The End of the Midcentury Moment
Michael Barone’s essay provides much food for thought. As Barone notes, California became the exemplary American state in the “Midcentury Moment” but is no longer a leader. It is losing Congressional seats for a reason. Barone says its day as a trend setter is over. That might be correct. California does not represent a promising future nowadays. But it is not yet certain that the trends which are starting to shake California might not shake the United States to its core.
Just as South Carolina, a one-party state in an otherwise two-party republic, represented an extreme version of some developments in the US in the decades before the Civil War, so too does today’s California represent an extreme version of some 20th- and 21st-century developments in American politics. Yet, as Barone notes, these developments are not necessarily healthy ones. California exemplifies the Crisis of the New Order.
Consider two trends that helped to define the “Midcentury Moment” and which, generations after that, have led to some of our current troubles. The first trend to consider is the rise of Progressive administrative rule. The second is the combination of the first with both the post-1964 immigration wave that Barone discusses and the post-1964 Civil Rights regime.
California, Barone notes, became the place to be in the decades between the New Deal and the Great Society. The Great Depression, World War II, and then the Cold War all were essential parts of the history of that era. At the same time, California replaced New York as our largest state by population. Government focused on the state-level version of New Deal, World War II, and Cold War priorities—building roads and dams and the like, building world-leading educational institutions, and defense, aerospace, and other industries. California was also an oil and agricultural state. Note that those priorities, except agriculture and oil, involve large-scale government enterprises, or, at least, government and corporate coordination. (Private aerospace is, perhaps, somewhat different).
But who ran all of that? In the 19th century government (often corruptly) provided land-grants that allowed titans of industry to build the railroads. By contrast, the infrastructure of mid-century California was built by the government and run by a reasonably competent bureaucracy. In the mid-20th century, the idea of people with technical expertise holding government jobs for life was old hat, but it was still new enough, and the move from the family farm and family business was recent enough that the bureaucrats still, quite often saw it as their job to facilitate the chief busy-ness of America, which was, as President Coolidge noted, business. The task was also to ensure good schools and clean and safe streets to help families thrive and prosper in the Boring 50s.
It is important to note that between 1924 and 1964, U.S. immigration was at a cyclical and legally created low. To simplify the story, low immigration combined with, among other things, the experience of mobilization for World War II and the dominance of a few networks and Hollywood studios as cultural common carriers helped to foster the confident—and, to an unusual degree—culturally coherent Americanism of which California was a leader. This process also raised wages for the working class. Meanwhile, the government built great water and road projects, and schools, universities, and airports.
But humans, Pascal noted, don’t like to be bored. It is important to maintain good roads, schools, and an effective electric grid, but these efforts are politically unexciting. Few want to be, like New York Senator Al D’Amato, “Senator Pothole.” Most ambitious men want their legacy to be greater than that. Add in legitimate concerns about pollution and other environmental issues, plus racism and sexism, and what used to be primary order concerns of government become secondary ones, and the new, sexier problems take the front seat. Then combine that with the rise of a second and third generation of administrative bureaucracy, plus, starting in the 1960s, the creation of government sector unions, and priorities change. The infrastructure that helped to make California great, and the Americanization that turned European ethnics into Americans, was taken for granted. The focus and energy turned to new priorities.
In other words, one thing that separates Pat Brown’s California from his son’s is the relative importance they put on such goods as water and energy supply, and good schooling. Why is it that today’s California has twice the population of 1970s California, but roughly the same amount of water for the people to use? Formerly the bias stood in favor of approving a project, and then trying to minimize any adverse environmental impact. Today the approval only comes after environmental impact is rendered de minimus.
In that change, we see the start of the Woke turn—one from a focus on providing infrastructure to help citizens flourish in families, churches, and civil society, and shifting away from this into a society where politicians aim at keeping the common citizens from messing up the environment, from being racist, and other social priorities. Meanwhile, bureaucrats, now often unionized (recall FDR’s warning against government employee unions), are more settled into their technocratic role and rule. Like all of us, technocrats want to think that their work is worth their time. In the “Midcentury Moment” it was sufficient to feel one was helping one’s fellow citizens flourish. Today, a job well done seems to mean that a bureaucrat spent his day keeping his fellow citizens from harming his fellow citizens or mother earth.
Apply a parallel story to the woke turn on campus and beyond. Since the 1964 Civil Rights Act, America has had special “protected classes” in our laws. If one looks at that turn from an Aristotelian regime perspective, one sees a significant difference in the assimilation of the current wave of immigration compared with the previous waves. In 1819 John Quincy Adams, then serving as Secretary of State, noted that immigrants from Europe “must cast off the European skin, never to resume it,” and their children should become proud Americans. Many today would call that sentiment—at least if applied to immigrants from anywhere other than Europe—“racist.” What changed? Since the 1960s, immigrants have been classified by government according to the five official boxes in our racial pentagon (Black, Native American, Asian, Hispanic, and White).
Culture is often downstream from law, and our law, combined with our diversity bureaucracy, and the education they promote (in the name of “anti-racism”), threatens to freeze ethnicities in place, or perhaps to assimilate the various South and Central American ethnicities into a new “Hispanic” identity. Either way, we do not see the same push for “Americanization.” Even Hollywood’s latest Superman no longer fights for “Truth, Justice, and the American Way.” The last bit is, according to Hollywood, “racist.”
This woke cultural turn, in other words, grows, in part, from the combination of bureaucracy and civil rights enforcement. The job of diversity bureaucrats is not to help recent arrivals to become Americans, but, instead, their job is to help immigrants, including those not legally resident on U.S. soil, to keep others from oppressing them, and to begin to remedy the oppression that put them in a protected class in the first place, just as the job of environmental bureaucrats is to prevent business from messing up Mother Earth. And in California, the first and biggest destination for so many in the current wave of immigration, the woke revolution has proceeded farther in than in any other state.
But is that the future, even of California? Maybe not. Not only did Prop 187 pass in 1996, but the same citizenry that rejected Donald Trump in overwhelming numbers also rejected a restoration of affirmative action by a healthy margin (57% to 42%). And the same citizenry that recalled Gray Davis might also recall Gavin Newsom. That there will be a recall vote, even if Newsom remains in office, suggests that California’s voters know that something is wrong with the state. Many have concluded that the situation is hopeless, and, as Barone notes, they are leaving. I personally know at least half a dozen who have left or are about to leave the state. Perhaps they are right to despair.
Judging by my students, many of whom are first generation Americans, and who usually have jobs to support themselves, and, often, their families, there is division in the rising generation between those who support the woke agenda and leftist infrastructure, and those who believe it’s the ideology or religion of a class of (mostly) white millionaires and professionals who want to keep their position in society by (perversely and paternalistically) claiming to represent the true interest of non-white voters. Often the division tracks a male-female divide, but my view is impressionistic, and not based upon hard data or enough cases to be in any way more than a suspicion. That said, given the utter collapse of the California Republican Party, perhaps there is a possibility of a minority heavy working class or small business, and non-coastal coalition to arise in the state, but perhaps not. Someone more informed about the dynamics of party formation—or reformation—could weigh in much more intelligently than I.
Humans, it seems, need division. And divisions will either be managed internally by parties in the state or by projecting them outward toward an external “other.” In a one-party state, this fosters a woke spiral. Not having local conservatives to denounce, the merely woke are likely to find themselves denounced as insufficiently committed to the cause. That process might produce a backlash among the state’s elite. South Carolina’s non-party stance was created by an accommodation between the older, wealthier established rice plantation leaders near Charleston and the more recently settled inland planters. Just now in California, the urban and coastal leaders are firmly in control, without any inland check. That will probably change, but it could change in more than one way. If a vigorous two-party politics, of the sort Barone describes as part of the Midcentury Moment, does not return to the state, I fear, California, like South Carolina before it, will pull the Democratic Party ever further into race-conscious Americanism. History often takes surprising turns. Which way California goes will have important consequences for America.