For all its deranging effects, I am always grateful to Twitter for the interesting ideas it surfaces. But rarely does this surfacing happen quite so overtly as it did earlier this month, when Jack Dorsey, the Twitter chief executive, tweeted out as a “great read” an article series urging national Democrats to seek the kind of final victory they’ve won in California, in which the Republican Party is reduced to a rump under one-party Democratic rule.
Dorsey’s seeming endorsement of the thesis prompted some unhappy conservative reactions, but he was quite right to recommend the series: The California essays, written by Peter Leyden and Ruy Teixeira across several months last fall and winter, offer a useful framework for thinking about one way that our current ideological deadlock might give way to a new political dispensation.
True, the fact that Teixeira has been predicting some version of this scenario for more than 15 years, originally in a famous book with John Judis, “The Emerging Democratic Majority,” whose thesis Judis has since partially abjured, should make one a bit skeptical of his prophetic power. But not so skeptical as to dismiss the possibility that he might eventually be proven right.
The Judis-Teixeira theory, which I suppose is now the Leyden-Teixeira theory, holds that a coalition of younger voters, socially liberal professionals and minority voters would deliver the Democrats to long-term power. This hasn’t come close to happening nationwide, save in the unusual Great Recession election of 2008; instead Republicans currently enjoy more power than at any moment since the New Deal. But it has happened in California, in a seemingly pretty durable way. And while it is not an iron law that what happens in the Golden State must go national, you can tell a plausible story in which California is a harbinger of a delayed-but-still-coming Democratic wave.
The current Republican advantage, in this argument, is wide but shallow: It depends on a backlash that will weaken as the voters driving it gradually age and die; it relies on countermajoritarian bulwarks that savvy Democrats can dismantle; it’s based on an antique policy agenda that has no appeal to rising cohorts; and it’s now linked to an unpopular and erratic president who poisons everything he touches. Unlike in the 1990s, when Clinton Democrats had to imitate Reagan Republicans to succeed, there is nothing in the present GOP worth appropriating or imitating or triangulating toward; instead, mobilization and boldness together can break the Trump Republicans, demographic weight can bury them – and then it’s California, here we come.
I think a lot of this is quite plausible; indeed its plausibility is one reason among many why I thought conservatives should resist the lure of Trump – lest he govern badly, alienate widely and act as a kind of accelerant toward a Californian future.
But by coincidence I was in California while I read the Golden State essays, wandering around in Greater Los Angeles with my family, and in the annoying way of pundit-travelers let me make some observations about this vision of a liberal-dominated future.
To begin with, you can’t understand the political transformation of California without understanding how much it has been shaped by a long-term middle class exodus – the out-migration, across years and decades, of the kind of people who in the Trump era tend to vote Republican: the native-born petit-bourgeoisie. This out-migration has been compensated for by in-migration, but the new arrivals are more likely to be either immigrants or well-educated professionals: Since the 1990s new Californians are disproportionately likely to make around $200,000 a year, ex-Californians are disproportionately likely to make around $45,000.
This trend, and the extremity of inequality it has encouraged, is palpable to any tourist, but particularly if you have a personal connection to California’s modern history. In my case I can drive through the neighborhoods of Santa Monica where my father grew up, and see the one-story mission-style house where my grandfather raised three kids as a struggling salesman and small-business man. Or rather, I could until recently, but not on this visit – because it was finally torn down to make way for the more lavish residences that now squat in what was a middle-class paradise two generations back.
My grandfather’s parents came west from Arkansas, looking for healthier climes after a malarial disaster, and the family never had much money and always voted Democratic. Today their middle-class equivalents would likely be making the same migration in reverse (or at the very least lighting out for rural, Trumpier parts of the West Coast, as a Californian uncle of mine did), having been priced out of what was once their promised land.
The fact that many of these migrants might be natural Trump constituents is a good example of the futility of reducing Trump’s appeal to an either-or of racism or economic grievance. Is an ex-Californian who’s doing OK economically but lives in a hotter, flatter, less glamorous and ocean-breeze-kissed part of the country than his parents, and who gripes that what was once his middle-class hometown is now all immigrants speaking Spanish and the liberal superrich, worried about ethnic or socioeconomic displacement? The answer really can be both.
So the same trends that have made California so uniformly liberal have also encouraged Trumpism elsewhere – and not only elsewhere, since as Jason Willick and James Hitchcock pointed out in 2016 in The American Interest, Trumpism-the-ideology is very much a made-in-California affair. Not many members of the right-wing intelligentsia backed Trump, but the writers and thinkers who did – from mainstream conservatives to the alt-right fringe – were heavily Californian: the Claremont Institute’s West Coast Straussians, Michael “Flight 93 Election” Anton, Mickey Kaus, Victor Davis Hanson, Ron Unz, Steve Sailer, Scott Adams, Curtis “Mencius Moldbug” Yarvin … and of course the one and only Peter Thiel.
This clutch of internal dissidents doesn’t pose a threat to liberal hegemony in California. But the state’s larger exile population does present a problem for the “make America California” project, because while you can displace Republican-leaning voters from one state, you can’t do the same for the country as a whole. There will be no white-middle-class out-migration to, say, Hungary to ease the path to a Democratic supermajority. A fully ascendant liberalism would have co-opt or crush groups that in California politics simply diminished or disappeared.
And ambitious liberals will have to do so while evangelizing on behalf of a social-political model that right now looks nothing like the ideal egalitarian society liberalism claims that it can build. Under one-party liberal rule, California is presently as unequal as a Central American republic, with one of the highest poverty rates in the country once you control for its exorbitant cost of living. Its educational performance is lousy and its racial gaps are stark – which is why it’s not only lower-middle-class whites moving back to red America, and why black complaints about white liberal gentrifiers in SoCal or the Bay Area can resemble the complaints of Trump-leaning ex-Californians.
As in other enclaves where Democrats are dominant, its ruling party has proved itself pretty good at rentier-friendly environmentalism and kicking social conservatives while they’re down, OK enough at redistribution, and completely terrible at figuring how to build an information-age middle class.
To visit the West Coast, now and always, is to be overwhelmed by its beauty – the blue water and blue skies, the temperate air and the beaches and the looming mountains not so far away. But to imagine America remade in California’s image is to imagine the state’s social and political order – its upper class/service class/underclass hierarchy – expanded to landscapes that lack the balm of all that beauty, and lack an easy exit for the discontented as well.
Such an expansion might be in our future; as went California after Govs. Pete Wilson and Arnold Schwarzenegger, so might America after Trump. But I suspect a new order along these lines would be uglier and more unstable, its ruling party far more easily undone or overthrown, than in the sun-kissed aristocracy that liberals have built for themselves in what was once – but no longer – the proving ground for the American dream.