From Top Gun To Culture Wars, California Doesn’t Lack For Sequels

Thursday, July 25, 2019
Image credit: 
Public Domain

Proof that there’s no escaping politics: New Jersey senator Cory Booker, one of two dozen Democrats seeking the presidency, crashing this weekend’s Comic-Con International festivities in San Diego; at the same festivities, actor Orlando Bloom and San Diego mayor Kevin Faulconer getting into a he-said/he-said over immigration.

One of this year’s Comic-Con highlights was actor Tom Cruise’s surprise appearance, during which he showed footage of the Top Gun sequel he’s been filming in and around San Diego.

About that film (the original, that is): it premiered on the third Friday in May of 1986. An unabashed salute to the coolness of American military might (as opposed to the same year’s Platoon and the following year’s Full Metal Jacket, which offered dark views of service life), the film would go on to collect nearly $357 million in worldwide box office receipts—not bad for a flick with a $15 million production budget.

A funny thing about 1986 as far as California politics and public policy is concerned: later that fall, the state would stage the first in a series of initiative battles having to do with cultural drift—specifically, a language divide that underscored the rift between Anglo and Hispanic Californians.

This might come as a surprise to those who think that 1994’s Proposition 187, which sought to deny public benefits to undocumented immigrants, was the flash point for this conversation about race and assimilation. But in fact, the timeline begins with 1986’s Proposition 63, aka the “English Is the Official Language of California Amendment,” approved by a 73% majority of voters.

That measure’s official ballot summary:

“Provides that English is the official language of the State of California. Requires Legislature to enforce this provision by appropriate legislation. Requires Legislature and state officials to take all steps necessary to ensure that the role of English as the common language of the state is preserved and enhanced. Provides that the Legislature shall make no law which diminishes or ignores the role of English as the common language. Provides that any resident of or person doing business in state shall have standing to sue the state to enforce these provisions.”

If you think that one measure settled matters in California, you’re sadly mistaken. English may be the state’s official “common” language, yet California’s Elections Code requires facsimile ballots to be provided in non-English languages. In 2018, Panjabi, Hmong, Syriac, Armenian, Persian and Arabic were added to that menu.

Thanks to a law signed earlier this month by Governor Gavin Newsom, candidates with birth names in foreign languages can use those names on California ballots (presumably, a boost to candidates with birth names in such character-based languages as Chinese, Japanese, and Korean).

Still, the 1986 vote would serve as a bookend for a second English-related ballot measure that came California’s way a dozen years later. Proposition 227, the so-called “English in Public Schools” initiative, required California public schools to teach “limited English proficient” (LEP) students in special classes where the instruction is done in English. More than 61% of voters favored the notion of doing away with bilingual education.

But is that current the law of California land?


In 2016, 73% of voters lent their approval to that year’s Proposition 58, which undid Prop 227’s English-immersion requirement and reintroduced bilingual education to California’s classrooms. How to explain majority votes on the two vastly different measures? Chalk it up to a changing electorate (in 2016, California was voting a seventh straight time for a Democratic presidential candidate), as well as clever branding. The long-form ballot summary for Prop 58 contained these bullet points:

  • Preserves requirement that public schools ensure students become proficient in English.
  • Requires school districts to solicit parent and community input in developing language acquisition programs to ensure English acquisition as rapidly and effectively as possible.
  • Requires that school districts provide students with limited English proficiency the option to be taught English nearly all in English.
  • Authorizes school districts to establish dual-language immersion programs for both native and non-native English speakers.
  • Allows parents/legal guardians of students to select an available language acquisition program than best suits their child.

You’ll notice a word missing from that rundown: “bilingual.”

What’s the next cultural battle in California? It could be Governor Newsom’s decision to extend public health insurance to undocumented immigrants ages 26 and under (the Democratic-controlled state legislature wanted to cover seniors as well, but Newsom wouldn’t go that far—for now, at least).

That new policy directive puts California on a collision course with the Trump administration. Newsom has said he wants to eventually cover all illegal aliens. President Trump has said he wants to see an end to the practice: “It’s very unfair and we’re going to stop it,” Trump told reporters, “but we may need an election to stop it.”

That “election” could take place in the form of a ballot referendum, put before the electorate to undo the state’s policy. The problem with this approach, getting back to the Top Gun reference at the beginning of this column: California’s seen this movie—voters last year rejecting Proposition 6, which aimed to undo a recent increase to state fuel taxes and vehicle recreation fees.

That referendum was rejected thanks in part to an enormous money disparity (the repeal’s backers had a $5 million war chest; its opponent collected $47 million from the likes of organized labor and California’s construction industry).

Imagine what happens in another repeal battle assuming another financial imbalance (Newsom and his fellow Democrats will spend what it takes to kill the effort), plus anti-repeal forces tugging at voters’ heart strings with tales of children and low-income adults losing their health-care coverage.

Much has changed since 1986. The Dow Jones Industrial Average finished the year on the cusp of 2,000—not quite 1/13th where it stands today. A new compact car could be had for a little over $10,000.  

Unfortunately, California hasn’t settled its cultural wars over the stretch of these three decades. And another battle may be on the way.

Tom Cruise has it right: Californians never tire of sequels.