Go west, old man.
In keeping with his promise to be the anti-Trump, Joe Biden is shifting the presidency’s philosophical center of gravity from South Florida to California, as the Los Angeles Times explained recently.
The proof is in the White House’s roster — breathlessly hyped as “looking more like America” — which is very much concentrated in the Golden State. Kamala Harris is vice president, Nancy Pelosi once again rules the House, and Californians run the Treasury, Homeland Security, Health and Human Services, and Energy departments. A number of UC-Berkeley faculty members or graduates also nabbed cabinet positions or were part of Biden’s transition team.
Governor Gavin Newsom even joked that he was “working hard” to convince some of his key staff not to jump ship to DC.
Together, these West Coast Avengers are uniting around California as the lodestone of the Biden-Harris administration and the newly minted Democratic Party–controlled Congress for national policy initiatives on the economy, climate, immigration, criminal justice reform, and more.
That’s good, say liberal think-tankers, because the style of governance of the nation’s most populous state is closer to Western Europe–style social democracy than the austerity-driven neoliberalism much of the rest of the country endures. California, the argument goes, is the home of “capitalism we can believe in.” Please clap.
We should be wary when we’re told that Biden’s campaign promise of Building Back Better quietly means Making America California Again. It’s great news for the whiz kid technocrats of the Democratic Party — but if history is a guide, California Love is often bad news for the working class.
The Two Californias
Here are two truths about California: In-and-Out Burger is overrated and the state isn’t a stronghold of socialism, even if right-wing conservatives sneeringly insist it is. In a widely circulated tweet, conservative pundit Tomi Lahren warned this week: “The Californication of America has begun. Next stop, socialism.”
The true force of Californication isn’t Marxism, it’s a kind of enlightened hyper-individualism. French thinker Jean Baudrillard argued that the nation’s populace had already been subsumed by it a generation ago. “In the image of Reagan,” he wrote, “the whole of America has become Californian.”
California — like Reagan himself — was in the imaginations of many white Americans a blank slate, a mirage in a Mojave desert on which you could project your hopes and dreams. It was a sunny paradise where well-off Boomers could abandon democracy and their generation’s revolution against war and injustice for the pursuit of individual happiness. The Sixties were tough, why not go surfing or to the gym instead?
Over the next few decades, Hollywood became the propaganda arm of the California attitude of self-indulgence that spread through the state’s biggest export: mass entertainment.
We “live in a world of abstractions and images…a simulated world that consists of computerized models of reality,” said social critic Christopher Lasch in Revolt of the Elites.
Reality mediated through screens didn’t kill politics, it edged them further into spectacle. The news media packaged politicians like actors in a television drama. Policy details and platforms? Not as important as personal narrative and quippy sound bites. After a while, we began to implicitly accept the fact that no one’s lives changed much no matter who was elected. The best that could be hoped for was a positive role model whose stories we admired.
It’s no wonder that California’s post-Reagan drift into the welcome arms of the corporate-friendly Democratic Party has meant a politics that looks more like an elite lifestyle brand. It’s the state of legalized weed and staggering poverty and inequality, which means everything is permitted but most cannot afford to indulge.
California boasts the nation’s highest poverty rate and widest wage gap. People of color, especially blacks and Latinos — especially struggle. Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Stockton rank at the very bottom of the list in terms of upward mobility for African-Americans, according to the Urban Reform Institute.
In San Francisco, where income inequality is on a level that harkens back to feudal Europe, the Lords of Big Tech uneasily share sidewalks with a booming homeless population. The streets and parking lots of nearby Silicon Valley are choked with thousands who live in RVs because they can’t afford to buy homes.
Hollywood’s sudden wokeness is disproportionately obsessed with representation and the skin-deep skirmish over which well-paid celebrities win a golden trophy while studios and productions overwhelmingly employ low-paid, overworked hourly contractors — often without providing health care. Some gigs don’t pay at all, offering the promise of “exposure” as an alternative — ironic considering that one meaning of the word is “a cause of death resulting from a lack of protection from the elements.” In other words, it pays to be Robert Downey Jr and not the guy polishing his stupid Iron Man suit.
If you don’t make it, sorry, buddy. Complain too loudly and we’ll deplatform you.
Here’s the deal, Jack: trading Florida for California — one sunny, palm tree–lined coast for another — isn’t just the blue team’s preference for the company of limousine liberals of Mar Vista over the MAGA-loving boat dads of Mar-A-Lago. It’s the product of the Democratic Party’s migration over the last generation from the union halls of the working class to Hollywood and Silicon Valley as MSNBC cheers it on.
It’s also where the money is at. In 2020, the state was number one in the nation in political donations and 70 percent of it, $891 million, went to the Democrats.
What does all that money buy? Arguably, the defining Californian politicians of the last two decades are former Governor Jerry Brown and Nancy Pelosi. Both have earned reputations for a willingness to discipline the left-wing of the state legislature and the US House, respectively, especially when it comes to economic redistribution. Kamala Harris talked a big progressive game in the primaries and then disappeared into the ether of Biden world since her pick as VP.
It’s hard to imagine a politician embodying modern California more than Gavin Newsom: a self-described “social liberal and a fiscal watchdog” and ex-husband of Trump whisperer Kimberly Guilfoyle, Newsom looks like one of the villains of the Oliver Stone movie Wall Street and made his fortune thanks to billionaire oilman Gordon Getty (whose name even sounds suspiciously close to Gordon Gecko).
Newsom sometimes tries to slip into a left populist act. “Unlike the Washington plutocracy, California isn’t satisfied serving a powerful few on one side of a velvet rope,” he said in 2019. “The California dream is for all.” But he’s not exactly known for his, let’s say, rhetorical consistency. Earlier this month, he bragged about “all the new billionaires” created by IPOs and noted that the state’s richest people are “doing pretty damn well.”
Worse, he harped on his constituents to quarantine while secretly celebrating the birthday of a lobbyist at an exclusive Napa Valley restaurant, sipping expensive wine maskless. Don’t be fooled, Newsom ain’t Bernie Sanders.
Life outside of wine country hasn’t been easy recently. The cases of COVID-19 spiked toward the end of 2020, and officials flubbed the vaccine distribution. The hours-long lines snaking through the Dodger Stadium parking lot of those waiting for the vaccine was described as something from the Hunger Games. Locals are so upset that the campaign to recall Newsom is close to having enough signatures.
Is this the kind of California that the Biden administration wants to import to the nation’s capital?
We Need Another Way
It’s not all bleak news.
I’ve lived in California twice, and it certainly is not without its charms. Beautiful vistas, beaches, and people. And there’s evidence that the state’s politics have marginally improved.
Blame (or credit) Trump. As president, he relished the opportunity to invoke California as the scary socialist boogeyman and bully them for it. He’d threaten to withhold federal funds for the state’s sanctuary city policies, or revoke its authority to independently regulate automobile emissions under the Clean Air Act. Even the historic wildfires that ravaged much of the state were solely the government’s fault, he claimed. Bad forest management practices. Just terrible.
And as was his wont, he trolled them on Twitter. “California is going to hell,” he tweeted in October.
A funny thing happened as a result: it unintentionally roused the sleeping giant from its slumber. Since 2016, California has emerged as a kind of #Resistance HQ of America. Not only did Attorney General Xavier Becerra, now Biden’s Health and Human Services Department pick, file more than one hundred lawsuits against Trump’s administration, but the state — pushed by an energized labor movement and left organizing — began passing marginally better laws.
The best of the best of the new legislation is Assembly Bill 5 (AB 5), a measure approved in 2019 that expanded protections for a million freelancers, gig workers, and independent contractors and opened the doors for them to begin organizing unions. That victory was unfortunately muted by the passage of Prop 22, a referendum that legally stripped rideshare and food delivery drivers, among others, of their employee status.
Biden’s stated labor plan actually cites AB 5 as a model that could be used as a federal standard. His support for a $15-an-hour minimum wage, which California passed back in 2016, is also a sign that the political establishment is caving to some key working-class demands.
Other California initiatives — like decarbonizing the electricity grid and free community college — are also on the right path, even if its brand of progressive incrementalism only nibbles at the edges of mitigating crises unleashed by capitalism.
So far, it’s unclear how hard the Biden administration will actually fight for the most progressive policies borrowed from the West Coast, such as his platform for “strengthening worker organizing and unions.”
It’s entirely possible that Biden will undo the most heinous acts of the Trump administration and then rely on symbolic gestures.
Nothing illustrates this principle more than when the White House announced that it was reviving the Treasury’s move to stamp Harriet Tubman’s visage on the front of the $20 bill. Giving lots of well-connected white people bank accounts full of “Tubmans” instead of “Jacksons” doesn’t address the material needs of most Americans — it’s a simulacrum of social justice.
But hey, it’s the California way.