The Arc of History is On Our Side: Reflections on the 2016 Election.

Tuesday’s National Election Results represent a major set-back in the epic battle for the soul and direction of our country. On the federal level, we will likely see major attacks on immigrants, health care, tax equity, environmental justice, social service spending, and public education. The harm, pain and anxiety among our communities will be heartbreaking.

And yet, there is hope we can draw from California’s story.

California may not be a battleground state in Presidential Races, but we foreshadow what America will be in the future. The demographic changes that are in play across the country took place here 20 years ago, when Republican Pete Wilson was Governor and likely California voters mirrored the composition of the national electorate yesterday.

And we are a battleground state on ballot initiatives. When the largest state in the country passes policies, the effect ripples across the country. Twenty years ago voters passed initiatives to ban affirmative action and bilingual education, allow minors as young as 14 to be tried as adults, and enforce three-strikes sentencing, sparking copy-cat campaigns in states throughout the country. And 18 years before that, Prop 13’s passage triggered the anti-government tide in America that continues to undermine faith in public institutions, funding for schools and critical services, and fuels cynicism in our democracy.

Today, as California’s electorate expands to reflect the breadth of who lives here, Californians are undoing the harm of these outdated policies passed decades ago to deliberately underfund and undermine communities of color.

Just 5 years ago California held a staunchly anti-tax reputation, and yet yesterday, Californians passed Prop 55, reaffirming the 2012 decision to raise taxes on the wealthy to fund schools and services. Despite $80 million in deceptive advertising by Big Tobacco, Californians overwhelmingly approved Prop 56, raising tobacco taxes for the first time in 18 years to fund health care for low income children and seniors. With Prop 57’s passage, we’re leading the nation on policies that roll back “Three Strikes” and break new ground on criminal justice reform. These are just three of several progressive victories in California, including the repeal of the ban on bilingual education, upholding the plastic bag ban, and the passage of new local revenues across the state to address health, housing and homelessness.

Proposition 55: Statewide results.
Proposition 56: Statewide results.
Proposition 57: Statewide results.

These progressive victories were not automatic.

California’s social justice movement has been building for decades, with deepening alliances among labor and community, and growing capacity among dynamic grassroots organizations to expand participation in our democracy.

This fall the Million Voters Project engaged voters at an unprecedented scale. In just four months, we registered 83,000 new voters in California. In the month leading up to the election, we had conversations on the phone or in person with 650,000 new and infrequent voters in 19 counties of the State, identifying nearly 500,000 supporters of Props 55, 56 and 57. We distributed 300,000 voter guides at the homes of voters largely overlooked by traditional campaigns. And in the four days leading up to the Election we re-contacted 150,000 supporters to remind and inspire them to vote.

Our lesson for the nation is that when more people engage in democracy, justice prevails. But this doesn’t happen overnight, and requires the hard work of organizing, one door and one neighborhood at a time.

Tuesday’s results speak to a renewed urgency to continue to organize and build a powerful movement for social justice.

Our work is one chapter in the long history of movements for civil rights, economic equality, women’s rights, inclusion and authentic democracy. And while not automatic or guaranteed, the arc of history is on our side.


Anthony Thigpenn
California Calls