Why Orange County Is Getting Bluer

Having been born and raised in Orange County, one of my lifetime goals is to see it become a bastion of progressive politics. So I’m glad to see that today the New York Times is finally noticing Orange County is indeed becoming less right-wing and more Democratic:

SANTA ANA, Calif. – Orange County has been a national symbol of conservatism for more than 50 years: birthplace of President Richard M. Nixon and home to John Wayne, a bastion for the John Birch Society, a land of orange groves and affluence, the region of California where Republican presidential candidates could always count on a friendly audience.

But this iconic county of 3.1 million people passed something of a milestone in June. The percentage of registered Republican voters dropped to 43 percent, the lowest level in 70 years.

Adam Nagourney attributes the political shift away from the right-wing and from Republicans to demographic changes, primarily immigration:

At the end of 2009, nearly 45 percent of the county’s residents spoke a language other than English at home, according to county officials. Whites now make up only 45 percent of the population; this county is teeming with Hispanics, as well as Vietnamese, Korean and Chinese families. Its percentage of foreign-born residents jumped to 30 percent in 2008 from 6 percent in 1970, and visits to some of its corners can feel like a trip to a foreign land.

There’s no doubt that Orange County has become much less white over the last 30 years, though this phenomenon isn’t exactly new. And those voters have helped retire right-wingers like Bob Dornan – and helped elect a new generation of Democrats like Irvine mayor Sukhee Kang, who is mentioned in the NYT article.

Although immigration plays a role in the OC’s political shifts, it’s not the whole story. Nagourney didn’t mention that Kang isn’t the first Democrat to lead Irvine – the city has had a series of Dems leading it for many years, including Larry Agran and Beth Krom (who is running a strong campaign for Congress against absentee incumbent John Campbell in CA-48), and their base isn’t just non-white residents, but white OC residents as well.

As a result, Democrats have begun to thrive in local government in OC. Debbie Cook parlayed her popularity as a Huntington Beach city councilmember into a strong challenge to incumbent right-wing wacko Dana Rohrabacher in CA-46 in 2008. Deborah Gavello was elected to the usually right-wing Tustin city council in 2008, and teacher Bill Hedrick came very close to knocking off Ken Calvert in CA-44 the same year, like Cook winning lots of votes from whites as well as nonwhites.

That speaks to an even more fundamental shift that has been taking place in OC. Many of us whites who were born and raised there have become very progressive, and have joined older voters and nonwhites to begin turning OC blue. People like myself, Ezra Klein, and many others who grew up there came to reject the right-wing values that surrounded us, and are showing up to vote for progressives and Democrats.

My own experience illustrates this. In the early ’90s I spent a few months in a Rush Limbaugh Fan Club and even the OC Young Republicans, at a time when I was uncritically absorbing the county’s right-wing ideological heritage. But it didn’t take long for me to grow up and grow out of that youthful conservatism, as I came to realize that a politics of white privilege and unlimited corporate power wasn’t my idea of an ideal society. In this, I was just catching up to most of my friends and peers, who had already started identifying as being left of center.

We were part of a broader trend. Our generation (often called Millennials) is the first generation since European settlement to have a majority born here in California.  As a recent USC study showed, this new homegrown majority is more progressive, having a greater attachment to public services and engagement in their communities than previous generations who were educated elsewhere and who moved to California seeking their own prosperity without feeling an attachment to California’s public services and and institutions.

In OC, this led to a lot of white middle-class folks of older generations moving to the area and buying into its Reaganite ideology of “the government does nothing for you,” even as the region’s economy owed much to defense spending and the federal mortgage housing deduction, and believing that their benefits were under threat from people of color.

Both the growing nonwhite population and younger whites have increasingly rejected this, seeing the right-wing ideology of racist anti-government privilege as being totally unrealistic and undesirable. They prefer good public schools to right-wing tax cuts and vouchers, and view the racial diversity they grew up with as being a positive, welcome thing. And that is fueling the rise of progressive, Democratic politics in places like Orange County.

That’s not to say the region’s right-wing nature is gone. Even among Millennials, right-wing politics is still there. One of my best friends from high school, David Waldram, is running for Tustin city council on a right-wing platform (though he thankfully rejects the appeals to racism of other right-wingers). Still, the overall trend is one of a county whose population – across the demographic categories – is moving away from it’s Bircher, Nixonian, Reaganite past and toward a more progressive future.

Along with Congressional candidates Beth Krom and Bill Hedrick, Assembly candidates like Melissa Fox, running against an old-school right winger in the AD-70 race and Phu Nguyen, running in AD-68 are the leaders who will consolidate the trends and turn OC blue. They understand that OC residents want jobs, good schools, and environmental protections, not silly appeals to the latest right-wing ideological fantasy of the day.

At a time when it seems like the right-wing is poised to have a better November election than they’ve had in several cycles, it’s good to see that here in California, even in their strongholds, the public is rejecting what the right-wing extremists have to offer.  

4 thoughts on “Why Orange County Is Getting Bluer”

  1. that most California Republicans have been very pro-development, and pro-“let them build whatever they want wherever they want.”

    This brings in a lot of new residents coming from the higher cost and more Democratic leaning urban areas, and it creates problems like failing water supplies, traffic, fire hazards, and the like which generally lend people to seek government solutions, and to move to a more Democratic-leaning perspective.

  2. I am bright blue progressive exiled in the reddest of red OC cities – Yorba Linda – the city who’s main claim to notoriety is being home to the Presidential library that manages to completely overlook the most ugly and pertinent facts surrounding their star. (Impeachment is treated as an inconsequential event with blame being placed squarely on ‘bad press’.)

    I was raised by Bircher parents, ushered at a Nixon rally when I was fifteen and shared my parent’s deep anguish at the election of JFK. But fortunately my head turned around for good  during the heady days of late 60’s college turmoil where even at comparatively staid UCI (we were no Berkeley) we had our anti-war rallies and class moratoriums.

    Your article is refreshing. Sometimes I am just so dismayed to be surrounded by so much stupid that I think I lose perspective and forget that there are rational, sensible people closer than I think. I just don’t see too many of them here where I live and especially not at the local level.

  3. I followed Hederick’s campaign last cycle and was impressed by him and his team.  I hope he can finish the job this time.  And I’ve been reading a lot about Krom who’s had a very high profile in her district for a long time so name recognition with her is high. From what I’ve read and seen of Phu Nguyen, he seems like a really viable candidate for that seat.  It’s great to see OC turn out better candidates and campaigns as the demographics shift in our favor.

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