Californians Push Back at Progressive Dogma

California voters are more complicated than their left-wing stereotype. And not nearly as radical as the progressives they elect to public office.

True, Joseph Biden thumped President Donald Trump two to one, garnering the single largest cache of electoral college votes. Democrats control everything in the state capital of Sacramento and overwhelmingly dominate the congressional caucus. Thanks to the state’s nonpartisan, top-two primary system — colloquially known as the “jungle primary” — some California voters even face general election choices between two Democrats. Ronald Reagan’s former home is now a safely Democratic, one-party state.

But Democratic dominance doesn’t mean that Californians endorse the hopes and dreams of the cultural and economic left. Results of Tuesday’s many state ballot initiatives provide a  more centrist picture.

Candidates bundle policies, personalities and social identities into an all-or-nothing choice. If you unbundle those characteristics, separating out individual policies, you find California voters departing from the dogmas of progressive Twitter. They pick and choose, sometimes veering left, sometimes right, and often voting to preserve the institutional status quo.

Take criminal justice, where public sympathies have been trending away from the state’s previous tough-on-crime policies. Californians voted in favor of restoring parolees’ right to vote. They declined to upgrade certain types of theft to felonies or to classify more felonies as violent and subject to stricter parole rules.

But they also voted against eliminating cash bail, a major goal of progressive reformers. Voters may sympathize with poor defendants, but they’re reluctant to trade a well-understood system for vague bureaucratic promises of risk assessment.

Nor do they rush to adopt new economic regulations. For the second time in as many years, Californians said no to an initiative to expand rent control. They nixed a union-backed measure to add regulations to dialysis clinics. And, after the most expensive initiative campaign in the state’s history, voters restored the right of app-based delivery and ride-sharing companies to classify drivers as independent contractors.

The measure, known as Proposition 22, carves out an industry-specific exception to a state law forcing companies to treat contractors as employees if their work is part of the company’s usual business. Aimed primarily at ride-sharing and delivery services, the law easily passed the legislature, receiving little media scrutiny before adoption. Although sold as helping them, it’s loathed by many freelancers, including this one. It particularly upset performing artists, from studio musicians to burlesque dancers. The measure no sooner passed than contractors started lobbying to escape its loving embrace.

Prop. 22 adds to the law’s ever-growing hodgepodge of exemptions, which includes graphic designers, estheticians and grant writers. (Writers and photographers get 35 submissions a year to the same client before they have to become employees.) This time, however, the new exemptions were the main point of the legislation. Backed by Uber, Lyft, Doordash, Instacart and Postmates, Prop. 22 was opposed primarily by labor unions.

You don’t have to vote Republican, it seems, to like ride-sharing and delivery services, or to be comfortable with self-employment. California was a gig-oriented state long before Uber arrived. The question now is whether the legislature will get the message and restore the traditional definition of independent contractor.

Bucking the deregulatory trend, however, Californians also passed a measure restricting online data collection. Long, complicated and little discussed, Proposition 24’s success undercuts the presumption that people will vote against an initiative if its provisions or effects aren’t clear. Declining to either endorse or oppose it, the Electronic Frontier Foundation infelicitously called it “a mixed bag of partial steps backwards and forwards.” The tech industry sat this one out, suggesting that companies think they can work around it.

The biggest break with the progressive party line came on the cultural front. Given popular support for Black Lives Matter protests, legislators assumed that now was the time to get Californians to legalize race-conscious affirmative action. In 1996, voters passed Proposition 209, which added a provision to the state constitution forbidding state and local governments to “discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin.” The powers that be have never liked the restriction, especially as applied to state universities. An initiative to reverse it easily passed the legislature to gain a spot on this year’s ballot.

The repeal measure, known as Proposition 16, enjoyed support from Democratic elected officials, the University of California Regents, major newspapers, unions, professional sports teams and prominent corporations, including the technology giants who stayed quiet on Prop. 24. The campaign raised almost $20 million — nearly 20 times the opposition’s budget.

But Prop. 16 consistently ran behind in the polls. Pre-election surveys showed independents soundly rejecting it, despite their general support for Democratic candidates. Contrary to expectations, it trailed nearly as far behind among Latinos as whites. Rebuking both the establishment and woke culture warriors, voters reaffirmed the existing race-neutral policy.

Two significant initiatives still remain too close to call. Both revise different aspects of the limits on property-tax increases dating back to 1978’s historic Proposition 13. That they still remain undecided calls into question the idea that Democratic voters are eager to tax the rich.

Proposition 19 attempts to remedy two perverse effects of Prop. 13 and subsequent property-tax limits. The first provision is aimed at empty nesters who feel locked into homes with low tax assessments. By letting people over 55 take their current assessments with them anywhere in the state, it would encourage them to sell and move, freeing up housing for younger families. If the new house costs more than the old one, its assessment adds the difference in price to the old assessment. The proposition trades a tax benefit for the promise of a more functional housing market.

It also tightens an outrageous loophole created by initiatives that followed Prop. 13. These measures let people bequeath homes to children and grandchildren without a step-up in assessed value, creating a low-tax landed aristocracy. If Prop. 19 passes, Californians will still be able to leave a low-tax house to their kids, but they’ll only get the tax break if they live in it. No more renting out a “stunning Malibu dream” for $15,995 a month while paying $5,700 a year in property taxes, as the Los Angeles Times reported actor Lloyd Bridges’s children do with the house they inherited. Neither left nor right, Prop. 19 takes a pragmatic approach to policy-making, seeking marginal improvements in the status quo.

Proposition 15 is more sweeping. It would remove many commercial and industrial properties from Prop. 13 caps, bringing their assessments to current market value rather than the purchase price plus a 2 percent annual increase. With support from just about every major Democratic figure, including the presidential ticket, you might expect it to be a slam dunk. But the vote count remains steadily against it.

Although they reliably vote for Democrats, Californians remain more cautious about taxes, labor regulation and identity politics than the people they elect.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Virginia Postrel is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. She was the editor of Reason magazine and a columnist for the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, the New York Times and Forbes. Her next book, "The Fabric of Civilization: How Textiles Made the World," will be published in November.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

BQ Install

Bloomberg Quint

Add BloombergQuint App to Home screen.