You may not be interested in California, but California is interested in you. That’s the concern, anyway. Like hundreds of thousands of others, I fled east when my home state was rendered unlivable by COVID-19 lockdowns and the George Floyd riots. But my recurring nightmare is that the myriad Californian dysfunctions which predate 2020—the glut of illegal immigrants and the consequent breakdown of law and public institutions, the traffic-choked roadways, the crumbling infrastructure, the sprawling tent cities where addicts and psychotics languish in their own filth—will bleed outward across the rest of the country. I fear California will catch up to me.
It would have become still harder than it already is to shake the state’s ravenous Tax Board had the legislature passed A.B. 2088, which would have institutionalized siphoning money from escapees for up to ten years after their departure. As it is, residents and even some emigrants-in-progress suffer under a crushing tax burden. If current Governor Gavin Newsom is not replaced by the upcoming recall election, or if he is replaced by someone equally hare-brained, that money will continue to buy more dysfunction at an ever-steeper price. “To fund all its very-expensive-yet-still-lousy services, the state really needs your money,” writes former Trump official Michael Anton in The Stakes (2020), an account of California’s decline and its prospects for national metastasis.
Witness for example Newsom’s “housing first” approach to homelessness, a proven failure at which he now intends to hurl another $12 billion. “According to Housing First,” writes activist Michael Shellenberger, “homeless people should just be given their own apartments with no requirement that they address their self-destructive behaviors.” In true progressive fashion, Newsom’s government congratulates itself on a supposedly enlightened form of compassion which amounts, in actual practice, to contemptuous neglect. When things get worse, that will be taken to show that taxes aren’t high enough. The formula is: mismanage public funds so extravagantly that the public has to give you more funds. If scaled and exported across the country, this is a recipe for bread lines.
Which makes it rather worrisome that the Biden Administration expressly plans on bringing California to a state near you. Biden has “been pushing to nationalize some of the state’s pioneering efforts on climate action, workers’ rights, law enforcement and criminal justice, healthcare and economic empowerment since he was vice president,” writes Evan Halper of the Los Angeles Times. During his first State of the Union address, Biden was flanked by two of California’s most inveterate political careerists: Vice President Kamala Harris, once the state’s Attorney General, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, still the doyenne of San Francisco. The sight of these fellow travelers was enough to give us former Golden Statesmen PTSD.
Early indicators suggest that Biden does indeed mean to treat California as a blueprint. Like California’s leaders, he has proven ferociously hostile toward the coal and gas industries. And his halfhearted, careless approach to border control has resulted in a crisis-level influx of southern refugees, whose sorry condition looks awfully familiar to those of us acquainted with the results of California’s recklessly permissive policy toward all comers.
Our national economy, stunted in its post-COVID recovery by overextended government handouts, rings a bell too. And remember that those billions Gavin will spend on not fixing the homelessness problem don’t just come from his own constituents’ pockets anymore: the state is now receiving your money, wherever you are, by virtue of the federal relief dollars it’s hoovering up. Newsom will use this injection of bailout cash to pretend California is thriving financially. In truth the numbers are being goosed artificially by a federal government that thinks if a state is too big to fail, it should get bigger and fail more.
Still, presidencies don’t last forever. Michael Barone’s excellent survey of the state’s longer history reminds us of something important about California: there’s a lot of it. It has not always been an incubator of radical leftism, nor is it woke all over even today. In fact, ruling-class despotism and mismanagement are heavily concentrated in the deep blue cities. Even before the state’s long-overdue reopening, you could drive out to Orange or Riverside Counties to find red-blooded sheriffs defying COVID lockdowns, or up to Shasta County in NorCal where the MAGA crew remains ride-or-die.
But this very fact invites another reflection: when we wonder whether California is the future of the country, we mean something quite different than we used to. Barone writes that California in the ’60s and ’70s “came to be seen as the future of America, as the harbinger of trends, the pacesetter of novelty and innovation, the pioneer of new lifestyles.” He’s talking there about the actual people of California, the various folks of seemingly every stripe and background who flooded steadily out West from the 1850s until quite recently.
The hippies, the techies, the Reagan voters, even the student protestors: these were indeed trendsetters on the cutting edge of American culture and politics. For what was, as Barone points out, a memorable but relatively short time in the state’s long history, California was an aspirational model and electoral bellwether. This was because real people were personally adopting and skillfully advertising new attitudes and practices. Those Californian exports caught on naturally, among people across the country who grew attracted—rightly or wrongly—to their perceived virtue, ingenuity, or glamor.
Now, though, when Anton frets that “as goes California, so goes the nation,” he’s talking about what he calls “haute California”—the increasingly hidebound and ludicrously arrogant oligarchs who run the wealthiest cities and the state government in Sacramento. He’s talking, too, about the cultural vanguard, which is equally self-serving and even more dogmatic. Reporter Bari Weiss has ably documented how the neo-Marxist claptrap of these corrupt buffoons has thoroughly overtaken the most prestigious private schools in Los Angeles. Adherence to the woke racialist creed is enforced via social intimidation by a few zealots who hold their nice, befuddled liberal peers hostage.
All of that, too, is currently spreading nationwide: all the forcible installation of small-minded and nasty social doctrines by miserable scolds, all the cynical incompetence of career politicians undeterred by drastically bad results, and the disdainful hostility among both scolds and politicians toward any American who dares love his country as founded or his Constitution as written. The Biden Administration has signaled that it, too, despises America’s founding documents and traditional culture: “the original sin of slavery weaved white supremacy into our founding documents and principles,” sneered Biden’s U.N. Ambassador, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, at a summit for the National Action Network.
Greenfield could practically have been reading from the California public school curriculum. But these Californian exports are not broadly fashionable lifestyle choices for which there is organic demand: they are top-down impositions under which the majority of Americans either cower, or chafe, or suffer in frustrated rage. If California is no longer the envy of the world, it is certainly a training ground where politicians learn how to despoil American workers, immiserate American families, and turn fellow-citizens against one another in needless and destructive social conflict.
We can take heart that some other, more functional state governments are doing their best to erect legal ramparts against the spread of Californiarchy. Tennessee, where I’ve relocated, is one among a number of states to ban the gruesome surgical and hormonal interventions that are now foisted on children the minute they express even passing confusion about their gender. Texas Governor Greg Abbott has declined all further COVID unemployment relief in order to incentivize the return to work. Alongside Florida’s Ron DeSantis and South Dakota’s Kristi Noem, Abbott has led the way in shucking off pointlessly oppressive lockdown measures. The rest of the country is slowly following suit, and it’s hard not to see every maskless face as a delicious rebuke to the heartless megalomaniacs who want us huddled forever in fear.
So red states are doing what the founders intended—they are shielding their citizens, as best they can, from federal despotism. It is unfortunate that they have to do so, but they must. Because Kamala Harris, Gavin Newsom, Eric Garcetti, Joe Biden, and the rest of our feckless ruling classes will continue to force their bad ideas upon us to the exact extent that they are given the chance. They believe they are right to do so. For the time being, they have considerable power to follow through. Let us hope that does not last.