Let’s stipulate that U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia was wrong to dissent in last week’s ruling legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide.
But Scalia was right to suggest that California has been a different place than the American West. And in doing so, he unwittingly raised an important question about California’s future.
Scalia made his point via a swipe at his colleagues for being unrepresentative of the U.S. population (and thus wrong to impose their views on the entire country). After noting that all nine justices attended Harvard or Yale law schools and that only one grew up in the Midwest, he wrote that the court has “not a single Southwesterner or even, to tell the truth, a genuine Westerner.”
What about Justice Anthony Kennedy, who is from Sacramento? Scalia’s answer came parenthetically: “California does not count.”
The words “California does not count” prompted the state’s pundits to recoil:. How dare he disrespect California? Of course we count! “Antonin Scalia doesn’t heart California – or get us, either,” read a headline on a Los Angeles Times piece.
Attorney General Kamala Harris more cleverly countered Scalia – an old-school “originalist” who thinks the Constitution should be read as it was in 1789 – with a line from old-school rapper Ice-T: “Don’t hate the playa, hate the game.” Since Ice-T’s line was inspired by Gandhi’s 1927 autobiography (“Hate the sin not the sinner”) and St. Augustine’s A.D. 424 letter (“with love for mankind and hatred of sins”), Harris out-originalist-ed Scalia by more than 1,300 years.
Despite the snappy California retorts, Scalia’s fundamental point went substantively unchallenged: Historically, California doesn’t fit in the American West – or anywhere else.
Indeed, the best book ever written about California – Carey McWilliams’ “California: The Great Exception,” published in 1949 – is about precisely this reality. California is singular, among Western states, in how it was settled so early, grew so quickly and changed so suddenly.
“One cannot, as yet, properly place California in the American scheme of things,” wrote McWilliams, adding: “California is no ordinary state; it is an anomaly, a freak, the great exception among the American states.”
But is California still such an exception?
Yes, we’re the only state to break ground on high-speed rail. But in other ways, we have begun to resemble other Western states.
The big change is that California is no longer a state of arrival, a destination for the world. Immigration is flat. More people have been leaving California for other states than have been moving here from the rest of the country. And more California high school graduates, facing higher tuition at home, head to public universities in neighboring states.
As a result, states such as Nevada, Arizona and Oregon have been effectively colonized by us, and are voting and eating more like California. All three now have In-N-Out Burger outlets, as does Texas, another big destination for exiting Californians.
At the same time, Californians left behind in California are also more Western – because more of us grew up here. In previous generations, California was populated by people from Asia, Latin America and the American Midwest and South. In today’s California, the majority is homegrown – born and raised in California – and newer arrivals are more likely to be from Las Vegas than Little Rock, Ark.
Drought is making us more Western, too. Our landscape is drier and dustier, more like Arizona’s or Nevada’s. Last year, we finally regulated groundwater, as other Western states have been doing for years.
Since California’s exceptionalism often has accelerated change nationwide, the Westernization of California poses question of whether it will be good for America.
For now, you are right, Justice Scalia. California doesn’t really count as the West. But time can change the meaning of things, including marriage and our messy state.
Joe Mathews is California & innovation editor for Zócalo Public Square, for which he writes the Connecting California column.