Few political stereotypes are as durable as that of crazy lefty California Democrats and their fads and fights. The idea of the Golden State donkey party being characterized by an irrepressible conflict between the left and the far left may go back to the fractious 1968 presidential primary between Bobby Kennedy and Gene McCarthy, with its violent and tragic aftermath. Or it may owe something to the especially noisy politics practiced in progressive hotbeds from Berkeley to Santa Cruz to Hollywood. But in any event, no one was especially surprised when, at the 2016 Democratic National Convention, the last-ditch opposition of some Bernie Sanders supporters to gestures of unity was concentrated in the California delegation, or when activists promoting secession got a big wave of publicity and support immediately after Donald Trump’s election. There is even a theory that Trumpian “populist nationalism” was largely formed in reaction to the peculiar nature of California progressivism, via the experiences of California natives like Stephen Miller and Julia Hahn, and longtime resident Stephen Bannon.
This weekend’s California Democratic Convention in Sacramento supplied enough craziness to perpetuate stereotypes of internecine warfare and extremism in conservative eyes for years to come. There was a very competitive party chairmanship contest characterized by a challenge to the “Establishment” candidate by former Bernie Sanders activists, which concluded in a contested defeat for the insurgents and delegates chanting “Shame! Shame!” The results are still up in the air. There was a loud and visible effort spearheaded by the California Nurses Association to pressure Democratic leaders into a real commitment to enact a single-payer health-care system. And to cap it all off, the infamously foul-mouthed octogenarian who was outgoing chairman of the party, the legendary John Burton, chose as his swan song to lead the delegates in a chant of “Fuck Donald Trump” as he thrust two middle fingers in the air. (It was totally in character for Burton, who at the 2015 convention introduced Elizabeth Warren as “the fucking champion of the American people.”).
So anyone wanting to write a Democrats in Disarray take or a Left Coast Democrats Go Crazy piece had plenty of material to exploit.
It was easy to forget when reading these accounts that by most measurements the California Democratic Party is in extraordinarily good shape, holding every statewide office, supermajorities in both state legislative chambers, and a steadily climbing share of the two-party presidential vote in the state (Hillary Clinton’s 30-point margin over Donald Trump comfortably exceeded Barack Obama’s 24-point margin in his landslide 2008 victory). No fewer than six U.S. House Republicans in California have a big bull’s-eye on their backs going into next year’s midterms. And the state GOP itself remains in a state of disarray: In 2016, it could not even get a candidate into the top two general election for the U.S. Senate.
Yes, Democrats will have a crowded and potentially divisive gubernatorial field next year (in Sacramento this weekend, one candidate for governor, former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, took a shot at another, Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom, in a reference to “Davos Democrats”). And the intraparty fight over single-payer is a very real thing, with outgoing Governor Jerry Brown very likely to oppose a plan in the legislature after an official estimate came in showing it would cost more than the entire existing state budget.
But California Republicans would love to have the problems of California Democrats; they’d probably even be happy with the publicity of a nasty chairmanship fight. Perhaps the crazy left coast donkey isn’t suicidally plunging into the blue waters of the Pacific just yet.