What is California?
It seems like such an easy question with an obvious answer, but it isn’t, really—not any more.
Nominally, California is the 31st and largest (by population; Alaska and Texas exceed its area) state, home to sunny beaches, magnificent mountains, chic wineries, Hollywood and Silicon Valley, and the next president of the United States. It is also, if not the nation’s bluest state, certainly its bluest big state and biggest blue state, the anchor of Democratic dominance in the national popular and, increasingly, electoral vote and a model for “progressive” governance, whose latest enthusiasms tend to spread throughout the land.
All this is true but still doesn’t quite capture what California has become. By this I don’t mean solely its self-conception as a special place. According to Kevin Starr, the state’s most prolific (and really only) historian, the idea of the “California Dream” began to supplement (or supplant) the American Dream almost as soon as Yankees got ahold of San Francisco. The original understanding of the former term was more get-rich-quick as opposed to the latter’s middle-class-life-for-all.
Yet in the decades after the Second World War, it morphed into something like the latter, but better: the American Dream with more cars, a bigger house, superior infrastructure, world-class amenities, nicer weather—plus that ineffable yet instantly recognizable “cool” factor. Californians of a certain age once got used to being asked where they were from by someone from Ohio or Indiana or Georgia or Pennsylvania or New York (though not Manhattan) or even Europe, answering “California,” and hearing back a half-impressed, half-envious “Oh!”
One hears that less these days. Or, rather, one gets a different response depending on who asks the question. Only Blues, and only some of them, are still impressed. Reds are liable to offer consolation, or eye you suspiciously.
As they should. For it is perhaps best to understand modern California as a kind of arbitrage scheme; or, for those unversed in financial jargon, a parasite. Its host is Red America, including the Red parts of California.
For one must understand that when we say “California,” what we really mean is a thin, rarely more than 50 miles wide and mostly much narrower strip of land from just north of the Marin Headlands to just south of the Coronado Bridge, plus a few outposts such as Napa, Tahoe, and Palm Springs. The rest—the parts with all the ranches and farms, oil wells and rail junctions, warehouses and meth labs—may as well not exist.
But they do exist, and are integral to modern California, in the same way that galley slaves were integral to ancient triremes, yet best left unacknowledged and unseen.
A talking point always on the lips of California governors and other boosters since I was in high school holds that “California is the world’s Nth largest economy.” The number only goes up: it was eighth when I first recall hearing the line, and—as Gavin Newsom endlessly reminds us—fifth today. Another phrase, of more recent vintage, holds that California is a “nation-state.”
Both are always said as a boast, and also with an air of entitlement. We’re so important and contribute so much that we deserve more: more power, more money, more honor. But scrutinizing the phrases reveals self-contradiction, self-delusion, and an important admission.
Among the 50 states, California might have the strongest geographic claim to nationhood. It is self-contained, with natural barriers on all sides. Against a half-competent military, it would be hard to invade (though the Americans took it from the badly undermanned Mexicans easily enough). It possesses most all the resources one needs to sustain life and support a large population. It has at least three excellent natural harbors, including arguably the finest in the world. Ecologically, it possesses, in Starr’s words, “all the topography, climate, and lifezones of the planet (with the exception of the tropical), from the seashore to the desert, from the Great Central Valley at its center to the snowcapped Sierra Peaks guarding its eastern flank.” Given a different population, competent leadership, and—crucially—a different business model, it would do quite well on its own.
But in reality, California is in no respect a “nation”: a united people with a common lineage, language, and history. To the contrary, it has been deliberately “diversified” in order become as little like a nation as possible. To the extent that it has any common culture at all, it is in opposition to the rest of the United States, especially the Red parts. When Newsom and other Golden State Babbitts describe California as a “nation-state,” all they really mean is “big” and “rich.”
California’s real business model is hinted at in the first phrase. California is, to its boosters, foremost and fundamentally an economy. Not a nation, or a culture, or a society, much less a civilization—certainly not part of some larger whole. This self-conception is more self-delusion, as we shall see, but is nevertheless very powerful.
It’s telling that Apple stamps its products with the phrase “Designed by Apple in California.” In that company’s collective mind, its headquarters is located not in “the United States” or “America” but in “California.” Apple makes this distinction for three reasons, which can easily be extended to the rest of the tech industry, and to all of Haute California. First, California oligarchs want to distance themselves from the notion that they are part of, or own allegiance to, any country at all. They are above such petty concerns, beyond—and in many ways more powerful than—the nation-state.
Second, they want to distance themselves from all that is held by elite and world opinion to be bad about America: racism, sexism, Bible-thumping, guns, and so on. Third, they wish to evoke California not as an American state but as an idea: the Golden State, paradise, the future.
In this way they connect the first two meanings of the California Dream with a third. It’s still a place to get fabulously rich very fast, only one pans for gold not in the American River but on Sand Hill Road. It’s still very cool—especially if you manage to get rich. And it’s “progressive” in every sense, the most important of which being that the rich can enjoy their wealth not merely guilt-free but while being extolled for it.
* * *
The implicit deal, which I’ve called the “San Francisco Compromise,” is that, first, the left does nothing that directly threatens oligarchic wealth or power. It can tax and spend all it wants, so long as those taxes are easily bearable—and, to the extent possible, legally avoidable—by California’s grandees. And so long as the other policies that increase oligarchic wealth are never questioned, so that at the end of the day it almost doesn’t matter what California tax rates are; whatever they are, the rulers can afford them. The lefties also agree to use their considerable rhetorical power to whitewash and lionize the oligarchs.
For their part, the oligarchs take their cues from leftists on matters of passionate conviction that don’t directly threaten said wealth or power and spend some of their lucre on lefty institutions and make-work jobs.
This works out tremendously well for the oligarchs who, like all elites, are outnumbered and need defenses and justifications for their privilege. And it works out very well for the lefties who are, for the most part, otherwise unemployable—certainly not in any profit-making industry that pays well enough to live in coastal California.
What about everybody else? Aye, there’s the rub. Most of them don’t have it so good. In my 2020 book The Stakes, I describe modern California as crowded, costly, congested, crumbling, incompetent, filthy, dangerous, rapacious, profligate, suffocating, prejudiced, theocratic, pathologically altruistic, balkanized, and feudal. Those interested in the details may peruse the first chapter, in which I attempt to demonstrate each of these claims.
Only four kinds of people put up with all that: those who can buy their way out of the pathology; those for whom California, with all its problems, still feels better than wherever they came from; those with deep roots in the state who can’t bear the thought of leaving; and those who believe they have nowhere else to go.
Essentially, modern California has been redesigned to serve the needs and interests of the first two groups and screw everyone else. It’s no surprise, then, that tens of thousands are leaving. Next year, for the first time since becoming a state in 1850, California will lose a congressional seat. Which misleadingly suggests that the state’s population troubles are more recent than they really are. Actually, California has been exporting native-born Americans for decades, a decline which has been obscured by sky-high immigration.
California may be geographically a paradise and politically a utopia (at least aspirationally), but if so, it bestows its benefits very selectively and exclusively. Which is the fundamental reason why so many oligarchs still live there and even move there. On the flipside, subsidized poverty in California is heaven compared to southern Mexico or Central America. As bad as California’s crime, infrastructure, and dysfunction are by historic American standards, they’re all still orders of magnitude better than prevailing conditions down south.
These two realities explain why no one much cares about high-speed rail boondoggles, dumping precious water out to sea in a drought, homeless encampments, poop on the sidewalks, or rural Central California’s Wild West, where laws are simply not enforced on immigrants. High and low alike—the only demographics who matter—have it too good.
Ultimately, what California is, or wants to be, is a new kind of regime. Who really rules is not entirely clear—which, I think, is by design. To geek out a bit, California has rejected Aristotelian formalism, in which the regime is public, the rulers known, ruling in their own name, and replaced it with Machiavellian indirect governance.
As Curtis Yarvin has put it in a similar context, America’s real rulers are Harvard and the New York Times. I think, to make that statement fully accurate, one must add BlackRock and Google (or Goldman and Twitter; same difference). California’s real rulers are then Stanford, the Los Angeles Times, and Facebook. Modern California is partly oligarchic in the precise sense that a rich few have outsize power—consider Big Tech silencing Trump ad unno tratto. It is theocratic in a looser sense, in that ideas rule more than people, unless we wish to say that the priestly class which formulates the ideas actually rules.
Corporations vie with governments for different kinds of power. Lines of authority are scrambled. No one really knows who’s in charge, and those who are never own up. In a sense, no one is in charge: the doctrine is in charge. Ruling class functionaries, from tech CEOs down to lifestyle bloggers, are told what to believe in the seminary (the universities, and now even the primary and secondary schools) they all attend together. Once out, they all play their assigned role, a few of which are extraordinarily remunerative, most not, but all working toward the same end.
Here is how I put it six years ago:
[Dianne] Feinstein—the West Coast’s Daniel Patrick Moynihan—illustrates the point. At first glance, the comparison seems inapt. She was born to wealth; he grew up in a Hell’s Kitchen saloon. He authored 16 books; she is no one’s idea of an intellectual. Yet they share a reflexive conservatism, though Moynihan’s was the product of study and experience while Feinstein’s is in her blood. But both quickly sensed that to stay in the ever-changing game, they had to adapt to the new rules. Hence the quotably conservative Moynihan—“defining deviancy down,” etc.—was a reliable vote for the Left his whole senatorial career. So is the prim, matronly, sensible, and “pro-business” DiFi. The senior senator from California may go home to the splendor of Pacific Heights, far from the grimy ground zero of progressive activism in the Mission. But denizens of the latter have veto power over what she thinks and how she votes.
Formally, modern California is “democratic” in that people vote, but they always vote for the same things, or a for a series of interchangeable hacks who all believe and do the same things. Elections mean nothing in the sense that the real rulers can never lose. Voting simply provides the veneer of legitimacy.
California’s real rulers don’t exercise their power in the manner of the oligarchs of old, nor even like machine bosses. It’s more using their complete control of all avenues of information—from grammar schools all the way up to prestige and social media—to tell only one cramped, constrained “story.”
All this is underwritten by the massive vote-banks that are California’s cities, which ensure one-party rule in Sacramento and in the judiciary, plus a lopsidedly leftist congressional delegation. Even today, after decades of middle-class exodus, millions of Californians still harbor Red State habits and political inclinations. But their preferences—like their votes—don’t matter because such people are demographically overwhelmed. Stay and pay, suffer and be ignored. Or leave. Either way, you’re not voting your way out of this. That’s the message Haute California hurls at dwindling Red California.
The corporations and their leaders tell the government what to do and exempt themselves from its mandates. Apple is based in Cupertino but does most of its manufacturing in China and until recently paid its taxes in Ireland. But even the Emerald Isle’s notoriously low corporate tax rates—Apple’s effective rate in 2014 was 0.005 percent—got to be too much and the company moved its legendary pile of cash, which it refuses to return to investors in dividends, to the Isle of Jersey, which levies no taxes at all. Sacramento not only doesn’t try to stop that; it defers to Cupertino on every matter of importance. Who is the real sovereign?
We know why the factories are in China (cheap labor) and the money is in Jersey (no taxes) but why is the mothership still in Cupertino? Jersey has ocean views but no good restaurants. Tech oligarchs envy Chinese despotism and censorship but don’t want to live there—and wouldn’t even if they were in charge.
Partly it’s similar to the reason why, in Tom Wolfe’s explanation, “many chief executive officers kept their headquarters in New York long after the last rational reason for doing so had vanished … because of the ineffable experience of being a CEO and having lunch five days a week in Manhattan.”
Haute California has become like one of those clean, pristine space stations to which, in sci-fi movies, elites escape a ravaged earth. The only people you will see are people just like you—or properly deferential people who work for you. Life in La Jolla, Montecito, Carmel, Palo Alto, Woodside, and Napa has never been better. The state’s natural beauty is so profound that even the worst human mismanagement can barely scratch it. If you have several million and don’t mind the taxes, you can insulate yourself from toxic California and enjoy the weather, natural beauty and pricey world-class amenities.
* * *
Four overlapping causes turned California from ultimate middle-class paradise to woke, feudal dystopia in barely a generation.
First was (is) the vast influx of poor immigrants from Latin America that began in the 1970s and then exploded after President Reagan’s 1986 amnesty. That amnesty was supposed to be coupled with strict border and workplace enforcement, but Hollywood liberals, Central Valley land barons, and the burgeoning tech elite helped ensure those provisions were never enacted. After that, voters made one attempt to get control of the problem, Prop 187, but it was promptly shut down. The feds insisted that only they had the power to secure the border and then (and ever since) steadfastly refused to do so. This was exactly the outcome elite California wanted. The resulting mass arrivals tipped the political balance of the state irretrievably, causing a snowball effect. More immigration makes the state Bluer—and the Bluer it gets, the more pro-immigration, legal and illegal, it gets, culminating in California’s declaring itself a “sanctuary state” with policies that effectively exempt illegal aliens from the law.
Second is woke anti-assimilationism, the demonization of the “melting pot” and its replacement with the “salad bowl” or (to borrow from David Dinkins) the “gorgeous mosaic.” Assimilation stopped being encouraged, much less insisted upon, and instead came (and remains) under furious assault.
Third was the infusion of more than $4 trillion (on paper, at least) into Silicon Valley and San Francisco that created the world’s richest elite, who enjoy advocating psychologically pleasing bromides, certain that they can exempt themselves from the real-world ramifications which fall only on distant others. California can be a very traditional society for the very wealthy, who can and do wall themselves off from the dysfunction they cause, live in gated communities, and send their kids to private schools. Such families, of course, also all employ Hispanic help—gardeners, maids, cooks, nannies—and so have both pecuniary and conscience-salving reasons to advocate for illegal immigration: doing so is a public show of noblesse oblige that helps legitimize their privilege. This new wealth and the way its owners spend it thus only intensified the state’s hard-left turn as elites voted for—and, more to the point, financed—ever-more radical politicians and ballot initiatives.
The most important consequence of that turn was to cleanse the state of its old middle class. The people who voted Republican in six straight presidential elections and for Republican governors six out of eight times were chased out by high taxes, costly homes, terrible schools, indifferent law enforcement, smothering red tape, lousy services, and broken infrastructure. Many in the coastal corridor were fortunate enough to own homes that appreciated spectacularly over their lifetimes, which they could sell and reap a windfall—and then live like kings in low-tax states while escaping California’s vindictive utopianism, punishing taxes, and cratering quality of life for all but the very rich.
And it wasn’t just the Republicans—though they were the first to see the writing on the wall—but also the old blue-collar Democrats, the ones who tugged their party in a more moderate direction. Until around the mid-2000s, almost the entire western half of San Francisco was populated by old-style, working-class, union Democrats. They would, to one another, refer to the precise neighborhood where they lived by parish—and could assume that everyone whom they told knew exactly where they meant. Those people are all gone, of course, which isn’t surprising. What’s perhaps a bit surprising is that no one in the city today even knows they were ever there. It’s like these mostly Irish, Italian, and Polish Catholics who worked construction, on the docks, and in the police and fire departments never existed, were never part of the scene. In modern San Francisco’s self-conception, there were the Native Americans who had the land stolen out from under them, then some Mexicans, who were at least “Hispanic” (but also troublingly Catholic and white), then fast-forward to the hippies, the gays, the hipsters, the techies, and the oligarchs. American California isn’t merely gone; it never was.
Of these four, three clearly were causes and the fourth an effect. The interesting question is, to what extent were the three causes intended?
The first two certainly were. Non-enforcement of immigration law was, and is, a policy, even if never formally enacted. Anti-Americanism and anti-assimilationism in the schools and other institutions most certainly were enacted.
But the windfalls … they were sought, surely. No one becomes an entrepreneur to get poor. But did anyone have any idea how large those fortunes would turn out to be? Or how consequential the companies and technologies that produced them?
I grew up near, but not in, Silicon Valley and don’t recall, in the 1970s or ’80s—not even in 1985, when the Super Bowl was at Stanford, the 49ers won it, and Steve Jobs premiered his famous “1984” commercial—the kind of messianic talk one started to hear in the late ’90s and that has since loudened to a roar. My sense is that no one back then had any idea how much, and how fast, the tech industry would change the state. Not that they would have stopped or slowed had they known. Indeed, the more they realized the impact of their creations and activities, the more messianic they became. One is tempted to say that they acted like people who, in adulthood, realized they had superpowers and began to treat those around them not as would a beneficent Kal-El but more like a malevolent Lex Luthor.
* * *
This is what I mean when I say California has become a parasite. Its social structure resembles something out of the ancient world—though not the Greek part. More like what we know of various despotic empires, such as Egypt or Persia, in which the vast, vast majority toil to support, in spectacular luxury, a very few.
It is parasitic in four ways. First, it is parasitic on itself. California as it exists now can only exist on the foundation of the old, American California: its physical infrastructure, what remains of its older population, its culture and institutional habits.
But the infrastructure is crumbling; the state is too incompetent, too ideological, and too broke to fix any of it. Despite its apparent wealth, California in fact has the highest poverty rate in the nation. And when it comes time to spend all that money the state sucks up in tax revenue, its “progressive” pols always insist on committing it to utopian fantasies rather than nuts-and-bolts necessities. As historian and native Californian Victor Davis Hanson lamented of his birthplace and home, “societies in decline fixate on impossible postmodern dreams as a way of disguising their inability to address premodern problems.”
The demographic transformation of the state is real and well-known but also, to an extent, masks the reality that California’s remaining functioning institutions—the better schools, hospitals, policy and fire departments—are disproportionately staffed by those whom we might term “legacy Californians,” people with (by California standards) deep roots in the state. Often, a secure government job, combined with an inherited home (and inherited Prop 13 tax assessment) is the only way they can afford to stay.
The oligarchy constantly maneuvers to make the state ever more expensive (taxes, regulation, environmental codes, building restrictions, endless chances for someone—anyone—to say “no” to anything). This is to protect their pieces of paradise, surely, but one wonders if it is not also deliberate harassment against a class it despises. Anyway, that class continues to dwindle and, I suspect, in a generation or less will fully and finally be gone. We shall see how well California works when they are.
For they will take with them not merely their skills but their behaviors, folkways, and habits—in sum, their Americanism. In a sense, Apple’s self-declaration is truth-in-advertising, as California has not been appreciably American in a long time and becomes less so by the day. This is both denied and extolled at the same time, depending on who says it—yet another example of a phenomenon I call the “celebration parallax.” When a Silicon Valley grandee or Hollywood mogul talks about the state’s transformation into an international mecca, he’s extolled for his visionary leadership. When some dirt farmer from the Central Valley says he doesn’t recognize his hometown anymore, he’s called a racist.
At any rate, the more diverse California gets, the less socially cohesive, and the more trust plummets. Dysfunction of all kinds is vastly higher than it was only a few decades and even years ago. The half-life of those old virtues lingers on, but dwindling, and keeps the state running to an extent that its present rulers do not understand or appreciate.
In the same way, California is also parasitic on the rest of America, especially Red America. Californians tell themselves—and us—that we’re lucky to have them. They pay much more in federal taxes than they get back, their world-beating industries power the economy and the financial markets, their cultural products define America to the world.
Maybe. But they’re lucky to have us, too. In a whole host of ways that Californians do not acknowledge, their feudal way of life is backstopped by American power. In some respects, literally. Despite being among the nation’s largest energy-producing states, and despite that mild climate to keep down utility bills (homes in large swaths of Northern California don’t even have air conditioning), the state is a net importer of electricity. As the green mandates pile up, that out-of-state share will only rise. Californians look the other way at importing dirty kilowatts from flyover states, even as their congressional delegation works tirelessly to make those watts harder and more expensive to generate.
Much more fundamentally, Californians can take for granted that the U.S. military, the Federal Reserve, and—until the events of spring and summer 2020 called these into question—federal cops and federal prisons will back them up and cover their mistakes. It’s hard to imagine California without a reserve currency backed (however flimsily) by hard assets and a military staffed disproportionally by Red Americans.
Assuming Californians would admit any of this (they wouldn’t), they would still say “But we give back so much.” Really? What? The produce is admittedly great, though we’d all be better off paying more to have it grown and picked by American citizens. The wines, with few exceptions, have become hot oak-fruit bombs. The manufacturing sector has been crushed. Hollywood churns out anti-American, anti-white hate propaganda. Do I need to explain what’s wrong with Big Tech?
California’s most important export is now people. As disgruntled former Golden Staters fan out across the country like Blue locusts, eager to consume pristine crops, it’s fair to ask whether other states should welcome any of them. They have the nasty habit of pushing, in their new homes, the very policies that spurred them to flee their old one. I recommend, to any rightwing billionaire reading this who wants to preserve the character of his Red state, giant billboards with one word: “JESUS.” Garlic to vampires.
This fourth mode of California parasitism is ultimately unsustainable, like the way the Mad Hatter’s tea party moves one place setting after they dirty the dishes. Eventually, they’ll run out of table. What then?
For the last 30 years, at least, California has ridden a tech tailwind that has underwritten the state’s spending orgy and crazed utopianism. California has literally bet the entire existence of its “new regime” on that wind continuing. Will it? If and when the oligarchy subsumes the United States as a whole, is a new high-paying, high-profit, high-margin economic sector waiting in the wings to carry aloft the entire country?
Yet Californication is what the broader left wants for America. Joe Biden himself has said so. The rest of us don’t have the luxury of fleeing a Californicated America. Where are we supposed to go?
Michael Anton is lecturer in politics and research fellow at Hillsdale College’s Kirby Center in Washington, D.C.