California as the Past, Californians as the Future?

It is a privilege to participate in a symposium with Michael Barone and respond to his typically insightful “Paradise Lost,” though his piece is hard reading in its gloomy assessment of a perhaps no longer Golden State.

The picture Barone paints of California is often a bleak one. As he concludes, echoing those like Joel Kotkin who have compared California to an ever-more “feudal” society, California is increasingly characterized by massive bifurcation. It is, Barone laments, the “nation’s most inegalitarian economy, the biggest divide between a very affluent and mostly white professional class and a very large, mostly Hispanic servant class, geographically close but culturally separate and distinct.”

This, Barone persuasively argues, is a far cry from what he characterizes as the state’s—and the country’s—Midcentury Moment, a political culture of egalitarianism and economic mobility, in which middle class Americans could reasonably expect to live a lifestyle that included raising families in “suburban single-family home neighborhoods.” (Barone’s anecdote about eastern reporters being shocked to find California’s black middle class living not in tenements but in such “stucco bungalows” was an especially poignant example).

The two classes were not always so “culturally separate and distinct.” Another contrast between that midcentury moment and the present is that there was far less of a cultural and political divide between the state’s signature industry and its “flyover country.” As historian Don Critchlow showed in When Hollywood Was Right (2007), most of Golden Age Hollywood was conservative, whether studio heads like Louis Mayer or leading actors like Jimmy Stewart, John Wayne, Barbara Stanwyck, and Gary Cooper.

For the rest of my response, I would like to focus on several questions implicitly raised by Barone’s piece. How might and have some Californians responded to the changes he describes, and how will those changes affect American politics more broadly, both by shifting the discourse on the political right and shifting other states’ electorates?

One of the clearest themes of Barone’s essay is the rapidity with which California changed as a result of immigration, both politically and demographically. It is not, as a result, surprising that many of those who preferred the political, economic, and cultural ethos of the older California have developed something of a radical siege mentality, becoming reactionaries opposing the replication of these trends into the rest of the country.

This is an old strain of California politics—a sense that California was special and consequently uniquely threatened by change. Like many or perhaps even most California progressives—or other western progressives such as Arizona’s George Hunt—Hiram Johnson, arguably the leading figure in the first half of 20th century California politics, was a skeptic of massive immigration, viewing it as a threat to the working class.

This was but one of many ways that the populist progressives of the early 20th century differed from those of Kamala Harris’s or Gavin Newsom’s Democratic Party, whose Bay Area base is, as Michael Lind has observed, increasingly dominated by tech and finance. Johnson, Hunt, and these earlier populist-progressives understood themselves, rightly or wrongly, to be defending the interests of their working- and middle-class citizens, such as miners and farmers, against Big Business and untamed corporate power. By way of contrast, according to Lind, the emerging progressive Democratic coalition, of which California is an exemplar, reflects 1) an economic coalition of the rich and the poor against the middle class, and 2) corporate preferences for an evermore and largely borderless labor and trading market as well as a broader ethos of transnational “globalism.” This globalist outlook, Lind suggests, has extended its “post-national cosmopolitanism” beyond economics to culture. As such, it holds that “moral people” are, rather than being rooted in and loyal to a place and the people, institutions, and traditions found there, “citizens of the world… equating nationalism and patriotism with racism and fascism.” “For the new, globally minded progressives,”—unlike early 20th century western progressives such as Hunt or Johnson—“the mere well-being of American workers is not a good enough reason to oppose immigration or trade liberalization.”

Reflecting the memorials to Congress passed by the California legislature in the 1920s, Senator Johnson was one of the cosponsors of the controversial Johnson-Reed Act of 1924. This was Congress’s effort to drastically reduce immigration, which, as Barone notes, lasted until 1965. That bill and its reduction of immigration was, according to skeptics of widespread immigration like Samuel Huntington, an accelerant of assimilation and thus a key contributor to the “cultural unity” Barone sees in the Californian Midcentury Moment, an argument which it appears Barone may also endorse.

As Jason Willick and his coauthors have argued, one result of California’s post-1970 rapid political and demographic change is that “the Golden State became the intellectual Capital of Trump’s GOP.” This takes different forms: from Claremont Institute scholars’ fears of progressive domination of a post-constitutional American politics, or heterodox critics of immigration such as Victor Davis Hanson, Mickey Kaus, or Steve Sailer, the latter of whom Willick and Park MacDougald identify as a lesser-known but especially influential figure among Trump supporters and ideological fellow travelers. (Not listed in their taxonomy of Californians, but similarly illustrative of this dynamic, is the Santa Monica-born Stephen Miller, who went from one of immigration hawk Jeff Sessions’s key staffers to a leading role in the Trump administration.)

Another implication of Barone’s piece is that while California may increasingly find itself a “commonwealth of its own,” Californians will continue to shape the rest of the country—just from outside the Golden State.

As someone who both grew up in and now works in Arizona, and has friends and relatives scattered throughout the rest of the Mountain West, one frequently heard conversation is what will happen as Californians leave their own state for the rest of the West—in other words, will they be bringing their politics with them?

…it is possible that what we are instead seeing is something akin to the Big Sort that Bill Bishop described, in which, in our highly polarized political environment, those moving now will opt to go where they are more politically aligned.

The story goes that Colorado—once a Republican state—and New Mexico and Nevada (more centrist) have become fairly reliably Democratic bastions due to the propensity of Californians to move there, and that Arizona is close behind (with the 2018 and 2020 elections offered as evidence that Barry Goldwater country is not long for this world).

Driving on the state’s major north-south highway just above metro Phoenix, one sees a billboard reading, “Don’t California my Arizona,” a motto increasingly heard among the state’s conservatives, one which perhaps recalls the famous “Come visit, don’t stay” slogan Oregonians offered to their southern neighbors in the 1970s (though on different, environmentalist grounds). As that state’s Governor Tom McCall said of Californians, “I urge them to come and come many, many times to enjoy the beauty of Oregon. But I also ask them, for heaven’s sake, don’t move here to live.”

But move they have, to Oregon, Colorado, and the rest of the West. As corroborated by wildly asymmetric U-Haul moving fees—far cheaper to haul one to, rather than from, California—the Golden State is not the magnet of domestic migration that Barone notes it once was during its period of explosive growth in the 20th century. It is instead a net loser in migration between the states. (Only immigration from outside the country is propping up its population.) The result of this internal exodus is that for the first time in history, as Barone observes, California will lose a congressional seat.

Of course, the question is who is moving out of California?

One theory—“the Californiaing of Arizona” of that billboard—holds that the movement will be, on net, left-leaning. But, on the other hand, it is possible that what we are instead seeing is something akin to the Big Sort that Bill Bishop described, in which, in our highly polarized political environment, those moving now will opt to go where they are more politically aligned. In that case, Californians leaving the state would move to Colorado or New Mexico if left-leaning, but to Idaho, Arizona, or Texas if conservative.

The end result of this alternative would be an even more intense version of the development Barone describes: California as an outlier—in this case, a country-sized state with the economic bifurcation and noncompetitive politics of a city, a progressivism unchecked by a tiny rump of conservatives. (They would, instead, be checked, if at all, by federal politics, which might make the states’ progressives rethink their antipathy to the Tenth Amendment and constitutional federalism, unless they want to make literal Barone’s closing assessment that California will be “a commonwealth of its own,” as the Calexit enthusiasts mused.)

That Californians moving to Arizona have mostly been conservative matches my anecdotal observations—but anecdotes are not data.

A September 2019 LA Times poll suggested that half of California’s conservatives were considering leaving the state—almost triple the number on the left. (These are doubtlessly who Barone refers to as the “middle-income, middlingly-educated, family-raising Americans” who tend to be leaving the state.)

And though California has leaned Democrat since at least the early 1990s, there’s a significant difference for the rest of the country between a state that votes 54-44 and 64-34 (as it did at the presidential levels in 2004 and 2020), and 70-30 or 75-25. Even now, outnumbered by Democrats by almost two-to-one, California still has more registered Republicans than any state except for Florida. Combining those two data points—a massive denominator of California Republicans, and a high number interested in moving—one can see California actually shoring up, not eroding, American conservatism, in the future.

A related story has been told of Texas—that the kinds of jobs that business Republicans in Texas keep enticing to the state will ultimately turn Texas left-leaning, as happened to Virginia and Georgia—but polls that disaggregate native born Texans versus those migrating from elsewhere found that Beto O’Rourke would have beaten Ted Cruz, and Hillary Clinton run closer to Trump, among native Texans. Cruz, then, might have been saved by conservatives—maybe Californians—who moved to Texas, perhaps because of its reputation. Is that true?

Answering this question would be one of the most important in American politics. I’ve not been able to find anything conclusive on this—perhaps someone with the encyclopedic knowledge of not only California but American politics like Michael Barone can help.