That's what I see when I look at the Tea Party phenomenon. An older generation of white people is seeing their country turn brown before their eyes -- and it makes them act bat-shit crazy. We've been there -- and California is well on its way to moving beyond this stage. Let's look at what seems obvious from here on the Left Coast
This year, for the first time in U.S. history, more babies in this country who are not white will be born than babies who are white. In California in 1979, the majority of the children in the public schools shifted from white to non-white. By 2042, the whole country will be majority "non-white" (unless we agree to change the definition of "white" again as the country has in the past.) California passed that "tipping point" in 2001. (I refuse to use the language "majority minority" to describe whites losing our numerical dominance -- it's too crazy making itself.)
Charles Blow described what's going on for people astonished and frightened by these realities who respond by "wanting their country back":
In California, there was lots of race-based sputtering about the new demographics as they became visible in the 80s and 90s. But there was also an effective pushback from the Republican Right that used their remaining demographic advantage -- older whites were still a larger fraction of the voting electorate than they were in the general population -- to create structural barriers to the participation by the new majority. First they broke the state's ability to raise revenue by populist anti-tax initiatives (Prop. 13 and subsequent). The state's current bankruptcy is a result of the super-majority requirement for legislative votes on budgeting and taxes, also a product of this era. Then they straight up attacked the provision of social services to immigrants (Prop. 187, 1994) and state affirmative action programs (Prop. 209, 1996) by successful initiatives. Immigrant residents responded by rushing to complete their citizenship process, while Latinos turned firmly to the Democrats (not always champions of the new diversity, but better than the Republicans.)
The consequence of these right-wing, white supremacist populist eruptions in California has been to turn the state firmly into a Democratic stronghold. Aside from Hollywood phenom Governator Arnold (current job approval around 22 percent) for the last decade we have elected Democrats statewide. The California electorate has gone from being 83 percent white in 1978 to 65 percent white in 2009 (Field Poll publication pdf); Latinos are now 21 percent of the registered, Blacks 5.8 percent, and persons of various Asian origins 8.2 percent. As long as about half of the dwindling (as a percentage) white population votes for Democrats, and younger people and liberals do quite happily, Democrats win in this state.
The vicious nativism of the 90s has driven people of color into the Democratic camp who might not otherwise have wanted to be part of that big tent. But the tent of Minute Men and anti-immigrant vigilantes wasn't ever going to work for them. Even ordinary state Republicans seem to have an inkling that promoting hate against brown and black people is Party suicide. This week flailing Republican gubernatorial hopeful Steve Poizner accused the front-runner Meg Whitman of being soft on illegal immigrants. The Los Angeles Times noted in some amazement that Poizner's attack got little traction even among the Republican base:
Those of us involved in trying to stem the rising tide of racism in California in the 90s are happily amazed by this development.
The era of white backlash here in California may be on the way out, but the rest of the country is just getting started. It's important to understand that, in California, the older white voters who were losing control were willing to burn down the house as they retreated into the minority.
California once had some of the best public schools in the country. Today, because Republicans have created structural gridlock in the legislature, wealthy California spends less per pupil than any other state, even very poor places like Mississippi and Louisiana. The California public university system used to be the best public system in the country and a nationwide magnet for bright young people; this year even Gov. Schwarzenegger bemoaned the fact that we spend 11 percent of our general fund on prisons and only 7.5 percent on higher education. Got to lock up those scary dark people; forget educating their kids! This is what you get when backlash gets built into the structure of government.
And this is what the Tea Party types would do, anywhere they are able. Preventing Californication is a fight for the national future. The worst dangers are what amount to structural I.E.D.s planted along the way, procedural rules that prevent the emerging majority from governing. The last year has made it obvious that the Senate functions as a locus of egotistical reaction. This is not only about Republicans' refusal to allow majority votes to pass legislation (the filibuster), it is also about simply not letting the administration to fill important government jobs by refusing to vote on nominees. (Good to see the President making recess appointments this weekend!)
But Californication of the whole country is not a necessary outcome of this moment of racial anxiety and California itself shows it. This will pass. For most people, if the sky doesn't fall as demographic change progresses, fear will abate. And the number of people who can live with the new realities will increase.
We are fortunate to have a federal government under the leadership of people who exemplify the shift to the new reality (even if not as much as those of us on the left would wish they did!) This demographic transition could be worse; it certainly was under Bush and the neocons. We all need a Democratic party government to succeed as much as possible in restoring prosperity and, if possible, increasing equity, even if only marginally. We need to keep the Republicans, the party that daily chooses to represent the fearful past, out of office -- and then we need to push the Democrats we elect to do better. The nation does not have to sink into California-style dysfunction, but it is going to be a fight.