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California: Exceptional, Green and Cheered in China

The day after President Donald Trump announced his withdrawal from the Paris climate accords California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) formed an alliance with other U.S. states to combat global warming and flew off to Beijing to discuss the issue with Chinese leaders.


Describing global warming as an “existential threat” to humanity in an interview with Politico, the 79-year-old governor said: “I’m on the side of the angels. I’m going to do everything I can, and people are going to join with me.”


Brown’s defiance of Trump and his trip to China signaled the growing intent of California to play a progressive role on the global stage. The Golden State has the economic clout to do so. California is home to nearly one in eight Americans and would be the world’s sixth largest economy if a separate nation.


Throughout its existence, California has been a land apart. The social historian Carey McWilliams traced the state’s distinctiveness to a “set of peculiar and highly exceptional dynamics” beginning with the 1849 gold rush that enabled California to win statehood a year later and burst upon the national scene. “Elsewhere the tempo of development was slow at first and gradually accelerated as energy accumulated,” McWilliams wrote in California: the Great Exception. “But in California the lights went on all at once, in a blaze, and they have never been dimmed.”


When McWilliams wrote these words in 1949, California had become a magnet for people from everywhere. By 1962, it was the nation’s most populous state.  Today California’s population is pushing 40 million, and although its growth rate has slowed it is still adding a quarter million residents every year.


California leaned Republican for most of the 20th century although much of its Republicanism was of a visionary - and moderate - variety epitomized by the iconic Earl Warren, governor from 1943 to 1953, when President Dwight Eisenhower named Warren chief justice of the United States. Warren carried the values he had learned in California onto the Supreme Court, which under his leadership issued notable rulings on civil rights and criminal justice.


Even conservative GOP governors in California were mindful of social issues and the environment. Ronald Reagan, for instance, added 145,000 acres to the state’s park system and signed into law a permissive abortion rights bill. Gov. George Deukmejian responded to a schoolyard massacre by proposing and signing into law an assault-rifle ban.


In national elections California voted for the Republican presidential nominee in every election but one from 1952 through 1988. Richard Nixon carried the state three times and Eisenhower and Reagan did it twice. Nowadays, California is reliably Democratic. George H.W. Bush in 1988 was the last Republican presidential nominee to carry California. Democrats hold every statewide office and enjoy super-majorities in both houses of the Legislature.


There are multiple reasons why California has become a Democratic bastion, starting with demographics. California is the first U.S. state in which Latinos (slightly) outnumber non-Hispanic whites. The rise of the Democrats in the last decade of the 20th century coincided with an increased influx of Latinos and Asians. This was also the decade when the aerospace industry in California imploded. Aerospace workers tended to vote Republican, unlike today’s young professionals in Silicon Valley and other high-tech communities.

Whites in California are supposedly more multi-cultural in outlook than whites elsewhere. They are certainly more Democratic. Nationally, Trump led Hillary Clinton by 20 percent among white voters. “Yet, California whites, who have plenty of experience with actual immigrants, voted against Trump by a five percentage point margin,” observed researcher Mike Males, writing in the Sacramento Bee. Males pointed out that whites in New York State, another Democratic bulwark, supported Trump by six percentage points. Whites in Texas, second to California in the number of Latino residents, favored Trump by 43 percentage points.


Another reason that California Democrats have prospered is the weakness of their opponents. Often out of step with voters on such social issues as abortion and gay rights as well as the environment, Republicans have steadily lost support and now comprise only 27 percent of the state’s registered voters. In last year’s election Clinton carried California by 4.3 million votes, enabling her to win the popular vote nationally. Excluding California, Trump was 1.4 million votes ahead.


Do Californians think too highly of their state? In California: The Great Exception, McWilliams quotes a parody by the poet Robert Frost in which a boastful Californian claims the state is so wonderful that no one there has ever died a natural death. There is much in California today that is decidedly not wonderful. Twenty percent of the nation’s homeless live in California, which suffers from an acute shortage of affordable housing. Poverty is rife. A Census Bureau table that factors in the cost of living shows California with the nation’s highest poverty rate. In Fresno, in the heart of the lush San Joaquin Valley, 40 per cent of the county’s quarter million children live in homes below the poverty line, according to Children Now, an advocacy group.


Californians are not unmindful of these problems. In March more than two-thirds of Los Angeles voters favored a measure raising the sales tax to improve services for the homeless. A bond issue to provide more affordable housing could qualify for the state’s 2018 ballot. California has been more generous than other states to unauthorized immigrants, providing them health benefits that the Affordable Care Act denies to non-citizens.


California is also going green in a big way. Two years ago state lawmakers set a goal of obtaining half of California’s electricity needs from clean sources by 2030. The state is on pace to reach that target, currently getting about 27 percent of its electricity from clean sources.


Gov. Brown, a onetime Jesuit seminarian who’s had an amazing up-and-down political career, has long been in the forefront on environmental issues. First elected governor in 1974 when he was 36 years old, Brown served two terms to mixed reviews. Critics said he was detached and unfocused; columnist Mike Royko dubbed him “Governor Moonbeam.” Brown ran for president three times without success. Voters rejected him when he sought the U.S. Senate in 1982.


In 1999 Brown began a remarkable comeback, winning the mayoralty of Oakland, a city that was losing population and heart. In eight years as mayor, Brown led an Oakland renaissance that revitalized a dilapidated downtown. He ran for governor in 2010 and was elected handily, then was reelected by an even larger margin in 2014. Now he leads a determined effort by California public officials to resist the Trump administration’s policies on immigration and climate change.


Brown’s five-day trip to China overshadowed a simultaneous visit from U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry and drew rave reviews from the host country. Brown held a glowing hour-long meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping and was hailed by Chinese scientists and the state-directed media as a welcome substitute for President Trump. Until Brown arrived China had withheld criticism of Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris accords. But after meeting with the California governor, Xie Zhenhua, lead Chinese negotiator on the Paris accords, praised Brown and said he was “deeply disappointed” by Trump’s action.


China is at once the world’s leading polluter and a prime developer of wind and solar power. It has the most wind farms on the globe. Reducing air pollution is a top priority for China since Beijing and other cities are often blanketed with smog from coal-fired power plants despite reducing coal use during the last three years, according to the Economist. The Chinese say that alternative energies will provide 13 million new jobs. California wants its share of them, as was evidenced by the presence of 30 California business leaders who accompanied Brown to China.


The day Brown returned home Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt delayed by a year federal enforcement of the ozone limits promulgated during the Obama presidency.  Ozone is a lung-burning component of smog. This action was scorned by the California Air Resources Board, which declared the state was “forging ahead with aggressive actions to reduce ozone levels, irrespective of the EPA’s delay.” So are New York and Washington states, joined in a “climate alliance” initiated by California. As of June 7, nine more states and the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico had joined them.


Once again, California has proved exceptional.