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Tom Wolfe calls California the most American states Certainly the socio-economic trends that have been sweeping the state in the postwar year--vast urban sprawl, a sublimation of ethnic and class differences, an utter dependence on the automobile--have foreshadowed what is happening in the rest of the country.
California's politics, too, have tended to anticipate events throughout the nation. For example, in 1942 the state elected one of the first "liberal Republican" Governors, Earl Warren. Since then, California has been a sort of laboratory for the Republican Party's attempts to cast off its minority status. California Republicans have alternately emphasized liberal and conservative political strategies, always seeking increasingly evanescent majorities.
The "liberal" strategy was first employed by Governor Warren and his successor, Goodwin J. Knight. Warren unveiled a program that included such previously unheard of measures as rent control and a fair employment practices act. What he was quite consciously doing was taking enough New Deal-like positions to attract a hefty segment of California's largely non-committed voters.
The Warren strategy, like that of Governor Thomas E. Dewey in New York, was extremely successful on the state level. But it couldn't produce winners in a presidential election; in the acid test of 1948, the Dewey-Warren ticket could not defeat Harry S Truman.
After that failure, most Republican candidates adopted a more conservative strategy, best articulated nationally by Senator Robert A. Taft of Ohio, and best represented in California by Senators William F. Knowland and Richard M. Nixon. Nixon's 1950 campaign exemplifies this new strategy. Nixon took the usual conservative Republican line on economic matters, but he deliberately emphasized so-called "style," that is, non-economic, issues. In 1950 that meant, above all, the issue of Communist subversion. Nixon never tired of calling his opponent soft on communism, and apparently the electorate believed him. He won by more than one million votes.
This strategy was never tried on the national level. Instead, the Republicans nominated General Eisenhower. And in California, as practically everywhere else, Ike's personal appeal and apparent ability to end the Korean War, produced an over-whelming Republican victory. But during Eisenhower's two terms as President, both the liberal and conservative strategies flopped badly on the state level.
The immediate cause, of course, was Knowland's incredible hubris. The Senator thought that he would have to be Governor to run for President, so he forced Governor Knight to run for the Senate and they both lost. Knowland used the old conservative strategy, but he underplayed the "Communist conspiracy" issue and, in a recession year, emphasized his economic conservatism by vigorously backing a state right-to-work law. Knowland got what he deserved; he lost by over a million votes.
Ironically, something like the old Warren strategy was revived by none other than Richard Nixon in his campaigns for the presidency in 1960 and for governor in 1962. Nixon's losses in both years left the field open for the increasing noisy and powerful radical right. The California right was decisive in winning the Republican presidential nomination for Barry Goldwater, and today it seems about to win another prize; the gubernatorial nomination for former movie actor Ronald Reagan.
Goldwater did not run so poorly in California as in other large industrial states. In southern California, especially, Goldwater ran only a little behind Nixon's rather strong 1960 showing. And right-wing Republican candidates in Congressional and local races won a surprisingly large number of successes.
No one is sure just how great Reagan's vote-getting power will be. But although he trails behind more moderate Republicans when matched in the polls against Democratic Governor Pat Brown, he can certainly run ahead of Goldwater's 41 per cent. There is some possibility that he might actually win, for the California right seems to be developing a new kind of political strategy.
Reagan has followed Goldwater in discarding the old Taft-like economic appeals. They indulge in few fulminations against labor unions and spend little time berating inflation. Nor do they discuss the old "style" issues very much; the electorate seems no longer willing to believe very much in an internal Communist conspiracy.
The style issues Goldwater was beginning to talk about and Reagan seems likely to emphasize are more related to the threats felt by average men with mortgaged bungalows, two-car garages, and bought-on-time lawn furniture. The old libertarian appeals for the right of each worker to bargain alone with his employer have been replaced by new libertarian appeals for the right of average men to refuse to sell their houses to whom they please. Such average men are notably more numerous in California than in other large states. And the threats to their rather bland and selfish life-style are more pronounced and strident in California than anywhere else in this country.
Battle of Generations
The most terrifying of these threats was the Watts rebellion and the most articulate was the Berkeley riots. In articles, interviews, and forums, many Berkeley rebels made it clear that their enemy was as much a somewhat inaccurately described middle-class way of life as it was the university itself. Other well-publicized attacks on the middle-class life-style come from the Hell's Angels, the Surfer cults, and Kustom Kar builders.
Reagan and his followers are already adept at exploiting the kind of fears that Watts rioters instilled in California's casual bigots. But they are probably just beginning to learn how to play upon the battles between the generations that are behind the other threats to the way of life of middle-class Californians. Reagan has said that he will have something to say about Berkeley in his campaign next year, but the slick political management firm he hired has probably not quite decided what it is yet. All anyone can be sure of is that in a conflict between threatened, defensive parents and their rebellious offspring, the parents can outvote the offspring any time.
The really terrifying potential of the Reagan campaign is that he may somehow be able to shift California's already unstable voting alignments and actually win the governorship. This would not only propel and appealing right-winger into the ranks of presidential candidates; it would also be a grim portent for the rest of the nation from its most American state
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