California recently became ground zero for a divide that appears set to split the “Coalition of the Ascendant.” This near majority-minority electoral bloc carried Democrats to victory up and down the ticket nationwide in 2008 and 2012. But despite the coalition having the same partisan voting preferences, their policy preferences seem to have diverged in the biggest state in the union: California.
To give some context, before I go into this split and its potential consequences, some background seems to be in order. In 1996, voters in California supported Proposition 209. Prop 209 banned the UC system from discriminating against or granting preferential treatment to any racial or ethnic group in college admissions, hiring and contracting. Asian-Americans, now a solid contingent in the Democratic Party, backed the ban in 1996 by massive margins.
Fast-forward to today and they still support the ban. Today, Asians also constitute a whopping 38% of undergrads in the UC system but were a mere 11% of the state’s electoral vote in 2012. It seems most of their Democratic counterparts do not however. In January, a planned referendum to repeal Prop 209 sailed through the Senate. But since January the effort has been on life support as eight Democratic lawmakers in the House who are part of the Asian and Pacific Islander Caucus have stated they do not support such an effort. Furthermore, three Asian lawmakers in the state Senate have publicly declared they have second thoughts about the bill.
Unsurprisingly, no Republican plans to back the bill in the House. Also unsurprisingly, many Democrats blame the GOP for division on the issue. This is a hard argument to believe considering Asians in 2012 went for Obama over Romney by a bigger margin than Hispanics did in the state. Furthermore, no Republican represents a state or Congressional district with more than a 10% Asian population. So exactly why would Asians oppose lifting the ban due to Republican attacks when they do not listen to Republicans regardless?
Sometimes there are divisions within a party and other times there are tectonic shifts. These shifts tend not to happen at once but in sequences. White Southerners gravitated towards the GOP over decades and not a single election. Similarly, Northern whites followed the same pattern into the Democratic Party. It is possible what we are seeing happen in California is the first part of such a shift. If this is true it has significant potential to reshape the electoral landscape of America.
Education is an issue that unites all Americans on the surface. But dig below that surface and you find deep ideological, personal and partisan divisions. For example, charter school reforms in my home state (Idaho) have been welcomed and pushed by the strong GOP majority while all Democrats, along with a handful of Republicans, have opposed such efforts. In Wisconsin, legislative Republicans allowed inner Milwaukee kids to attend charter schools in the suburbs on a party-line vote. Nationally though, despite Congressional gridlock and dysfunction, Republicans and Democrats have come around to the idea of supporting charter schools. This agreement was forged by a longtime liberal and a young conservative.
Education policy is an area of politics where many interests need to be advanced. In the past the interest most advanced was those of the unions and the NEA. Today however, the NEA seems to find itself under attack for its efforts to stall reform from both GOP and Democratic administrations. Liberal and conservative alike realize the system needs to be reformed but like most everything in politics the debate is over how; charter schools, vouchers, more funding for inner city schools?
Where this pertains to electoral outcomes can be seen in places such as the South, Wisconsin, Idaho and now California. Providing one’s child with a good education in an economic environment where going to college is a near necessity to earn a decent wage is of paramount concern to parents of all backgrounds and beliefs. Convincing parents of the opposite political persuasion the GOP represents their educational preferences gives them a reason to back the party. The more the GOP does this and the more liberals and Democrats deny these same parents and their kids access to a good quality education or at least seems to be catering more to another constituency,the more likely the GOP is to win these parents votes.
Of course the GOP should not expect the Democratic coalition to split rapidly or at all. After-all, if Democrats in California shelf the idea most Asians will likely default back to supporting Democrats. Asian-Americans since the mid-90s have shown a proclivity for supporting more activist government. In other majority-minority areas across the country the same is likely to occur. Note that many African-American legislators oppose charter schools and vouchers and still get reelected even as parents and their kids get nothing from a traditional public education system. Fortunately, there appear to be at least a few young Democrats, such as Senator Corey Booker in New Jersey, who see the potential in education reform and charter schools for minority children.
Republicans and Democrats alike should be mindful that in a two-party system, coalitions are likely to bend and fracture. The political parties must try to occupy a space where they appeal to a majority of voters racial, social and economic interests. Democrats are learning how hard that is to do even in a state where they control all levers of government, have super-majorities in the legislature and the loyal opposition is a shrinking, token force in the state.