Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

What’s Wrong with California?

Victor Davis Hanson pretty much nails it. Of course, what do I know? I moved into rather than out of California! But increasing numbers of folks who are smarter than me are giving up and moving out. Hanson recalls a better time in California history but a time, perhaps, that did not do enough to prepare the current generation of California natives to appreciate their inheritance. It is a cautionary tale, it seems to me, for the nation as a whole. Why? Because California--for all its defects and all its charms--remains a trend-setter.

Discussions - 5 Comments

When I went to Sacramento years ago, I had the belief that government was no deep, dark mystery, that it could be operated efficiently by using the same common sense practiced in our everyday life, in our homes, in business and private affairs.

The "lab test" of my theory – California -- was pretty messed up after eight years of a road show version of the Great Society. Our first and only briefing came from the outgoing director of finance, who said: "We’re spending $1 million more a day than we're taking in. I have a golf date. Good luck!" That was the most cheerful news we were to hear for quite some time.

California state government was increasing by about 5,000 new employees a year. We were the welfare capital of the world with 16 percent of the nation's caseload. Soon, California’s caseload was increasing by 40,000 a month.

We turned to the people themselves for help. Two hundred and fifty experts in the various fields volunteered to serve on task forces at no cost to the taxpayers. They went into every department of state government and came back with 1,800 recommendations on how modern business practices could be used to make government more efficient. We adopted 1,600 of them.

We instituted a policy of "cut, squeeze and trim" and froze the hiring of employees as replacements for retiring employees or others leaving state service.

After a few years of struggling with the professional welfarists, we again turned to the people. First, we obtained another task force and, when the legislature refused to help implement its recommendations, we presented the recommendations to the electorate.

It still took some doing. The legislature insisted our reforms would not work; that the needy would starve in the streets; that the workload would be dumped on the counties; that property taxes would go up and that we'd run up a deficit the first year of $750 million.

That was years ago. Today, the needy have had an average increase of 43 percent in welfare grants in California, but the taxpayers have saved $2 billion by the caseload not increasing that 40,000 a month. Instead, there are some 400,000 fewer on welfare today than then.

Forty of the state’s 58 counties have reduced property taxes for two years in a row (some for three). That $750-million deficit turned into an $850-million surplus which we returned to the people in a one-time tax rebate. That wasn’t easy. One state senator described that rebate as "an unnecessary expenditure of public funds."

For more than two decades governments -- federal, state, local -- have been increasing in size two-and-a-half times faster than the population increase. In the last 10 years they have increased the cost in payroll seven times as fast as the increase in numbers.

We have just turned over to a new administration in Sacramento a government virtually the same size it was eight years ago. With the state’s growth rate, this means that government absorbed a workload increase, in some departments as much as 66 percent.

We also turned over -- for the first time in almost a quarter of a century -- a balanced budget and a surplus of $500 million. In these eight years just passed, we returned to the people in rebates, tax reductions and bridge toll reductions $5.7 billion. All of this is contrary to the will of those who deplore conservatism and profess to be liberals, yet all of it is pleasing to its citizenry.

But what do I know? they say I'm no longer relevant. But I'll be here if you need me.

California is an object lesson in liberalism run wild to be sure with its onerous government and high tax rates (along with its social liberalism making a mockery of a "fiscally conservative, socially liberal politics). That is the lesson that we conservatives might hope that the US public takes from the California example.

But we conservatives might also learn some lessons of our own. One of the main reasons for California's decayed politics is the marginalization of limited government, socially conservative politics. Candidates who espouse such policies have not won a statewide race for one of the big three offices (Senator of Governor)since what the 1980s? Since 1998, all the winners have been outright liberals. Conservatives are of course a small minority in the state legislature. One big reason for this marginalization of conservatives is the failure of political conservatism to make significant inroads into the African American and Latino vote as those votes have become more important. Its not exactly that those Latino and African American voters who vote for liberal Democrats are all liberals themselves. Many are, but as the gay marriage vote referendum showed many of those same nonwhite voters are willing to vote for the conservative side of an issue if not for a conservative candidate. There is not going to be a winning conservative politics in California until it is a conservative politics that can consistently do alot better among African Americans and Latinos.

I remember the Gray Davis recall campaign. There was a conservative Republican candidate who was challenging the Terminater for the center-right vote. Schwarzenegger has shown the dead end that is Liberal Republicanism, but I remember being disturbed by something in the tone of his more conservative opponent. He talked nostalgically about the more polite and ordered California that he grew up in. I have no doubt that there was no intention to exclude any of his fellow Californians in his statement. But I couldn't help thinking that if I had been a Latino, I might have wondered if he wasn't also being nostalgic for a California with a far smaller percentage of Latinos. A conservative nostalgia risks being interpreted as a white racialist nostalgia - though that is no intention of any conservative that I have met. A conservative politics that expands conservativism's appeal to nonwhites will of its nature have to apply timeless principle in a more forward looking way.

This is not simply a California issue. The same change (in a slower and diluted way) is occuring in the country in general as whites are in relative demographic decline. If nonwhite groups (especially African Americans and Latinos) continue to be estranged from conservative politics, we can expect our own fate to be similar to that of California.

Pete makes an excellent point above. (Seriously, Pete . . . you need to get a better and a full-time gig. I love having you here, but you're way too good to be buried in the comment sections.)

Tom McClintock is the candidate Pete's thinking about above and he makes a fair point about the problem with GOP (or anyone's) nostalgia. But, in fairness, Tom McClintock is about the furthest thing from a racist that there is and, moreover, I think he is one of the few Republicans one can talk to about this problem of perception on race and find a receptive ear. The GOP needs a more receptive ear on this question, but it has to be wary of putting its ear to the ground and believing all that it hears. I actually think the problem of GOP nostalgia has less to do with the question of race than it does with the simpler question of just looking old, tired and dusty.

Yes, the voter base in California is changing in a demographic sense, but this can be misleading. The voter base is always changing because people get old and die. Just because the color of the younger generation is a little more brown does not mean that there is anything fundamentally different about their opinions and interests than there would be in any generation of young people. Might it not be possible that people are making too much of this race thing on all sides? That is, mightn't people from both sides of the political aisle be according to it much more meaning than it actually possesses--especially in the minds of the young? The empirical evidence that Pete notes also suggests this. People are not politically bound and determined by their racial make-up, after all. In the sense that environment and background influence people, then yes it matters some. But lots of things influence people. One thing that always influences young people is their youth and their excitability and their desire to seem part of the in crowd. Yet, even when caught up in the buzz and excitement of a highly charged political campaign, when push came to shove and it was the issues rather than personalities, Californians used their heads rather than their vanity. (On gay marriage, I think this may change as the drive will be to push young people harder and harder on this point to accept it in order to keep their "cool" card.) Still, there remains in California a kind of determined looking ahead to the new, the different and the untried. (Funny thing is, this looking to the "new" is actually very old.) Whether it is true or false, Liberalism (and, now, leftism) has labored to maintain their reputation of being the thing that is new, different, and in tune with hearts and minds the young. Being ethnic is now considered part of being young and cool. It is now considered fashionable among people who care about such things, such as Larry King and other silly commentators, to be black. King even lamented that his young son was not black! It is hip and cool and youthful in his mind. No part of America worships the hip and the cool and the youthful more than California. It is hard to get too worked up over this or accord it much meaning, but I fear a sinister side to it. I dislike the condescending presumption that ethnicity has to mean anything at all--it boxes people. It's all well and good while it is considered "hip and cool" to be ethnic . . . but trends have a way of wearing thin and, what's worse, trends have a way of repeating themselves. I would not want to see a new popularization of "retro" opinions on race, for example. But as long as race and ethnicity are held to be meaningful and determinate categories there is always this danger . . . and it could come from either the right or the left.

The thing the GOP really ought to do is to expose the Dems and the left as frauds. They are just the flip side of the old coin. The really radical and really cool thing is to come around to the true view of race and ethnicity as meaning nothing of any political significance at all. That would be really liberal. Another thing we might do is start working hard a drawing a distinction between American liberalism (of the real sort) and leftism--which, of course--is illiberal.

Julie, that was a very kind thing to say,

One of the things that is striking to me about our politics is that it is from a conservative perspective, insufficiently ideologically sorted out. What I mean is that there is a sizeable fraction of voters who, if given an exam on the issues, would mostly anwer in favor of the "conservative" positions on taxes, regulation abortion, ect. But those same voters would vote for a liberal Democrat over a conservative Republican. These same voters might consider political conservatives to be their political enemy. Alot of times these are cases of racial and ethnic politics trumping ideology as we have come to think of it.

But I also think that we should take seriously the reasons why these voters are choosing liberal candidates with whom they have so many disagreements. That soesn't mean we have to agree with all of the reasons, but to try to understand the history that has brought us to this place and try to plan approaches that will work better. This is destined to be very complicated. William Voegeli terrific and brutally honest essay in the CLAREMONT REVIEW OF BOOKS really only illuminated a small corner of the tortured relationship between conservatives and the African America community. Similar work could be done about the relationship between the political expressions of conservatism and Latinos. That does not mean that we should always be looking for blame on the conservative side. Sometimes liberals do as well as they do because of the use of slader to create a false sense of ethnic/racial siege. But sometimes conservatives have taken approaches that have ended up being counterproductive in winning the votes of nonwhites. In some cases conservatives have needed to fight harder (possibly with a harsher and more aggressive communication strategy) for the votes of people in those communities. I don't really have a final answer, but do think that conservatives need to think alot harder about how to bring over nonwhite Americans who share our issue preferences but think of conservatives as the villains of politics.

Thanks for a very interesting discussion. All of these comments made excellent points. I have family in CA, and have traveled through much of it over the years, so I have been interested in it for a long time.

I agree that the article by Mr. Hanson “nails it” in regards to the sad state of the “Golden State.” While reading it, I was reminded of the words of a Lerner and Loewe song which talks about California in the days of the Gold Rush;
“They’ll be civilizin’ (read – regulating) left, and civilizin’ right, ‘till there’s nothin’ left, and there’s nothin’ right!”

Not a great song, but oddly prophetic.

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