Qualified Praise for California

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California is the punching bag of right-wing media everywhere. If the state were to dissolve into the Pacific, conservative pundits would lament the loss of one of their greatest talking points about progressive mismanagement. From free-market libertarians to social conservatives, economic nationalists to border-security hawks, California is the fusionist right’s perfect foil, uniting disparate factions against a common opponent

A generation ago, this would have seemed odd. California had recently produced two Republican presidents who won landslide reelection majorities. Nixon and Reagan appealed to working-class Democrats over the heads of a media-academic establishment that despised them. From a regional perspective, California was part of the GOP’s broader cultural shift from the party of well-heeled East Coast elites to the party of blue jeans and cowboy hats, as augured by the Goldwater nomination of 1964. The marriage of the GOP and the ethos of the American West was in many ways a natural fit. The West was America, only more so.

Los Angeles in the 1910s and ’20s epitomized rugged individualism and the entrepreneurial spirit well before the Republican Party self-consciously adopted such an image itself. Harrison Gray Otis, owner of the Los Angeles Times, was not only a militant anti-Communist but a relentless booster of a city and region that, with the exception of a shortlived oil boom, had little in the way of natural resources: no natural harbor, little water, no industrial base to speak of. Even after labor agitators blew up his newspaper’s headquarters in 1910, Otis continued to pursue his open-shop, pro-business editorial agenda undeterred, helping to cement LA’s then precarious status alongside San Francisco as a major metropolitan area.

In 1910, Los Angeles hosted the nation’s first international air show at Dominguez Hills, laying the groundwork for aviation manufacturing, which, alongside film production, became an economic mainstay of this forward-looking, technology-embracing city. Southern California produced 300,000 aircraft as part of America’s arsenal of democracy during World War II. Similarly, by the 1920s, Los Angeles boasted by far the nation’s highest per capita car ownership, presaging the country’s car- and suburb-centered middle class of the 1950s.

None of this would have been possible without William Mullholland’s record-breaking engineering marvel, the Los Angeles Aqueduct. A self-made Irish immigrant, Mullholland’s tale reads like some kind of Ayn Randian allegory of self-invention. He rose from the ranks, starting out clearing irrigation ditches before becoming leader of a never before tried aqueduct from remote mountain terrain in the Sierra Nevadas into the heart of Los Angeles, a distance of more than 230 miles.

When I drive north from my home town of Pasadena to my mother’s native Solvang, outside Santa Barbara, I am surrounded by another example of sun-inspired entrepreneurship. In the 1950s and ’60s, when my mother grew up, the area around Solvang was mainly devoted to cattle ranching and farming. Today, the region boasts a world-renowned wine industry that arguably gives Napa Valley a run for its money. The attendant rural gentrification of the area is not without problems, but Republican-minded persons cannot help but marvel at the foresight of entrepreneurs who laid the groundwork for a whole new agricultural and agro-tourism industrial base that brings much appreciated dollars to the region.

A mentor and friend of mine, liberal Bay Area journalist Daniel Duane, made an excellent point when, discussing our mutual enthusiasm for the state we love, he pointed out a fundamental flaw of conservative critiques of the Golden State. Conservatives, he sad, should at least acknowledge the state’s success at what they claim to hold so dear, innovation and entrepreneurialism. California is where the predator drone was invented, the state where Google, Apple, Uber, Lyft, Tesla, Facebook, Twitter, and AirBnB were created. Even before that, as journalist James Flanigan explains in Smile Southern California, You’re the Center of the Universe, California institutions and researchers played major roles in the invention of cellphone technology and the internet.

Why is it that a state so overburdened by taxes and regulation, by poverty and a lack of affordable housing, still manages to out-innovate much of Red America? What is it about California’s culture that seems to foster such creativity? Duane’s criticism was at its most cutting—and most pertinent for the future of the GOP—when he pointed out the dilemma at the heart of California’s success: Do conservatives want to study and take seriously California’s laudable track record of innovation? If they don’t, what is their justification for rejecting the California blueprint for entrepreneurial daring?

On these points, it pains me to say that progressives have a solid argument. If well-educated urbanite liberals have something to learn from Trump voters in flyover country, the inverse also pertains. A post-Trump GOP seeking to find a balance between scorched-earth populism and economic nationalism on the one hand, and the intractable realities of a globalized economy on the other, might have something to learn from a state that has survived the transition to a  post-industrial knowledge economy by adapting to it.

Interestingly enough, despair over the fate of California has bipartisan roots. When the Cold War ended, California generally and Southern California in particular were hit hard by the decline in defense spending. That, coupled with the Rodney King riots and a severe real estate recession, lent itself to apocalyptic doomsaying from authors like Mike Davis and Joan Didion. In their own ways, Davis’s City of Quartz and Didion’s Where I Was From overhype California’s demise while downplaying the state’s resilience in the face of change.

Similarly, proclamations of a vast exodus from California may be somewhat hyperbolic. A California Policy Lab analysis suggests that, while fewer people have entered the state during the pandemic, there is no discernible uptick in outmigration. The much-ballyhooed stampede from San Francisco has been to other Bay Area cities or Sacramento, not out of California entirely. Equally important, the analysis found little evidence to suggest that the wealthiest Californians, upon whom the state budget disproportionately relies, were fleeing the state en masse.

California’s continued role as an entrepôt for global trade (Los Angeles-Long Beach is the largest port in the country by trade volume) and highly skilled labor suggest some unglamorous truths. One: as much as it would be great to reshore American manufacturing, this must be done in tandem with continued reliance on high quality universities with robust research and development funding. The University of California system, along with Stanford, Caltech, and others, are indispensable to California’s economic resilience. Two: whether it’s in the water, the air, or simply the imagination, there’s something to California—its culture, its history, its lessons—that Democrats and Republicans can’t afford to write off.

Kurt Hofer is a native Californian with a Ph.D. in Spanish Literature. He teaches high school history in a Los Angeles-area independent school.

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