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Goodbye California: A Lament

Originally published at First Things

I was born at the French Hospital, City of Los Angeles, State of California, in 1949. As of this writing, I have never been outside my native state for more than three weeks.

That’s about to change. Last week, I moved from California to the Washington, D.C. area after my wife accepted a journalism job there. The situation should last for some years. But even if it ends sooner than we anticipate, I don’t expect to return. Alas, I don’t want to return.

It would not always have been so. I loved growing up in California and, for most of my adult life, considered it the promised land. And it still has so much to recommend it. Take the weather. California has two seasons: rain—approximately October to April—and no rain, both with moderate temperatures. That happily predictable scenario is complicated only by the fact that the rainy season also comes in two varieties: not nearly enough and, like this year, way, way too much.

California’s casual lifestyle is also very appealing. Who wants to wear ties when you can, with full respectability, wear open-neck shirts?

California’s great strength was once its dynamism and practical excellence. Los Angeles became the country’s second-most populous city because of brilliantly engineered water projects that transported rivers of water to parched Southern California from the north and east, while also transforming the Central Valley from a wasteland to the nation’s bread basket.

Californians were also expert problem solvers. When I was a kid, the smog in Los Angeles was as thick as China’s is today, causing burning eyes and aching lungs. In the summer, the air was so opaque that we couldn’t see the San Gabriel mountains a mere fifteen miles away from my home. L.A. smog persists today, but nowhere near the crisis levels of my youth, thanks to reasonable environmental regulations.

California was also known for generally good governance. Our public schools were mostly excellent and our state university system was among the best in the nation. In my time, Democrats such as Pat Brown, and Republicans like George Deukmejian and Pete Wilson, governed moderately and with fiscal responsibility. Racism was certainly a serious problem, but in 1973, Los Angeles voters elected as mayor the pragmatic African-American City Councilman Tom Bradley over Sam Yorty, the acerbic and somewhat anti–civil rights movement incumbent. A new era seemed to be dawning.

That hopeful, moderate, sensible, and pragmatically progressive California is long gone. Today, radical governance is the rule at both the state and big city levels. The California Republican party self-destructed, allowing the Jacobin wing of the Democrat party to take absolute control. How skewed to the left have the state’s politics become? Due to a voter-approved initiative that has the two highest primary vote-getters appearing on the general election ballot regardless of party, some November races for major state offices are contests between a leftwing Democrat and a radical Democrat.

“San Francisco values,” once something of a national joke, drive contemporary California politics with a whip hand. Indeed, until the Los Angeles–area congressman was recently appointed Attorney General, San Francisco politicians controlled every important statewide office: governor (Jerry Brown), lieutenant governor (former San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsome), attorney general (now senator), the former San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris, and both United States senators. And let us not forget that the Democrat queen kahuna of Congress, Nancy Pelosi, represents parts of San Francisco and its liberal, mega-rich neighbor to the north, Marin County.

San Francisco’s predominance drives public policy into ever more extreme liberalism. With the election of President Donald Trump, “Calexit” activists plot to put a proposal on the 2018 ballot in support of constitutional secession. A recent poll found that a whopping one-third of Californians want to secede — and this before the campaign has gained major steam.

California has joined “the Resistance” to President Trump with such gusto that the legislature seems ready to risk a constitutional crisis by making California the Golden Sanctuary State. Meanwhile, Governor Jerry Brown’s obsession with climate change had him threatening to launch the state’s own data-gathering satellite while pushing a multi-billion dollar, high-speed train boondoggle that is already far over budget. Meanwhile, despite the recent drought — and now serious flood threat — the state refuses to build new reservoirs to manage water supplies.

These and other shifts in the state’s ethos and cultural beliefs have eviscerated many of California’s greatest characteristics. Effective problem solving? What’s that? After the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake caused the partial collapse of the eastern span of the Oakland Bay Bridge, it became clear that the span could fall into the bay during a major tremblor. Despite the urgency of building a safe replacement, local politicians impeded the project — not just for years, but for decades — fighting over ancillary concerns such as its visual aesthetics and whether the bridge should include bicycle lanes. Fortunately, the big quake never came, while some 200,000 vehicles drove over the bridge every day. By the time the replacement opened in 2013, it was many billions over the initial budget.

And what happened to the vaunted excellence in performance, once the hallmark of large California building projects? Gone with the outgoing tide. Within a year of completion, rust, corrosion, and other structural flaws called into question the long-term safety of the replacement bridge. Such is modern-day California.

Defenders of California’s current direction point to its good economy as proof that leftwing politics work. And indeed, coastal areas are booming. Tech rules! The once sleepy farm town of San Jose evolved into the economically and politically mighty Silicon Valley. Proving the old retail adage that location is everything, despite sky-high prices for hotels and restaurants, as well as the disgraceful city-allowed muck in the streets resulting from the homeless crisis, the stunning beauty of the San Francisco Bay and The City’s splendid tourist attractions support a huge convention industry and vacuum up tourist money from around the world. Show business thrives in Los Angeles, profoundly impacting the national culture. San Diego, perhaps replacing Orange County as the state’s most relatively conservative enclave, still benefits substantially from a large military presence and robust economy.

But look at the Central Valley. Talk about a tragedy! Environmental water policies that show greater concern for bait fish than for food production, combined with years of drought, have strangled area farmers to the point that much of the arable land is returning to its natural semi-arid state. The area’s infrastructure is buckling. Hoover Institution senior fellow Victor Davis Hanson, who lives on a family farm near Fresno, writes extensively about the devolution of the Central Valley’s economy and cultural morality into what he calls a “pre-modern” state — to the utter indifference of coastal elites living a mere hundred miles away.

So, I leave behind the mess with a light heart, glad to have escaped before the economic and cultural collapse I fear will result from the public-employee pension crisis or another tech bust (not to mention the “Big Ones” that are overdue on the San Andreas and Hayward faults, which could do to Los Angeles or San Francisco what a Vesuvius eruption would do to Naples). I am sure many contented Californians would say, “Don’t slam the door as you leave.” I get that. And, to be sure, the state is never beyond hope. California’s intrinsic creative dynamism remains. Indeed, all that has gone — in my view — so wrong in the last ten years could in the next decade be transformed again and made very right.

But that is going to take reasonableness and common sense. In the current radicalized California, both virtues seem as exhausted as the gold nuggets once mined to such good fortune from California’s foothill streams.

Wesley J. Smith

Chair and Senior Fellow, Center on Human Exceptionalism
Wesley J. Smith is Chair and Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism. Wesley is a contributor to National Review and is the author of 14 books, in recent years focusing on human dignity, liberty, and equality. Wesley has been recognized as one of America’s premier public intellectuals on bioethics by National Journal and has been honored by the Human Life Foundation as a “Great Defender of Life” for his work against suicide and euthanasia. Wesley’s most recent book is Culture of Death: The Age of “Do Harm” Medicine, a warning about the dangers to patients of the modern bioethics movement.