Generally, historians and political theorists are not hesitant to categorize a state's political orientation as either liberal or conservative when comparing states. Part of the characterization comes from national election statistics and voting results in Presidential or Congressional offices. The belief is if the majority of districts elect a liberal or progressive candidate consistently across history, then the state must lean towards being liberal-progressive.
The public well knows California's reputation as one of the most liberal states in the country, similar to New York or Illinois's reputation. A more in-depth investigation of California's reputation leads to a different conclusion.
While political scientists do not generally characterize California as anything other than liberal, it ranks not first but, by most analysis, as between seventh and twelfth, with far more moderate governance than suggested by the national media (World Population Review, 2020). Some argue California's political orientation is much closer to the general population of the United States than portrayed in the national press. Let's examine some facts that bust California's myth as an ultra-liberal state.
There is a saying that budgets drive missions. In examining the funding of California, budget priorities are not much different from other states. If welfare spending is an indicator of political orientation, then California ranks somewhere in the middle. California spends 98.5 billion dollars annually, but per capita, expenditure ranks 22nd in welfare spending (GOBankingRates.com, 2019). Much of the expenditure can be explained by the population's size and the high cost of living in California. Most economic analysis of California that characterizes California as the model liberal state is not factual. So what is it about California that earns the state the moniker of the "left coast" and the continued ire of conservative politicians?
One explanation is the diversity of California's population. California is one of the most ethnically and racially diverse state in the United States. Wallet Hub (2020) analyzed all fifty states using several diversity measures, including measures of culture, religion, economic status, and educational backgrounds. Racial and ethnic groups are not homogenous in their political thinking. However, meeting the critical needs of a diverse population does result in political accommodations or diversity in political orientation. Logically, a state would have to present a more liberal political orientation in a more varied community than a less diverse one. One explanation for California's political orientation is the incredible diversity compared to the rest of the United States.
Another reason is the state's economy. California has the largest economy of all the states representing, 14% of the entire country's economy. California's GDP has held the number one position for the last fifty years (Visual Capitalist, 2019). The incredible diversity of the economy presents several challenges and, much like ethnic diversity, requires a progressive political orientation to satisfy the multiplicity of economic interests.
Finally, California is thought of as a bell-weather state, where experimentation in public policy often originates. One example of experimentation is the political process. California has two unique political methods that stand out from the rest of the states. The first is the state conducts non-partisan elections for state office (governor, for example) instead of the traditional Democratic or Republican primaries. Non-partisan open primaries allow for the blending of several divergent political ideologies to become part of the public dialogue. While true, the two major political parties dominate the election, other ideas are put forward that are not part of the public debate in states where Democrats and Republicans have political monopolies (California Secretary of State, 2020).
The second aspect of California's political orientation is the ability of voters to put an initiative on the state ballot. "Any California voter can put an initiative or a referendum on the ballot by following the "How to Qualify an Initiative process (California Secretary of State, 2020)." The process, though cumbersome in some aspects, is quite progressive. Many states only allow the state legislatures to propose ballot measures. In contrast, others have a version of the citizen ballot initiative but make the process so tricky the average citizen can not possibly get something on a statewide ballot.