Feature 07.26.2021 5 minutes

Take It or Leave It

Semi truck towing an U-Haul cargo box trailer

Leftist dominance in California isn’t going to ease up anytime soon—plan accordingly.

California, once the jewel in America’s crown, is a failed state. People flocked here from everywhere—drawn by the weather, the robust middle-class economy, the freedom, the lifestyle, the great cities, the stunning countryside, the world-class infrastructure, the affordable public universities. The Golden State was the apex of the American experience.

That is gone. Now, the economy works mainly for the very affluent. Freedom is fading in favor of authoritarian control. The foundation of the California lifestyle—the automobile—will be illegal in a matter of years. Our cities teem with homeless, mentally ill drug addicts, and criminals. Our forest lands, off limits to sensible husbandry, burn to a crisp every year. The roads crumble, and we have intermittent electrical power. The public universities offer wokeness for $50,000 a year while the K-12 system traps kids in failing schools and indoctrinates them with racial grievance. There is really only one question left on the minds of all sane Californians: whether and how to get out.

When I ask friends if they are staying, the response is too frequently a half-hearted “well, you can’t beat the weather here.” But even the weather now features annual smoke storms: in high summer, ever larger forest fires inundate the usually sunny coastal cities with deadly air pollution that blocks out the daylight and drives everyone indoors.

Stay or go, I tell friends, but in the name of Heaven don’t stay for California. Our dysfunctions aren’t random misfortunes. They flow from decades of self-interested choices made by California’s governing elite, who show no signs of changing direction. Worse, nobody with better chops and a plausible shot of gaining office waits in the wings.

The first step to sanity is accepting hard truths, and the hard truth for conservatives in California is that for most of our neighbors, this is fine. They will vote for it forever, and there are way more of them than us. This is what they want.

If you can’t hang with that hard truth, you should probably join the exodus. California lost almost 200,000 people in the past decade. I suspect that most left between June and December of 2020, and I think my wife and I know more than half of them. Who are these refugees from the once-Golden State?

Among these “migrants” from California to the Normal States of America, those of my acquaintance mostly fall into two categories. The first are a little older than me and my wife, with mostly grown children and grandchildren living elsewhere. They are on the cusp of retirement or can continue their current work from anywhere. They are generally moving to where their children have gone: Texas, Colorado, and Idaho seem popular with this cohort.

Then there are younger couples with very young children and not much capital in California. They are leaving to start something new, to build something, to create a family life and raise children in the Lord where that can still be done largely unhampered by California-style progressivism.

These young couples are reversing the wagon trains that settled the West. Rather than the Mountain West (which Bluish California retirees are turning purple), these young families are headed back across the Rockies, to states where land and homes are cheap(er), people are free(er) and opportunities abound. It isn’t just Texas: its Tennessee, Kansas, Nebraska, Arkansas, Florida, Wisconsin, Virginia, the Dakotas. Places where the weather sucks compared to California, but everything else is much better.

Hold the Recall

That brings me back to California. There’s a recall on, after all. Can’t we win that and get new governance that will right the ship?

I was a skeptic of the recall in its early days. It was confined to a very conservative bubble whose occupants were convinced, against clear evidence to the contrary, that everyone agreed with them. Then Newsom himself got the recall over the hump with his high profile, lobbyist-enhanced dinner at a Napa Valley eatery while he lectured the muggles about staying home for Thanksgiving. Middle-class liberals in Los Angeles and other “regular” Californians, who usually are fine sitting with a cup of coffee in a burning building, couldn’t take it any longer, particularly after COVID restrictions could no longer be blamed on Donald Trump.

The recall election is scheduled for September 14, and a lot can happen between now and then. Polls report that a wide majority of Californians have a newly high opinion of Newsom and his handling of things, and a majority thinks we will be worse off if the recall succeeds. But fortunes may change again, and other polls show the recall question tightening.

The recall ballot will have two questions: (1) should Newsom be removed, and (2) who should replace him as governor. Voters can pick a replacement even if they vote against removing Newsom. The contenders make up one long list, and there is no runoff. If the removal question passes, whichever of the dozens of alternatives gets the most votes is the new governor of California, with perhaps as little as 20% of the vote.

Even if the recall fails, it has already accomplished important goods. It is doubtful that Newsom would have taken even the grudging steps he has to open the state without pressure from the recall. His strategy will have to include keeping the state open and getting the schools open for real. These are good things, and if all the recall accomplishes is a modicum of democratic accountability for our autocrat head of state, it has been worth it.

I can’t say he will beat the recall, but Newsom has better odds of surviving than his predecessor Grey Davis did in 2003. One reason is that Davis faced down Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose movie star popularity gave people a reason to vote for the recall instead of against it.

Is there a candidate like him in the current recall? Not even close. Among the four dozen candidates, the most notable are radio host (and Republican) Larry Elder, Republican Assembly Member Kevin Kiley, Republican business man John Cox (who lost the 2018 governor’s race to Newsom by 30 points) former Republican congressman Doug Ose (who dropped out of the 2018 governor’s race because nobody was interested in him), Republican former San Diego mayor Kevin Faulconer (a tough-on-the-homeless but otherwise conventionally-liberal California politician), and The Bruce (whom you all know). Although Larry Elder’s late entry made a few waves, few of the candidates generate the interest needed to expand the yes vote on the recall question. Jenner (against expectations) is not even consolidating California’s rump Republican vote.

If the recall looks like it may pass, Democrats will rue not fielding their own replacement candidate. Popular former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa would have made a strong “insurance policy” candidate for the Ds, but would likely have tipped the recall toward ousting Newsom. In that case, voters would replace a San Francisco progressive with a Los Angeles progressive. But as it stands, no prominent Democrat is on the replacement ballot (and oddly, Newsom is not even designated a Democrat on the ballot either).

So what if the Ds made a fatal miscalculation by not fielding a replacement candidate, and the recall passes? Then we might have Governor Elder, or Kiley, or Jenner. What could that do to revive the Golden State? A lot less than people think.

In California, the governor may work in the corner office, but the leader of the state senate (where the Ds hold a 31-9 majority) controls who leads state agencies. Unlike the U.S. Senate, the California senate is consistently ruthless in rejecting unacceptable Republican nominees to agencies. Since a successful recall of Gavin Newsom won’t diminish Democratic control of the state Senate, a MAGA-ish Governor Kiley, or Jenner (maybe Kylie Jenner should have run, she would totally win) would be a figurehead at the helm of a ship of state staffed by the same left-wing politicians who have driven it onto the rocks. Outside of interesting press conferences, don’t expect much from a Governor Jenner. Of course, a promise to veto progressive bills would get my vote, and fulfilling that promise would be incremental improvement in this state.

Build Community

With all this, why am I staying? It’s pretty simple—this is where my wife’s extended family is, where our social capital is, and where most of my professional capital (including my law license) is. We aren’t staying for the weather, or the night life, or the beaches, or anything but our family and our close friends (most of whom we know through church) who have also decided to stay.

We will not overthrow the leftist oligarchy or change state politics if we just “get involved.” Not in California. There are opportunities around the edges, but not many. That is not what we are staying for. This is, after all, why so many of our dear friends have left.

But neither will we “ride it out.” We happy few must up our game where it matters—building resilient communities in an increasingly dangerous place, growing our families, founding new institutions that will support us, and building our church to feed, inspire and refresh us. These aren’t things we can buy, and they aren’t lying around. We will have to build them.

This requires a new commitment to particular conservative virtues that are necessary to community building, and deemphasizing those that foster individuality, affluence, and consumerism. As lifelong homeschoolers, for example, my wife and I are very attached to the expertise we have developed in educating our own children and are reluctant to put them even in the few very good schools here, mainly because someone else controls the curriculum.

To overcome this, we are joining other families who are founding a new classical school in our city. Similar efforts have faltered here in the past, largely from conflict among the participants. Providentially, the increasing persecution of conservatives seems to be melting our prior reluctance to work together. If we are staying in California, strong households alone are not enough. Our families need to belong to strong, fruitful, virtuous, and tight-knit communities if we are to thrive here. We hope and pray that the school leads to other commitments within our community, making us more resilient to cultural and economic hostility.

Hard times make strong people, and it will be good, in the days to come, to have been strong. One thing is certain: we can count on California to provide the hard times.

The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.

The American Mind is a publication of the Claremont Institute, a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization, dedicated to restoring the principles of the American Founding to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life. Interested in supporting our work? Gifts to the Claremont Institute are tax-deductible.

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