In the parliamentary system of government, the party out of power is often called “the alternative government.” Rather than simply opposing ruling party proposals, the opposition is there to offer their own policies and vision for the country.
The Democrats in the 115th Congress will certainly propose policies different from both their Republican counterparts and the Trump administration. Politicians like Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Nancy Pelosi can be counted on to speak out.
But I would suggest right now that the real alternative government in the United States is not the federal Democratic Party, but the state government of California.
Just take a look at a few of the laws that went into effect in California as of Jan. 1:
- The minimum wage for companies of 26 or more employees has gone to $10.50 an hour. Andrew Puzder, the Trump administration’s likely new secretary of labor, has criticized minimum wage increases for small companies and proposed greater automation in his own fast food industry.
- Widows and widowers who fall behind in mortgage payments have been given more protection against foreclosure. President-elect Donald J. Trump’s pick for secretary of the treasury, Steven Mnuchin, ran OneWest Bank, which accounted for 39 percent of all reverse mortgage foreclosures between 2009 and 2014, affecting over 50,000 people. His bank only originated roughly 17 percent of all reverse mortgage loans.
- California consumers can no longer buy semiautomatic rifles that have a button allowing for the quick release of the magazine, which are often used in mass shootings. The incoming government’s choice for attorney general, Senator Jeff Sessions, has an A+ rating from the National Rifle Association, has co-sponsored bills attempting to repeal the ban on semiautomatic weapons and has voted against bans on high-capacity ammunition magazines. Sessions also opposes the legalization of marijuana; a state ballot in California has just made the drug legal. And Sessions has repeatedly opposed anti-discrimination and other protections for L.G.B.T.Q. citizens, which California has long fought for. Beginning this year, public buildings in the state of California with only one toilet must be marked as available to either gender.
- People serving time in California’s county jails are now able to vote in state elections, an opportunity afforded in only two other states. Two days before the election, Mr. Trump criticized the state of Virginia for allowing criminals to vote after they had completed their sentences, saying it was “letting criminals cancel out the votes of law-abiding citizens.”
And those are just the laws passed before the election. In the last two months many California cities and counties have declared themselves sanctuaries for the state’s 2.4 million undocumented residents. The state legislature is also considering laws to provide legal aid for immigrants facing deportation; to establish areas in which federal immigration officials would not be allowed, such as schools or hospitals; and to prohibit private companies from working in immigration enforcement in the state.
California Governor Jerry Brown has also announced the state will fiercely resist any federal attempt to reverse climate change policy. “We’ve got the scientists,” he told the American Geophysical Union at a conference in December, “we’ve got the lawyers, and we’re ready to fight.” (The incoming Trump administration’s pick for secretary of energy, Rick Perry, denies the man-made effects of climate change, as has its pick for the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.)
Noting the prospect that a Trump Administration might shut down the satellites that enable climate change research, Mr. Brown went so far as to say, “California will launch its own damn satellites.” Ain’t nobody getting between Jerry Brown and climate science, apparently.
California Democrats are also seeking help from a legal higher power. They reported on Jan. 4 that they have hired former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to advise them on a legal strategy as they gird for a potential fight against Mr. Trump.
According to the Associated Press, the precise role of the high-profile lawyer remained unclear, but his politically connected firm will be paid $25,000 a month plus expenses from the Legislature's budget to help lawmakers develop strategies "regarding potential actions of the federal government that may be of concern to the state of California," according to the contract with Holder.
California has always fashioned itself as a kind of promised land. Prominent California historian Kevin Starr once wrote that it “is the cutting edge of the American dream—a utopia.”
Sean Dempsey, S.J., an associate professor of history at Loyola Marymount University specializing in the urban history of Los Angeles, agrees. “I do think that a certain idealism is a thread that weaves its way through California’s history.” He notes a longstanding “California attitude toward building new things, better things.”
What seems new today is the depth of the divide between California and everywhere else. President-elect Trump has repeatedly proposed building a wall, but it is the state of California that is truly doing it: a wall of legal protections built from not only its newly enacted laws but also its proposals to resist Congress’ proposed repeal of the Affordable Care Act and major cuts to safety-net programs, as well as moves to separate itself from certain other states.
As of Jan. 1, California will neither fund nor require public employees to travel to states found by the state district attorney to discriminate against L.G.B.T.Q. people. That means a U.C.L.A. professor who wants to go to a conference in North Carolina will have to find another way to pay for it. A state employee who would normally be required to go to a meeting in Texas may likewise be able to refuse because of such things as the state’s proposed law to “out” L.G.B.T.Q. students to their parents.
Some may condemn such moves as divisive. And things in California are certainly not perfect, either from a social perspective or a religiousone. (As Mr. Starr also stated in 2003, California “could also become the paradigm of the dream lost—a nightmare dystopia.” Anyone who has spent an afternoon on our freeways heartily agrees.)
California is sort of like that annoying older sibling who moves away and then never stops talking about how great it is where he lives. Does it really need more attention from the rest of the country?
But right now the state has an economy and many communities that are succeeding while embracing attitudes that are elsewhere being derided as foolish and unnecessary, like prioritizing the needs of the poorest and the least; believing in and striving for solidarity among all people; incorporating respect for our planet in social decision-making; and proceeding from a posture of hope and possibility rather than fear.
Thus far the president-elect has found a way to overwhelm the voice of every opponent he has faced. Perhaps the one thing that can offer a clear alternative to such a figure is a state just as bold and opinionated as he is.
Jim McDermott, S.J., a screenwriter, is America’s Los Angeles correspondent. Twitter: @PopCulturPriest.