California’s ‘four-party’ system

Participants at a May 2016 rally for Donald Trump in Anaheim. (Photo: mikeledray, via Shutterstock)

For more than 165 years, political battles in California have played out almost entirely within the framework of a two-party system. There are signs that may be changing.

Differing ideologies within each party are competing for money, supporters and attention.  Out of it all, four major, distinct political tribes seem to be emerging:

Establishment or “moderate” Republicans, personified most recently by former Assembly Republican Caucus Leader Chad Mayes, who worked across the aisle with Democrats to help extend Democrat Jerry Brown’s beloved cap-and-trade program to 2030.  For doing that, Assembly GOP Leader Chad Mayes lost his job.  Most significant exponent of moderate Republicanism lately: Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Hard-right Republicans; Here are some examples: the California Alliance to Protect Private Property rights gave Republican gubernatorial hopeful Travis Allen a 100 percent rating based on his Assembly voting record.  Mayes also got 100 percent, although the rating didn’t seem to do him much good. The upcoming state Republican convention will feature anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist; Judge Jeanine Pirro of Fox News and conservative economist Stephen Moore of the Heritage Foundation, along with up-and-coming conservative firebrand Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas.

Establishment Democrats, personified by U.S. Sen Dianne Feinstein and Gov. Jerry Brown, along with the “moderate” or more pro-business wing of legislative Democrats.  Two illustrations: Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon shelved a bill aimed at establishing single-payer health care in California, angering the liberal wing of the party. Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de Leon, a Democrat, issued a statement praising Republican Mayes for “his common-sense leadership and service as Assembly Republican Leader.” The establishment Democrats include the “moderate” or business-friendly Democrats.

“Progressives” or “Berniecrats”: the more liberal Democrats in California, rallying behind the positions advocated by Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.  Single-payer health care in California is at the moment their principal issue, along with immigration reform. They are the state’s most vocal opponents of Donald Trump. The website of “Berniecrats of California” declares its mission to be: “Promote and elect Bernie Sanders Progressives into local and statewide office in California.”

Is this splintering permanent? To what extent is the rise of Trump a factor in next year’s California elections? Or the role of Bernie Sanders?

“I don’t know that all of Trump’s voters are hard-right Republicans,” said veteran political strategist Andrew Acosta. “They are obviously disgruntled. But we saw that in a lot of voters with Ross Perot. I don’t think they ever disappeared. They just don’t have an outlet in every election cycle.”

Unhappy Democrats faced similar dynamic, with Sanders attracting voters from the left wing of the party.

One common thread: Those from the right and left are not concerned about their impact on the parties’  mainstream. “I don’t think that weakening the party structure is part of their calculus. I don’t think they care,” he said.

Fierce divisions among politicians of the same party isn’t just a California phenomenon.

In Washington, one-third of Democratic senators, including California’s Kamela Harris, support Sanders’s just-introduced “Medicare for All” bill, and 60 percent of Democratic House members are aboard. Sen. Dianne Feinstein is not among its supporters, and neither is Nancy Pelosi, who said Medicare for All should not be used as a “litmus test” for Democratic bona fides.

To be sure, splintering among established political parties has a long history.

South Carolina Gov. Strom Thurmond’s Dixiecrats walked out of the Democratic Party in 1948, unhappy over the party’s support for civil rights, and nominated Thurmond for president.  (Thurmond received 39 Electoral College votes.) In 1912, Teddy Roosevelt, disgusted by his erstwhile friend William Howard Taft’s presidency, formed the Bull Moose Party and made an unsuccessful bid to return to the White House. (Roosevelt received 88 Electoral College votes, finishing second to Democrat Woodrow Wilson.)

In California, nearly all of California’s governors have been Republicans or Democrats. The two exceptions: Gov. J. Neely Johnson, 1856-1858, who was an American Party member (a group known as the “Know Nothings”),  and Hiram Johnson, 1911-1917, who was a Progressive. There also have been several minor parties over the years — Peace & Freedom, Green, Natural Law, Libertarian and American Independent, among others.

State Democratic Chairman Eric C. Bauman, who narrowly won the election as party chair this year by a razor-thin margin, was philosophical about the new and opposing currents swirling through the party he heads.

It’s happened before, over and over again, Bauman contends. New activists came in with Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, and the pattern is being repeated, he said. “Bernie enlivened and awakened people who became active and involved and believe the ‘Party of the People’ should be more left-leaning.

“What you’re seeing are new Democratic activists who believe young people should not be saddled with overwhelming college debt, who believe we should not be at war, and who believe there should be health care for all,” Bauman added. “We go through these times of activism.  They help re-focus our agency; for the most part, it’s a good thing.”

Bauman applauded Mayes’s work across the aisle — “What Chad Mayes did used to be considered part of what politics was about.”

Mayes himself believes there are five, not four, “tribes” emerging in California politics:

1. “Fanatics” among Republicans

2. “Fanatics” among Democrats

3. “Governing” Republicans who are trying to find solutions

4. “Governing” Democrats who are also trying to find solutions

5. Independents

“We’re at a place in our politics today where the parties are defined by the extremes – on policy they each have their own dogma,” Mayes said in a telephone interview. “There seems to be a deep level of contempt for people who don’t think like they do. Across the country and here in California, the majority of people want us to work toward solutions – but there hasn’t been a lot of that.”

Repeated telephone calls to Republican Party headquarters were not returned.

Earlier in the year, newly reelected party chair Jim Brulte told state GOP convention delegates that “I don’t know about you. But Donald Trump’s just rockin’ my socks.”

Brulte isn’t alone, at least among many Republicans.

California is solidly Democratic — all its statewide office holders are Democrats and both houses of the Legislature have Democratic supermajorities — but many California Republicans who supported Trump in the general election still do, seeing in him a bulwark against costly government welfare programs and unregulated immigration, among other issues of high concern to the conservative base.

“I’m sorry you have nine kids,” said Roy Wright, a Tule Lake farmer and Trump supporter, summing up his sense that America has moved in the wrong direction, “but I don’t owe you a house. I think Trump is taking a lot away from these handout programs.” His comments were reported by veteran journalist Susan Sward in the Sacramento Bee.

Sward had gone on a road trip with her husband, and along the way she asked people why they liked Trump. She wrote up her responses in a Perspectives piece for the newspaper. The trip offered “a sobering education, and one that I am still waiting for the media to convey effectively.”

“Again and again, I found the hold that Trump has on his people to be enduring,” Sward wrote. “It is not a bond torn asunder when he makes impolitic Twitter remarks or backs away from campaign pledges. Finally, his supporters told me, they have a president fighting for them.”

In a comment about his Democrats that in an optimistic world might be applied to either party, Bauman said:

“To be sure, the progressive and moderate wings have many things they agree on, and many things they do not agree on, but at the end of the day, they come together – they find the sweet spot.”

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