Political Commentary: The National Implications of California’s Progressive Vanguard: With Great Power, Comes Great Responsibility
With Great Power, Comes Great Responsibility

Connor Ferguson

Progressivism is alive and well in California, and in many ways, the state is leading the charge for the movement in the rest of the country. On a recent episode of his show and in an expanded follow-up editorial for The Huffington Post, Bill Maher, the often whiny (but usually on-the-money) liberal’s liberal, described the state of affairs. California has been championing a large number of progressive initiatives lately. Just in the last few months, we’ve decided to allow undocumented immigrants to get driver’s licenses, enacted legislation to curb gun violence, and embraced the Affordable Care Act as cheerfully as Governor Romney-era Massachusetts. California is free from any substantial influence by the Tea Party, and in 2010, we elected a pro-government governor, knowing full-well that he planned to raise taxes and cut spending in order to reverse the $27 billion deficit left by his muscle-bound predecessor. And guess what—it worked. A little over two years later, the California economy is going strong again.

If you live outside of California, though, this is more than just interesting trivia. This trend matters on a national level because California is an enormous state however you look at it—geographically, demographically, economically. Maher points out that when Californians demanded more fuel-efficient cars, Detroit had to give us more fuel-efficient cars. As the most populous state in the union by a difference of more than 10 million people and home to significant portions of the entertainment, tech, and agricultural industries, California’s influence will eventually pull the rest of the country along in whatever direction we’re headed—kicking and screaming, if necessary.

But while all of Maher's points are correct, it is misleading to refer to “California” as a single-minded unit. In reality, there are many distinct Californias. It’s more accurate to talk about an income chasm than an income gap in this state, and while the strip of wealthy progressives crammed up against the coastline manages to turn the state reliably blue come presidential elections, many less populous counties in the inner part of the state are known to light up red. Culturally and ethnically, California is one of the most diverse states in the country. There are very few generalizations that could be made which would hold true for the majority of the state.

Progressive initiatives—especially agricultural and environmental ones—come with a price tag. An adherence to progressivism is essentially a value judgment, making the decision that, yes, these policies are worth the cost. For the wealthy, coastal elite that dominates the state’s population, this is an easy decision to make. Progressivism is de rigueur here in image-conscious California, and even when undertaken with the noblest of intentions, supporting GMO labeling or carbon monitoring is just as much of a status symbol as buying an expensive car or a house with a spectacular view in the Hollywood Hills.

But for the vast number of Californians struggling to get by in the land of soaring property values, it might be a slightly different story. While the inhabitants of this California may understand the importance of carbon monitoring, for example, they might not choose to prioritize it over the manufacturing and blue collar jobs that green legislation is steadily driving out of the state.

The international spread of the Occupy movement over the past two years shows that income inequality is a topic that isn’t going away, and California ought to use its powerful position of influence to set an example by prioritizing this issue within the state. Senators Feinstein and Boxer have both addressed income inequality, but the message has to come from the people of California to make a difference. As Maher pointed out, it is our sheer numbers that give the state such national pull. Californians—and by this I mean the wealthy, coastal progressives with the clout and buying power to help dictate the direction of state policies—need to respect (and accept) this tremendous responsibility.

I’m not arguing for or against any specific policies in this case, only calling attention to the fact that progressivism for progressivism’s sake is not always the right course of action. Liberal Californians need to understand that our state politics are not just about us. The eyes of the nation are fixed on the precedents we set, as evidenced by issues like the debate over Proposition 8, which sought to eliminate the right of same-sex couples to marry and was taken all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Let’s not get so caught up in forging ahead that we leave too many struggling to keep up.