Immigration & California




(Photo: David McNew/Reuters)

 A big concern with immigration is the political impact of the potential cultural change. Many conservatives posit that immigrants from non-Anglophone countries inherently do not culturally adapt to the center-right political culture in the US and therefore conservatives are behooved to limit immigration in order to retain the unique, and beneficial, political culture in the US.

If I was convinced of this I would be more amenable to a European, nationalist style restrictionism. However, such as it is, I am not. But a pretty common data point is the partisan situation in California. The story is that California used to be a fairly red state, sending two Republican presidents to the White House. Now the California Republican Party is functionally a rump opposition in a one party state. The culprit? Hispanics. Constantly headlines predict how Hispanics will become the ethnic majority. Both progressives and conservatives exult/fear that California is the demographic future. The thinking is that California is the canary in the coal mine. If Latin American immigration continues to flow to the United States, politically and demographically the rest of the US will become California: overwhelmingly progressive with a useless conservative opposition.

Is California is reliable data point for this theory? Probably not. It assumes several points that are largely without merit. First that California’s Hispanics really are the power bloc pundits posit them to be. Secondly it assumes that California’s Hispanics were and are inflexibly progressive. Lastly, it begs the question, “Would California be a red state without Latin American immigration?”

Hispanics in the Political Landscape


Journalists who double as amateur demographers love talking about how Hispanics are now a plurality. While this assumes that the differences between “white” and “Hispanic” are static (hint: they are not), it also assumes that this new demography translates to political power. It doesn’t. First, many of California’s Hispanics are not eligible to vote due to being foreign born, either not yet being naturalized or being here illegally. Secondly, Hispanics are disproportionately below the age of 18. While Hispanics make up roughly 38% of California’s population, they only make up 28% of eligible voters (interestingly New Mexico and Texas both have higher percentages and yet are more right-leaning). Furthermore only 18% of Hispanics are described as likely voters (some studies put it at 17%). Despite anecdotes about Hispanics streaming to the naturalization or registration line, I predict the turn out rate will still be disproportionately white and the Hispanic turn out rate will be well below the eligible rate of 28%.

The hypothetical response could be that while Hispanics do not vote often, they could simply be more politically organized on an institutional level and thus have a larger influence that belies their low voting rate. This would not be unheard of. The Irish communities in America, both Catholic and Scots-Irish, were noted for dominating their local political scene. So I looked at the current composition of the California Senate and Assembly, as well as past governors and lieutenant governors and poked around for Hispanics. Results?

  • California Senate: 15.7%
  • California Assembly: 21.3%
  • California Lieutenant-Governors: 8.1%
  • California Governors: 2.6%

For context, the last Hispanic California governor was Ramualdo Pacheco for less than a year in 1875. I even looked up past Speakers of the California Assembly to see if there was some Hispanic niche for political wheeling and dealing. Result? 7.1%. All of these numbers are dramatically below the overall percentage of Hispanics in the state. The legislative numbers are below the amount of Hispanic registered voters and, taken at an average, the overall legislative numbers are right at the amount of Hispanic likely voters (18%). The  percentage for statewide offices is downright anemic.

This “So Goes California, So Goes the Nation” thesis assumes that California’s Hispanics are inflexibly or irreversibly progressive. They aren’t. They are roughly divided between “conservative,” “liberal” and “moderate.” While California’s whites are somewhat more likely to identify as conservative (41% but more on that later), it’s not by any massive stretch. If past political performance is any guide, Hispanics are politically adaptable. Republican gubernatorial candidates used to garner close to 50% of the Hispanic vote from the 1980s to the 1990s. This support cratered after Pete Wilson’s Prop 187 was seen as targeting and demonizing Hispanics in California. Since then Hispanic support for Republican statewide candidates has dropped below 30%. By contrast, in Texas, the Republican Party has kept up near 50%. Then again I guess it’s a neat trick. Run nativist candidates, demonize and dog whistle the hell out of them and then go, “Aha! See? They’re too liberal!”

The Reality: California’s Just Liberal

The main problem with the “Hispanics Ruined Our Conservative California” thesis is that California’s always been just more progressive than the rest of the United States. The progressive movement has always been powerful here. This in part goes back to the direct democracy “reforms” from the late 19th century due to Californians’ fear of the power of the railroad corporations. This was similar to the strength of labor unions in Appalachia due to the power that coal companies held. From the early 20th century, California spread the gospel of direct democracy to the rest of the nation.

California’s progressive movement wasn’t the scheme of some plotting dusky foreigners either. In fact both on a cultural and economic level, California’s progressives were overwhelming white and Protestant in origin. It wasn’t California’s early conservatives who pioneered the nativist movement. It was white progressives.

The strength and homegrown birth of California’s progressive movement meant that California’s has always had a larger, more expensive, more expansive government that favored whichever party embodied that most. California’s Republican past? A myth. California voted for Republicans who governed as moderates and had personal ties to California. The Republicans California sent to the governor’s mansion tended to be moderate if not outright progressive. The California Democratic Party has controlled the legislature, with extremely brief interruptions, since the days of Leave It to Beaver.

Conclusion: It’s Self Inflicted, But Maybe Not Forever

The truth is conservatives who try to use California as a warning (or progressives as a sign of the coming liberal age) do so in ignorance of our state’s political history. To blame (or praise) Hispanics is engaging in political myth making. Really useful myths but myths nonetheless.

The more nuanced political history of Hispanic (especially Mexican) Americans suggests that as we live here longer, intermarry and enter the middle class in higher numbers, we will break down politically like the rest of Americans, in particular white Americans. The people who can best disrupt that process is the GOP itself. I mean for God’s sake you nominated a walking Prop 187 whose main Hispanic supporters consist of some random screaming woman and a damn taco bowl. You have literally no one to blame but yourselves. As a right-wing Hispanic this is my reaction to the current trend of the GOP. You can’t fetishize the white working class, who overwhelmingly prefer larger, economically liberal government, and then declare the GOP’s tent to be suddenly too small to bring in socially conservative, economically liberal Hispanics. But, as someone who left the party last year, that’s none of my business.



For various & sundry,



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