Magazine July 30, 2018, Issue

California Nightmare

Politicians rally for gas-tax repeal in San Diego, California, July 11, 2018. (Mike Blake/Reuters)
What the Golden State needs is a conservatism of shared prosperity

California is America’s America, an extension, exaggeration, and distillation of the United States as a whole — the nation fresh-squeezed into concentrate. Like America writ large, California is a propositional place, a geography embodying an aspiration. Yet the vaunted California Dream — reporter Matt Levin called it “a magical time in the 1960s when as soon as you crossed the state line Ronald Reagan would hand-deliver you a two-story house and 2.5 children and tiki-themed patio furniture” — has begun to crack. Declining economic opportunity, set against the backdrop of a sclerotic governing apparatus increasingly dedicated to the worst fever dreams of the Democratic party, has shaken Californians’ heretofore implacable optimism about the future.

The California Dream never rested on a foundation of shared values. Instead, it derived from parallel experiences of dislocation: geographic deracination and upward social mobility, the residues of a post-war economy that drove a Sun Belt population boom. As common as displacement is in American history, it is a poor foundation for a common culture. Tying generations together through time takes moral substance and a robust sense of belonging. America’s earliest forebears had metaphysical motives aplenty for their “errand into the wilderness,” as the Reverend Samuel Danforth described it in 1670. By contrast, the post-war Californians came chasing property, prosperity, and poorly defined potential. These aims congealed into a general optimism about the years ahead. But the absence of a shared, mutually constructed self-understanding beyond the chance to be well-off — without a common culture to define living well — means that California’s politics have derived mainly from its economy and, by extension, its government.

The state’s economy, struggling with fundamental shifts in the nature of work, has forged billionaires and indigent legions alike. Sacramento, either unable or unwilling to confront the state’s problems, has produced a political culture defined by defeatism. True, every Tom Joad finds California harder than advertised, but, in a departure from the state’s past, fatalism is on the march. To win and transform California, an American politician needs a credible theory of shared prosperity. Given the sorry state of the California Republicans, conservatives have little to lose in trying to offer one.

As the nonprofit journalism organization CALmatters reported earlier this year, California’s poverty rate, adjusted for the cost of living, is the highest in the nation. The proportion of its citizens facing indigence is larger than the corresponding share in Mississippi. Yet according to Forbes, California was also home to 124 billionaires in 2016, a third again as many as second-place New York and two and a half times as many as third-place Texas. Silicon Valley now has the third-highest GDP per capita globally, trailing only Zurich and Oslo. But California’s economy overall looks increasingly like something out of the developing world even as the products of that economy flow around the world to develop it.

Two forces have driven this economic bifurcation: the end of the Cold War and terrible housing policy. The Cold War was a glorious time in California, with the defense industry, its suppliers, and knock-on sectors enabling the California Dream. Air conditioning, automatic garage doors, and interstate highways made the arid gullies of Southern California not just habitable but desirable. Los Angeles sprawled; the Bay Area mushroomed with manufacturing and finance. Already a well-established center of naval research, the Santa Clara Valley became Silicon Valley after Sputnik drove the demand for semiconductors into the stratosphere. California became incomprehensibly prosperous. Its coastal population exploded, its great Inland Empire sprawled, and the Central Valley grew rich on commodities and manufacturing. Uniquely among the American states, California became a technological, cultural, financial, agricultural, and industrial powerhouse.

But the peace dividend quietly devastated California. With the defense industry contracting after the fall of the Soviet Union, taxpayer-backstopped middle-class jobs began to evaporate. Middle-class Californians, especially California Republicans, began to leave for lower-tax states with comparable climes. Yet immigration into California continued unabated. These new Californians encountered severely constricted paths of socioeconomic advancement. California has roughly the same number of manufacturing and agricultural jobs as it had half a century ago, but its population has doubled, to roughly 40 million people.

To make matters worse, decisions made at the height of California’s prosperity have made it almost impossible to house this population influx. Buying a home in California is almost impossible, but keeping one is easy, creating a kind of intergenerational regressive taxation. The California Natural Resources Agency helps keep prices high by restricting the supply of housing. It places onerous restrictions on what can be built and where, turning this ostensible environmental steward into a kind of Praetorian Guard for California’s Baby Boomers.

On the demand side, Proposition 13, passed by referendum 40 years ago, caps property-tax rates and severely restricts their growth, minimizing the long-term financial burden of homeownership. While conservatives should generally cheer tax restrictions, Prop 13 has become a Procrustean bed of bad policy, given the state’s population boom. It eliminated any tax-driven incentive for existing homeowners to tolerate more housing development. New homes simply do not get built. Instead, the avaricious state government seeks revenue from sales taxes and its controversial gas tax. These regressive forms of revenue generation raise the barriers to upward mobility for those Californians not already well housed and well compensated.

Perversely, Prop 13 remains popular, to the point that it now enjoys “third rail” status in the minds of the state’s political class. Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti, who does not face the organized NIMBY voters that make life a nightmare for his Bay Area counterpart, actually dared to raise the sales tax to build more housing. But he then failed to force through concrete development plans, preferring instead to let members of the city council dither and gum things up. The issue of housing has become so charged that it was electorally safer for him to raise taxes than to raise roofs.

Prop 13 rendered many would-be Republican constituencies politically inert. The pocketbook conservatism of middle-class voters rarely gets activated, because those who are already housed tend to accept the cost of the state’s regressive consumer taxes in exchange for low caps on their residential-property taxes. Similarly, with environmental insanity focusing chiefly on new housing, older voters have not had to shoulder the material costs of the utopian delusions propounded by California’s pantheistic greens. At moments of genuinely excessive tax increases, older voters can be mobilized into miniature tax revolts, but their engagement with and loyalty to the Republican party are episodic at best.

Similarly, the state’s large and variegated Latino population continues to sit on the sidelines. Even with high-profile Latino candidates running statewide in the June 2018 primary, the much-anticipated Latino wave once again failed to crest. Far more culturally traditional than California’s white progressives, and far less likely to be employed by the state than other non-white groups, these voters arguably face the brunt of California’s economic backwardness. Political opportunity exists in California’s heavily Latino rural counties and its majority-Latino cities, places where a high sales tax and rising fuel costs hit home — an opportunity that neither party seems willing to take.

California anticipated and exaggerated one of the predominant political trends of the second half of 20th-century America: growing state-imposed communitarianism to compensate for collapsing social solidarity. The result has been big government married to social hedonism. Phrased differently, California was an early adopter of indebted dysfunction and the culture wars. In good times, Californians could look past these obvious sources of friction and focus on the future, imaginatively advancing toward a horizon of temporal as opposed to metaphysical justice — the state’s apparent wealth would make all persistent political and ethical problems suddenly solvable. Now both party coalitions in the state are collapsing, and new voices are calling this flimsy future-focused faith into question.

The California Republican party is a ship adrift. The consolidation of southern Evangelical voters and immigration restrictionism in the GOP nationally has exacerbated the damage done to the party by the state’s post–Cold War middle-class exodus. California’s secular bourgeoisie, which in earlier decades proved a reliable Republican voting bloc, is socially permissive, and an economy built on high rates of immigrant labor suits them fine. Still, Jerry Brown is the only Democratic governor to serve two full terms since his first inauguration in 1975. (The hapless Gray Davis narrowly won reelection in 2002 only to be turned out a year later in a recall election that ushered in the governorship of Arnold Schwarzenegger.) Republicans need not have become a rump, yet a rump they are. Earlier this year, the GOP slipped into third place on California’s party-registration rolls, behind Democrats and independents, and no GOP candidate has a realistic path to statewide office for the foreseeable future.

Despite its default dominance, the loose Bay Area Democratic establishment, which has run the state government or waited on deck since Jim Jones’s Peoples Temple was canvassing for George Moscone and Harvey Milk, is quite literally dying. Its old guard faces inevitable retirement at the moment when single-party dominance, the top-two primary system, and restrictive term limits have turned the party’s bench into a sanatorium. Democratic politicians churn through the legislature in droves, looking constantly to defect to one of California’s innumerable elective executive offices or regulatory boards.

To obtain these sinecures, one either genuflects before a powerful interest group or stages a publicity stunt outrageous enough that it gets local news coverage. Being opportunity maximizers, or at least risk minimizers, many choose to walk both paths at once, readily submitting to interest-group control while simultaneously propounding ever more insane ideas to get attention. Anything, really, to break through the crushing cost of campaigning in some of the world’s most expensive media markets.

With both parties in disarray, California politics has divided into four creedal tribes, with Left and Right alike divided between technocratic and identitarian factions. None offers much in terms of meaningful policy, even though one of them will win by default for the time being. The near-certain victors appear to be left-wing advocates of identity politics. This camp embraces the public performance of fluid gender and increasingly precise sexual self-definition as the centerpiece of identity.

Their champion, and likely the next the governor, is Gavin Newsom, permanently tanned and gelled, with the mien of a malignant Ken doll. Newsom’s veneered, slightly agape smile belies a career devoid of accomplishment. A former do-nothing mayor of San Francisco, Newsom has spent the last eight years as a do-nothing lieutenant governor. His electoral success seems to be entirely owing to his father’s loyal service as an attorney–cum–bag man for one of the Gettys. The Getty family has in turn propelled the younger Newsom forward despite his sybaritic tendencies, which include having a sexual relationship with his appointments secretary, who happened to be the wife of his close friend and campaign manager. He followed that by dating a teenager. When these indiscretions became too much even for San Franciscans, Newsom declared that he suffered from alcoholism; he recently told the press that he’d started drinking moderately after two years of abstinence and counseling. Indeed, he now denies he ever had a drinking problem, leaving a fundamentally flawed character as the only viable explanation for his behavior.

That such an execrable embodiment of white-male privilege has become the avatar of the Golden State’s social-justice warriors is the kind of karmic irony that warms the heart. Still, Newsom’s odious success has a political logic to it. He openly and unapologetically opposed Proposition 8, which defined marriage as the union only of a man and a woman, even after it became state law, making him, in the words of Kathy Griffin, “a civil rights hero, an environmental leader, and . . . definitely the future of the party.” In other words, being good on green and gay-rights issues more than makes up for an underwhelming track record. One suspects that many left-wingers favor identity politics precisely to avoid the stickier politics of redistribution. True, they also love high taxes. Yet they tend to favor the most regressive means of taxation available, including the aforementioned gas tax and a residential solar requirement for new housing that will raise the cost of building a home by $8,000 on average.

Chagrined by the Democratic establishment’s fixation with identity politics, a left-wing insurgency appeared to be in the offing earlier this year. State-senate president pro tempore Kevin de León announced a primary campaign against aging U.S. senator Dianne Feinstein. Though he denied her the party’s nomination at its state convention and has made it into the November runoff, his campaign has stalled. De León is a lightweight, but the Left’s struggles go beyond their candidate’s flaws. His supporters have dutifully parroted the Sanders chorus of Medicare for all, free college, and an elevated minimum wage. Yet they ignore the possibility that opposition to socialism derives from something other than a “rigged campaign-finance system.” In other words, by rejecting the premise that legitimate grounds for dispute exist, they push politics out of the picture entirely.

The rise of a Latino-led socialist coalition has provided ample grist for California’s identitarians on the right. But for all their prominence on the national stage thanks to their influence on the Trump administration, they, too, live in a dream world. Paul Ryan’s “opportunity conservatism” — focused on reducing bureaucratic hurdles to individual initiative while reforming entitlements to address budget shortfalls  — may come up short, in their view. But the identitarians lack a positive program of their own that can build a statewide majority. Immigration waves in California have stymied social solidarity on anything like a large scale and are responsible for collapsing wages, they argue. Put simply, growing diversity begets greater poverty. Yet, in this, they wrongly assume that solidarity ever existed in the Golden State, or that its economy was ever sustainably built on something other than vast helot labor. Wave upon wave of new arrivals in California is more the norm than the exception. Stuck in a political cul-de-sac, the right-wing identitarians are mourning a version of the state that never really existed. The Grapes of Wrath wasn’t set in Connecticut, after all.

Opposing the identitarians within the Republican fold is a frustrated group of nominally conservative technocrats ostensibly led by Arnold Schwarzenegger but actually steered by former Republican assembly leader Chad Mayes. Mayes was tossed from his perch for striking a disastrous deal with Governor Brown to extend cap-and-trade carbon-emission restrictions in exchange for a ballot measure raising to two-thirds the legislative threshold needed to approve new spending. Cap-and-trade extensions went through, but Mayes’s initiative was the only one to fail on the June ballot. Brown did nothing to keep his part of the bargain. Indeed, by last summer, it was clear that Democrats would renege and campaign against the initiative. To make matters worse, national Democrats spent heavily against Rocky Chávez, one of Mayes’s staunchest allies, in his race to succeed Darrell Issa in California’s 49th congressional district. Chávez came in sixth, with less than 8 percent of the vote. Sacramento Democrats jammed through the aforementioned solar requirement for new housing shortly before Election Day to boot.

In response, Mayes has gone on the warpath to remake the state GOP, hammering the party for bringing Steve Bannon to its fall convention last year and launching New Way California, an organization backed by John Kasich and former McCain consultant John Weaver. One suspects that Mayes’s messaging about inclusion, his permissive approach to illegal immigration, and his willingness to accept some climate-change-related regulation reflects the table stakes of political survival in California. Yet his actual program consists mostly of electoral reform accompanied by an inclination toward self-congratulatory preening. Apparently gerrymandering is a bigger problem in California than rampant poverty, disastrous education outcomes, and a nation-leading homelessness crisis. More immediately, “process” conservatism — a vision of conservatism fixated on tweaks to the political process itself rather than on concretely improving the lives of everyday Californians — drains the substance out of politics, thereby guaranteeing its own enervation.

Both factions on the right in California, the identitarians and the technocrats, agree that the national Republican party’s pre-2016 embrace of what might best be called Ryanite “opportunity conservatism” cannot win in their state. Ryan’s program has been successful in much of the country but has failed to resonate in swathes of California in part because it heavily emphasizes making it easier for individuals to improve their lives through their own initiative. In California’s expensive regulatory morass, starting a business or other noble undertaking (outside the context of Silicon Valley startup culture) can seem unattainable and even heroic. Compounding the matter, opportunity conservatism offers little in terms of a general vision of the future. It prizes breaking up traditional monopolies and lowering regulatory hurdles, and so lionizes ride-sharing services that reduce costs to consumers and increase choice. Yet opportunity conservatism does not go the further step and offer a portrait of a future work force dominated by individual independent contracting.  

Another problem for California’s Republicans is that politics in the state have long been highly racialized, so to ignore race is to self-immolate politically. Instead of running away from discussions about identity and community, especially in non-white corners of California, conservatives should acknowledge that group membership is central to the lived experience of most people, even and perhaps especially in a place with so few shared norms. In other words, the right-wing communitarians are correct to focus on identity but are too narrow in their scope. The very populations that they fear are eroding social solidarity are the ones that are amenable to the fundamental argument that place, family, and culture matter. Democrats in the state have no compelling answers to Asian-American students subject to racial discrimination in higher education. And to Latino workers, especially those in the state’s inland counties, they offer nothing but higher taxes.

Yet reaching these groups means abandoning delusions about a lily-white California and at the same time swapping out an overly individualistic account of economic growth in favor of something better called “prosperity conservatism.” Conservatives must be willing to talk turkey about growing prosperity for whole communities and not just for exceptional individuals who attain elevated levels of education. Too often, conservatives in California seem overly enamored of ride-sharing companies, superficial nostalgia, or anti-gerrymandering jeremiads. By contrast, a conservatism willing to boldly focus on reforming public education, overhauling the state’s tax system, and slashing regulations on residential construction can win.

This prosperity conservatism could also offer an alternative vision of what’s possible. Californians still cling to their Gatsbyesque enthusiasm for the future. A politics of prosperity can give communities the promise of a better future based on meaningful policy changes in taxation, education, and housing that concretely benefit the pocketbooks of these constituencies. Such an account of what the future can look like anchors conservative policy in daily life rather than in abstractions and statistics. It also provides a clear moral justification for the application of coercive mechanisms where necessary, given that shared prosperity demands mutual accountability.

The California paradox — communitarianism in public government but hedonism in self-government, leading to tribalism in politics and excessive cultural optimism — has flummoxed conservatives. The confusion is forgivable. Californians approved initiatives legalizing marijuana and expediting capital punishment on the same ballot in 2016. Yet California has always been communitarian in government precisely because it is hedonistic and solidarity-free in its culture. It may be the only state where Barney Frank’s inane bromide that “government is simply the name we give to the things we choose to do together” is actually true. Government is indeed the only thing Californians do together; most people are just in it for the weather, after all. Yet conservatives can win if they are armed with an argument about a future of shared prosperity anchored in an unapologetic willingness to talk about the material interests of specific communities. Indeed, prosperity conservatism may be the only way for the Right to come back on the Left Coast.

In This Issue



Books, Arts & Manners


Wisconsin Spring

Charles J. Sykes reviews The Fall of Wisconsin: The Conservative Conquest of a Progressive Bastion and the Future of American Politics, by Dan Kaufman.


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