bit about why Californians voted the way they did and what that means for our future.
At the end of the day, two thirds of California’s voters checked the box for Clinton – some enthusiastically and some less so. Of course there were four American parties in the race, but because America uses an utterly broken “first past the post” voting system instead of the proportional representation that most democracies use, everyone knew from jump that only the Democrat and Republican had a chance of winning. Being forced to choose a lesser evil is a fundamental part of the American political system, and is the not-so-secret ingredient that allows American politicians to continue to claim a democratic mandate even while overwhelmingly pursuing policies that the majority of Americans oppose.
Even so, Clinton’s landslide win in California is noteworthy. Californians – more than any of the other subjects of the American empire – overwhelmingly decided Donald Trump was the greater evil and even normally conservative areas like Orange County voted against him.
Like previous elections, this one came down to urban vs rural. Rural Californians, rightly disgusted at the way they have been ignored and betrayed by Democrats in Sacramento and Washington DC both, overwhelmingly opted to come out and vote for someone who portrayed himself as an outsider who would listen to them. The fact that millions of people who knew their votes would make no difference came out to vote against the Democrat speaks volumes to the levels of dissatisfaction. We need to firmly denounce the condescending attitude that so many Democrats have towards rural voters and recognize that there are real issues here that need to be addressed.
From my own conversations with Californian Trump voters, some were undeniably driven by racism – there is a shrinking but still significant segment of our population that regard immigrants from the Spanish-speaking countries to our south as invaders. It would be a mistake to underestimate organized racists over the coming years now that they have sponsorship from the white house. These folks have no place in California and all we can do is oppose them. There is a much larger group, however, that voted for him as a vote of no confidence in the Democratic party. Many of their complaints are legitimate and worth addressing.
So what are the issues?
Like most things, it comes down to economics. California’s rural areas have been hit over and over again. While California has strict regulation on private lands, federally owned lands (with 20 million acres of National Forest the federal government is by far the biggest landowner) are managed according to federal standards. Up until 1990 that meant clearcutting and replacing forests with monoculture tree plantations that are particularly susceptible to wildfire and beetles, provide very limited habitat, and experience massive soil erosion while the newly planted trees are small. That eroded soil ends up in the rivers, destroying fisheries. This has been absolutely devastating to our fishing industry and destroyed the river ecosystems where Salmon spawn. Faced with collapsing fisheries and the inability of the State to regulate logging on federal land, Sacramento responded by shutting down much of the remaining fishing. Diverting water from the rivers to feed farms has been the final nail in the coffin for many river ecosystems and means that 27 years later most of our fisheries have never recovered.
Here’s the thing, a competent government could have prevented this mess by adopting appropriate regulation up front. There’s no rule that says logging has to destroy rivers and fisheries. The peculiarly American habit of failing to regulate until permanent damage has been done and then writing legislation that passes the buck to future generations instead of addressing the root issue is in full effect here. Turning over federal lands to California (as we call for in the CNP platform) and adopting sustainable logging practices would safeguard our forests and rivers while maintaining jobs over the long term. Instead, short-sighted officials in DC and Sacramento made a mess of things and left rural Californians holding the bag.
For farmers, the picture isn’t much better. Soaring water costs driven by protracted droughts have put tremendous pressure on farmers and led to an almost annual fight over whether we should divert ever-growing amounts of water from the rivers. Doing so would be, at most, a temporary solution for our farms but it’s hard to convince someone whose farm is teetering on the edge of solvency that fish are more important than their ability to feed their kids – even if the survival of those fish is critical to someone else ability to do the same.
There are so many missed opportunities here – interest-free loans for farmers who want to upgrade to drip irrigation and other technologies that could save billions of gallons of water and save billions of dollars in costs for farmers if adopted across California’s vast farmlands. Our climate has changed, but we are resourceful and can adapt! Conservation can take us a long way if we’re willing to make the upfront investment.
There are many other potential solutions to add additional water supply as well, from atmospheric dehumidifiers to desalination to just plain fixing the corroded network of pipes that move water around the state and lose millions of gallons a year. This is just the tip of the iceberg, from poorly maintained roads to unreliable power, hospital closures, under-funded schools, and more; rural Californians often get the short end of the stick. Democrats do nothing to address these issues because the rural communities that would benefit don’t vote for Democrats and they are incapable of seeing beyond their own partisan interest. Meanwhile Republicans would rather pretend that the problem is environmentalists and out of touch urban voters because casting blame is cheaper than actually investing in California’s future. Neither American party has any solutions to offer – even though the solutions are obvious, uncontroversial, and would be supported by the vast majority of Californians.
There are a host of other issues that divide rural and urban Californians – gun rights being a common one that people ask us about on social media. California’s overly-centralized government means that people in rural and urban areas have the same gun laws even though the needs and values of urban and rural areas are radically different. There is no good reason why that should be the case.
Here’s the thing, voting for Trump didn’t solve any of these issues. It didn’t add a single drop of water, or save a single farm. “Opening up the water”, as he proposed in one of his campaign speeches, would only have a marginal impact on the water available to farmers and would guarantee that our fisheries never recover. If Trump follows through on his plans to deport undocumented Californians the farmers that voted for them are going to struggle to find people to pick their crops. For the farmers who grow California’s most valuable cash crop, Trump’s Attorney General’s promised crusade against legal marijuana promises to destroy the network of legal dispensaries that many rely on to get their crops to market. While Trump’s proposals to open up logging and offshore oil drilling might create some jobs in the short term, clearcut forests do not provide long-term jobs and the global economy is moving away from petroleum. So when you look at actions, Trump’s agenda does very little to help rural Californians and a lot to harm them.
Rural California – and rural America – goes red because the Democrats have failed to speak for them or represent their interests and voting for Republicans is the only protest available. If progressives want to win them over, we need to avoid making the same mistakes.
So what about urban California?
California is, in many ways, the vision of America that we all read about in our high school social studies classes but that America has never actually been. We’ve all heard of the melting pot but I’m always struck when I leave California by how little melting seems to actually happen. In contrast, the suburban bay area town where I grew up had more than 70 languages being spoken on a daily basis. We are a nation defined, more than anything, by our inclusiveness. While huge numbers of Americans spent the last 8 years obsessed with the idea that the president was secretly a Muslim, the vast majority of Californians know that – here at least – it doesn’t matter whether you’re an Atheist, Christian, Sikh, Hindu, Muslim, Jain, Buddhist, or any of a hundred other faiths and belief systems. For urban California, where latinos outnumber white voters and where diversity is the norm, Trump’s call for mass deportations and banning muslims were met with disgust. Most Californians know that muslims are more likely to be doctors or engineers than terrorists and we are outraged at proposals to build walls and deport our neighbors. Our dominant urban industries are based on trade – from computers to aerospace to entertainment – and the prospect of trade wars with China and other trading partners is obvious bad news. Trumps talk of “closing up the internet” just adds insult to industry.
As a whole, California rejected Trump more than 2 to 1 and we are largely responsible for Clinton’s narrow victory in the popular vote. Unfortunately for us, we get less than one third the representation per person in the electoral college that people in states like Wyoming get. That’s one reason why California’s electoral college votes haven’t determined the results of an American presidential election since 1870 – the list of US presidents since then would look exactly the same without us. We’re also radically underrepresented in the Senate, the result of a compromise made in very different circumstances over two centuries ago and a continent away. We’re even under-represented in the ironically named House of Representatives. Is it any wonder our needs are ignored over and over again?
And so here we are, the 35th largest nation in the world and 5th biggest economy; subject to the whims of a president we overwhelmingly rejected and who is actively hostile to our interests. Make no mistake, a Trump presidency is an assault on our core values of decency and compassion, as well as the civil rights of millions of Californians. As Governor Brown pointed out not so long ago, our peers are nations like France and Canada, not wretched backwaters like Mississippi and Alabama. The closest thing we have to a peer within the United States is Texas, and even they have only a fraction of our population or economy. So why should we continue to let them impose actively hostile governments upon us? Why do we waste our wealth subsidizing their crops and paying for military adventurism we opposed when our own nation is in such dire need?
It’s time for a new approach. We need to leave America’s hyper-partisan divide behind and instead start investing in California and in a better future for all Californians, urban and rural alike.
* Unlike many, I never say “native Californian” – as a student of history I know that native Californians were ruthlessly slaughtered by Spanish, Mexican, and then American conquerors and have survived centuries of cultural and physical genocide to preserve and defend their cultures. I am not Ohlone. My family has been here a very long time, but I am descended from Immigrants.