The Real Reason California Turned Blue

The State of California has long been thought of as the vanguard of American progressive politics, offering a preview of the Democratic Party’s (and in many cases the country’s) leftward drift. But in the Age of Trump, it’s clear that the Golden State has helped shape modern trends on the Right as well. California has incubated an influential group of Trump-friendly intellectuals and operatives—from Silicon Valley neoreactionaries to West Coast Straussians to Trump advisers Stephen Miller and Peter Thiel. Isolated from conservative power centers, and struggling to explain their own lack of influence in an increasingly blue enclave, an eclectic group of California-based thinkers has proven particularly amenable to Trump’s populist nationalism, and especially his hostility to the massive immigrant inflows that have reshaped the state.

In the Atlantic, Rosie Gray profiles another such figure—Sacramento-born and Berkeley-educated writer and business executive Michael Anton, author of the famous “Flight 93” (“charge the cockpit or you die”) essay, who now sits on Trump’s National Security Council. Gray highlights the way Anton’s politics have been “shaped by the peculiar politics of California, a state buffeted by competing cultural and political forces in the postwar era; immigration, the tech boom, and decades of mostly liberal governance.” She quotes Charles Kesler, the pro-Trump editor of the Claremont Review of Books as saying “the promise of California has soured” and that Anton “doesn’t want California to be the harbinger of what happens to America.”

What exactly did happen to California? The standard explanation focuses on immigration. The state was ground zero for a massive influx of foreigners, especially from Latin America, in the 1980s and 1990s; these immigrants and their children are more likely to vote for Democrats than are native-born whites. Conservatives tried to restrict immigration by passing a referendum cutting off illegal immigrant access to most public services in 1996. This measure was overturned by the courts, and, the thinking goes, only further poisoned the Republican Party’s image in the mind of most Latino voters. Mass immigration continued; Latinos now make up almost 40 percent of the population, essentially blocking the GOP in its current form from statewide office. This is one reason the “charge the cockpit” analogy appeals to conservative hardliners: If you don’t, the Californification of the country will continue, and demographic change will obliterate any hope of a conservative Republican majority.

This reasoning isn’t crazy; it’s true that Hispanic and Asian immigration is one reason California has turned into a one-party state. But the Democratic advantage among minority voters doesn’t by itself account for the magnitude of California’s Democratic supermajority; California’s white population has become significantly more liberal over time as well. Nationwide, white voters voted for Donald Trump by a more than 20 point margin; California’s whites, who had previously supported native sons Nixon and Reagan by huge margins, went for Hillary by 5 points in 2016. If California’s whites voted more like the white population in the country at large, California would still be a blue state, but the Democrats wouldn’t rack up Soviet-style majorities there.

To more fully explain California’s political evolution, you need to look at domestic migration patterns as well. Since it entered the union, California has absorbed tens of millions of Americans from other states, including most famously during the Gold Rush, the Dust Bowl, and the postwar era of Federal investment and industrialization. But beginning in around 1990, just when California started to turn blue, this pattern reversed: For the past quarter-century, California has been a net exporter of people. This has largely been a working class exodus, with families disproportionately represented. “One of the largest groups of workers leaving California” between 2007 and 2013, the Los Angeles Times reported in 2015, “was those who had more than a high school diploma but less than a bachelor’s degree.” As Michael Saltsman notes in the Orange County Register, “an analysis of Census Bureau data by the Sacramento Bee shows that, between 2005 and 2015, 800,000 working-class Californians on net left for other states. Twenty percent of this net working-class outflow—156,000—went to one state in particular: Texas.”

The working class out-migration has included both whites and Latinos. But while California’s Latino working class has been continuously replenished by foreign migration, the white working class has not. The whites moving into California are largely college graduates, drawn to the state’s thriving but increasingly unaffordable metropolitan centers. In other words, patterns of out-migration over the past 25 years have drained California of one of the GOP’s most important constituencies. It’s not just that Republican demographic groups have been “overrun” by Democratic demographic groups; it’s that core Republican groups have left for other states. California has driven out its middle and lower-middle through high taxes, red tape, and especially soaring housing costs produced by urbanization and NIMBY-influenced zoning schemes.

A variety of trends, then, have left California with a deeply unequal demographic and economic state of play that is ideally suited to the Democratic Party. The working and middle-class exodus has left California with a large and disproportionately white upper and upper-middle class concentrated in the metropolitan areas surrounding San Francisco and Los Angeles; urban, educated populations tend to be cosmopolitan and culturally liberal. (This is especially true in the two industries California is known for—technology and entertainment; the dramatic decline of Southern California’s Cold War-era defense and aerospace industry also deprived Republicans of a once-significant business-class constituency in the Golden State.) California also has among the highest poverty rates in the country; poor people of all races tend to support the Democrats for economic reasons. Meanwhile, one of the few middle-income occupational categories that is still robust is the public sector. And public sector unions support Democratic politicians because they are dependent on them for continued state-sponsored benefits and patronage.

It’s understandable why right-wing hard-liners point to California as evidence that immigration threatens their political survival. After all, Democrats have been gleefully doing the same for years in the course of arguing that California represents the endpoint of the “emerging Democratic majority.” But this kind of zero-sum demographic determinism misses the big picture: California Republicans have been eviscerated not just because of immigration, but because the state’s overall economic and demographic development has proceeded in a way that strongly favors liberal politics. Limiting immigration is a reasonable aim of conservative politics, but the lesson of California isn’t that Republicans need to “charge the cockpit or die” on immigration policy; it’s that Republican populists perform poorly in places with concentrated economic production and a declining working and middle class outside of the unionized public sector.

California’s reactionary thinkers imagine their state and by extension the country in apocalyptic decline under the direction of a permanent liberal ruling class and propose various radical avenues for restoring conservatism in the face of white demographic decline. But perhaps the thinking that is needed isn’t particularly radical: As Walter Russell Mead has pointed out, the two most successful Republican Presidents of the 20th century presided over waves of suburbanization that made housing more affordable, reduced urban political power, and helped grow the population of right-leaning middle and working-class homeowners. A nationwide effort to expand the housing stock further outside of city centers could help slow the hemorrhaging of working class families in California—and also help support a Republican majority in the country at large.

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