The current presidential campaign is shaping up as the nastiest and most partisan in recent memory. Like the northern pike introduced to Lake Davis in Plumas County in the early 1990s, devouring local fish, it threatens to destroy the reawakening centrist tradition of state politics at the very time we need it most.
For most of the 20th century, intense partisanship did not mark California's politics. Profoundly shaped by the Progressive era, the state's political culture, especially at its best moments, generally encouraged and rewarded reconciliation of liberal and conservative impulses across a broad and moderate center. By law, most local elections are nonpartisan. Until 1959, Republicans and Democrats could enter each other's statewide primaries. In 1946, Gov. Earl Warren, a Republican, won both his party's and Democrats' nomination for a second term.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday September 26, 2004 Home Edition Opinion Part M Page 6 Editorial Pages Desk 0 inches; 27 words Type of Material: Correction
California centrism -- An article in the Sept. 19 Opinion section said Proposition 209 "outlawed banning affirmative action." It should have said that it outlawed affirmative action.
There were times, obviously, when California's accommodationist politics broke down. During the Depression, Republicans veered to the right, and Democrats, in 1934, aligned with the visionary End Poverty in California campaign of writer-reformer Upton Sinclair, a recent defector from the Socialist Party. In 1938, the millenarian-utopian Ham and Eggs movement, promising support for every unemployed Californian older than 50, swept Democrat Culbert Olson into the governor's chair, sent liberal Sheridan Downey to the U.S. Senate and, at long last, brought the New Deal -- inspired, in part, by Sinclair's platform -- to California.
Olson lasted only one term, however. Atty. Gen. Warren defeated him in 1942, and from Warren to Goodwin Knight, also a Republican, to the end of Democrat Pat Brown's second term in 1966, Californians, by and large, governed themselves from the center. The point can be argued that even Brown's successor, conservative Republican Ronald Reagan, faced with a Democratic majority in the Legislature, did not fundamentally alter the state's long-standing political understanding. Far from it. Reagan, who had run against government, authorized the largest tax increase in California's history to sustain its New Deal-inspired social programs.
Something alien, however, was by then creeping into California politics: an intense partisanship that would dismantle the de facto Party of California created by Hiram Johnson in 1911 and re-energized by Warren, Knight and Brown. On the Republican side, it took the form of populist conservativism, a fiercely anti-tax, anti-government and anti-communist ideology that originated in the Sun Belt and was distinct from the liberal Republicanism practiced in the northeastern United States. The most dramatic example of this shift occurred in 1958, when ultra-conservative Sen. William Knowland, leveraging party clout, forced centrist Knight to give up the governor's chair and run for the U.S. Senate so that Knowland could seek the governorship and eventually run for president. It didn't work. Knowland was defeated by Brown, a Democratic centrist, and Knight lost his race too.
On the Democratic side, centrist politics was supplanted by a left-liberal activism fueled by the civil rights movement, the Great Society and opposition to the Vietnam War. In each party, activists seized control of the primary system, which guaranteed ideologically defined nominees for the general election.
The 1990s witnessed an ominous convergence of political divisiveness in Washington and California. House Speaker Newt Gingrich's fiercely ideological "contract with America" and the polarized politics that led to the impeachment and trial of President Clinton had their California counterparts in Proposition 187, which would have banned public services for illegal immigrants, and Proposition 209, which outlawed banning affirmative action.
It was in the last years of the Gray Davis administration when this virulent partisanship reached an intensity in Sacramento not felt since the Depression. The take-no-prisoners attitude on the part of both Republicans and Democrats brought the state's public sector to the brink of collapse. It was a culture, moreover, out of sync with the majority of Californians, who not only tend to reject political extremes at the local level but also to resist politics altogether, except when matters come to a head, as in 1978 when Proposition 13 appeared on the ballot.