As of Sunday, most Californians are under strict stay-at-home orders. Gov. Gavin Newsom’s (D) lockdown shutters businesses, bars and cultural centers; makes restaurants takeout-only; and sends religious services outdoors. Gatherings with people in other households are banned — through Christmas.
That’s a lot for authorities to ask — especially when they appear so out of touch with the people they’re trying to govern.
Many residents are furious over being asked to make sacrifices that state and local officials themselves won’t. Newsom is by now notorious for his minimum $350-a-plate meal at the ultra-elite French Laundry in violation of his own guidance to Californians, exacerbated by his lieclaiming the meal followed outdoor distancing policies.
The mayor of San Francisco, London Breed, had her own coronavirus-noncompliant dinner at the same tony venue. Los Angeles County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl was spotted dining alfresco at an Italian restaurant in Santa Monica not long after voting to ban outdoor dining for her 12 million fellow Angelenos. San Jose’s mayor had to apologize after traveling to his parents’ house for a Thanksgiving dinner in violation of state requirements. When five state lawmakers were busteddining out in Sacramento this week by a reporter, one asked, “Can we not have dinner?” before pulling his mask out of his pocket.
Why are these officials so flagrantly violating rules they expect their own voters to follow? Is it arrogance? Delusion? Indifference? All of the above?
Perhaps. But I have another theory: The tone-deafness is what comes from living in a bubble where political competition is scant. In California, Democratic voters outnumber Republicans nearly 2-1. Only two Republicans have won statewide office since 2000. Newsom, Breed and Kuehl received 62 percent, 71 percent and 76 percent of the vote, respectively, in their last races.
In other words, it is precisely because California is so heavily Democratic that Democratic officials don’t feel the need to be responsive to their constituents. But there is mounting evidence that even in this one-party state, voters are no longer unquestioningly swallowing what their leadership is feeding them.
In the case of the pandemic crackdown, residents are mounting resistance to lawmakers’ hypocrisy. One county plans to challenge Newsom’s covid-19 policies in court. Cities are exploring forming their own public health departments to avoid county-level restrictions. Sheriffs are refusing to enforce state curfews. Business owners are planning open rebellion.
This year’s ballot initiatives, too, should raise alarms, as measures that Democratic tail winds should ordinarily have swept to victory instead went down to surprising defeat. One was Proposition 15, which sought to hike commercial property taxes, ostensibly to fund public schools (the state’s teachers’ union spent $20 million trying to push the measure through). Proposition 16, meanwhile, would have reinstated the use of affirmative action in California public university admissions and public sector hiring.
Both measures enjoyed overwhelming support from progressive activists, state Democratic elected officials and Newsom. And both should have benefited from anti-Trump turnout. But Prop. 15 received nearly 2.9 million fewer votes statewide than President-elect Joe Biden did. Prop. 16 trailed Biden by almost 3.9 million votes.
Newsom and state Democratic leaders were also embarrassed by Proposition 22. In September 2019, Assembly Bill 5 — a law mandating that companies treat “gig workers,” such as Uber and Lyft drivers, like full-time employees — passed easily in the overwhelmingly Democratic state legislature, with a 29-11 vote in the state Senate and a 61-16 vote in the Assembly. The measure was eagerly signed into law by Newsom. Then Prop. 22 took the matter to voters, who decisively rejected their Democratic overlords — 59 percent to 41 percent.
These measures failed, in part, because their Democratic champions were clueless about where voters actually were on the issues. Prop. 15, for example, rested its hopes on an ambitious media blitz featuring teachers railing against corporate loopholes that allegedly deny schools deserved money. But at a time when shuttered schools and substandard virtual learning are shortchanging millions of California kids, was a plea for sympathy for teachers’ unions a wise tactic?
These rebukes point to an unsettling phenomenon. Because relatively little is demanded of them, California’s elected leaders have an easy time getting elected, but haven’t yet mastered the part that comes after — leading.
Newsom, for example, was nurtured, educated and sent up the political ladder in a deep-blue range from Marin County to the southern end of Silicon Valley — coasting from one Democratic-friendly post to another, never having to develop shrewd professional and personal judgment. He and his fellow state and local lawmakers apparently still need to master the arts of convincing and persuading, of finding the right policies that appeal to broad coalitions, of being the role models they expect voters to follow.
In a few months, the embarrassments of failed ballot propositions will probably have faded. But in the case of the covid-19 resistance, Democratic officials’ alienation from their voters could prove deadly. If there’s a silver lining to the crisis, maybe it will be that it finally prompts complacent politicians such as Newsom to look beyond their own whims to what their voters actually want and need.