The Tipping Point: How Progressives can win in California

California is considered a blue state, with a solid core of voters in liberal and people of color communities. Progressives sometimes can move an electoral majority. More often, the state is polarized with a core of liberal voters, a relatively equal sized core of conservative voters, and a fluctuating contested middle. Contrary to popular belief, this contested middle is not only composed of white, middle class, “swing” voters. Millions of residents in urban and increasingly diverse suburban and rural communities identify as moderate or independent. Many of these people’s lives have become unstable because of the global economic crisis, and they are inconsistent voters with very mixed attitudes about government and taxes.

In an analysis of statewide propositions from 1994 through 2008, the Alliance identified the margin of victory or defeat in closely contested battles:  200,000 to 500,000 votes, representing approximately 5% of the typical statewide vote. The Alliance has concluded that 500,000 voters, made up of a combination of inner city and suburban, exurban and rural residents, can be the tipping point for progressive reform in the state.

The California Alliance has launched a new organizing effort based on three key strategies to create this tipping point to restore the state’s public sector:

1. Expanding the Electorate. The campaign of President Obama galvanized millions of inconsistent and independent voters. 5 million more people voted in November 2008 than in the 2006 statewide election. These additional voters were young people, low income people, people of color, new citizens, working and middle class voters feeling the crunch of the economic crisis.  If just 15% of these people became consistent voters in statewide elections, the electorate could be tipped in favor of progressive reform.  The Alliance’s strategy is to target this 15% — 500,000 new voters in statewide elections – in 8 key regions of the state to create a tipping point for progressive reform.

A key element of this strategy is moving the contested middle. A 2008 social values poll commissioned by the California Alliance revealed that 14% of Californians are die-hard anti-tax, while 16% hold deep values in support of progressive tax reform. Two groups are up for grabs—22% who are mostly people of color who typically don’t vote, yet whose values tilt in support of progressive reform, and 27% who are suburban and exurban residents and hold a contradictory mix of values around government and taxes. Through social values based organizing and strategic communications, the Alliance will attempt to broaden the base of support for an equitable and progressive tax system.

2. Constructing a Social Justice Infrastructure capable of engaging hundreds of thousands of residents and creating a new center of gravity for progressive reform. The Alliance is assembling a network of high-capacity anchor organizations, regional coalitions, and grassroots civic engagement networks in 8 regions of the state.  In addition, the Alliance’s new civic engagement system includes a voter database, an internet-based predictive dialing system distributed throughout the state, and online media communications. Together this infrastructure creates a new capacity for social justice organizations to reach an unprecedented scale in engaging and organizing hundreds of thousands of California residents in the battle for progressive reform.

An essential element of this strategy is the Alliance’s integrated civic engagement approach where residents are engaged not just about voting, but around critical statewide issues such as the 2010 census and federal stimulus accountability. Most importantly, residents are also engaged on local and regional issues as part of the ongoing community organizing and public policy advocacy of regional anchor organizations and coalitions. Because the infrastructure is based on local organizations and networks of grassroots leaders, it doesn’t disappear after any one particular battle or election, but instead has the capacity to establish sustained relationships with residents.

3. Building a more strategic movement to win systemic reform by forging more strategic collaborations with statewide organizing and advocacy organizations, policy experts, think tanks and state institutional players. Most progressives agree that California’s current tax and budget system is in gridlock. The governor and state legislators battle over how to raise money and what to spend it on while a small core of extremists attempt to hold the budget hostage. Meanwhile, advocates, unions and social justice organizations dig in their heels to defend their piece of a shrinking pie.  All this has created, and now perpetuates, a dysfunctional tax and fiscal system and a political process unable to break from gridlock and generate real reform.

Increasingly progressives in the state are realizing that a multi-year approach to systemic tax and fiscal reform that takes on and wins the battle of ideas about the role of government and taxes is critical. There are several emerging efforts to build a united front of progressive, liberal, center, and some moderate forces in the state. The California Alliance hopes to build strategic collaborations with these efforts, focusing on bringing two critical pieces to the table: a network of high capacity social justice organizations in strategic areas of the state and a growing base of the contested middle committed to ongoing civic engagement in support of progressive reform.

What has been missing from the California power equation is an organized grassroots movement that unites inner city urban, suburban and rural communities in support of progressive tax and fiscal reform. Such an organized movement could create a new center of gravity for change, and break through the current paralysis and short-term reactive tactics preventing truly systemic reform.