Over the weekend, opponents of California’s Governor (Gavin Newsom) said they had gathered enough signatures to force an early state-wide vote on replacing him. This would be a referendum on California progressivism, or, as opponents sum it up: “Unaffordable housing, record homelessness, rising crime, failing schools, independent contractors thrown out of work, exploding pension debt, and now a locked down population while the prisons are emptied.”
Really, how could you screw up California? It is blessed with a Mediterranean climate, the largest Pacific seaboard in North America, the largest population and economy of any North American state, the fifth largest economy in the world, mountains fit for skiing, beaches fit for surfing, national parks, the largest agricultural sector, heavy industries – from jet planes to oil refining, the centre of the entertainment industry, and Silicon Valley.
The trigger was Governor Gavin’s personal behaviour, although the structural tensions have been years in the making
California is evidence for the superiority of progressivism, says the Democratic Party: evidence that progressives can serve both big business and social justice, evidence that California progressivism is a model for national politics.
Yet Newsom has proved himself one letter short of a full surname. Two years ago, he took over with nearly two-thirds of the popular vote, with plans to run for President in 2024. In May 2020, he had the highest approval rating in fifty years (65 percent). At the time, most of California seemed to be avoiding Covid thanks to an early and hard lockdown. A few months later, 43 percent of registered voters said he and the rest of state leadership are doing a “poor” job.
The trigger was Governor Gavin’s personal behaviour, although the structural tensions have been years in the making. When he enacted the second lockdown (late summer 2020), he should have admitted the first lockdown hadn’t worked, but he blamed the federal government. He made the second lockdown more restrictive, even banning outdoor dining. The case was popularized in a viral video by a tearful restaurant owner in Los Angeles County, watching a movie crew being catered on the same parking lot where she was not permitted to serve. She is now part of a lawsuit against the Governor for denying small businesses their rights.
He was then photographed at a birthday party inside a ludicrously expensive restaurant, without social distancing. He lied about it being outdoors – and about the presence of lobbyists. Subsequent to that, when asked to defend his economic record, he said that the state’s billionaires are “doing pretty damn well.”
California has the largest wealth gap (from richest to poorest) in America, larger than in Mexico. This gap has grown most rapidly in California (since the 1970s). The collapse of the middle class is acutest here. More than 80 percent of jobs pay less than the median wage. California has the highest poverty rate (18.2 percent) in the US, as adjusted to its horrendously high cost of living, itself driven by high taxes and oppressive regulations. You might be working in the wealthiest city (San Francisco) for the biggest big tech firm (Google), but living in the car park. By 2015, nearly a third of Silicon Valley’s residents relied on financial assistance from local government or charities.
Covid has only exacerbated these structural distortions. The state has a higher unemployment rate than Hawaii. Los Angeles now has the largest unemployment rate of any major American city.
Progressives have been fiddling while Rome burned. This is most literal in their failure to control wildfires, which are always blamed on climate change – and ultimately Republicans, but actually are caused by the state’s chronic failure to clear fuels and improve its electrical infrastructure. At the same time, its restrictions on fossil fuels, without providing sufficient alternatives, leave wide parts of the state suffering rolling power cuts.
California’s government spent most of 2020 enabling Black Lives Matter to break lockdown, making sanctuaries for illegal immigrants, legislating less funding and more monitoring of law enforcement, renaming schools and streets that sound too white, and even legislating a committee to study reparations for slavery (even though slavery was never legal here).
In San Francisco, illegal aliens can legally vote for school boards. In practice, anybody can register to vote, because the state doesn’t require proof of citizenship. Illegal status even has incentives, such as scholarships for “dreamers” only.
Here is the ultimate irony. California progressivism doesn’t work for its favoured identities. Sure, the woke can turn a blind eye to poverty when they see rural whites begging, but rural Californians are mostly Hispanic, and Hispanics suffer a higher rate of poverty in California than the national average.
The young are emigrating to states with lower cost of living. The rich and old are immigrating, with the means to enjoy the climate and pay the exorbitant local taxes (derided as “sunshine taxes”). Where does the money go? California’s infrastructure is collapsing, due to under-investment since the building spree of the 1950s to 1960s. Its once fine universities and high schools are condemning classrooms as unsafe.
The trend to working from home has encouraged a new surge in wealthy immigrants, further driving up house prices (the largest component of the cost of living). Given that the wealthy tend to be retirees, California is aging 50 percent faster than the average American state. Retirees are not as productive as workers. They pay high property taxes but little income tax. Meanwhile, cities such as San Francisco are losing their wealthy as neighbourhoods are taken over by homeless, criminals, and the poverty-ridden (who are protected by rent control). It’s difficult to see Californian progressivism as sustainable.
The threshold for forcing a recall of a governor is high: 12 percent of votes cast in the most recent election (November 2018), or almost 1.5 million. His opponents said over the weekend that they had collected more than 1.5 million signatures. They might need 1.8 million, given the historical rate at which signatures are thrown out as unverifiable. They will surely get there, because they still have another month before the deadline.
That doesn’t mean that Governor Gavin would be recalled in a state-wide ballot: the 1.5 million signatures would just force the ballot. Then Californians as a whole must decide. Gavin’s approval rating is still twice as high as Gray Davis’, when recalled in 2003. However, surveys during the Covid emergency tend to over-estimate approvals, as respondents fear appearing irresponsible. His opponents just need to convince the undecided (19 percent) to produce easily enough votes to end his career.
This has implications at the national level. The recall effort started in June. Joe Biden took over the Presidency in January, with a lot of appointees from California’s big tech, academia, and government. Biden declared himself fully behind the Governor. A month later, California’s opposition declared enough votes to recall him. The state-wide vote on his future must take place by June this year. National progressives face mid-term elections in November next year.
The more the Democratic Party embraces California progressivism, the more out of touch it looks
Gavin’s fall cannot but hurt the progressive ethos. He has governed since January 2019; he was the governor’s deputy for eight years before that, under Jerry Brown, who came out of retirement when Arnold Schwarzenegger went into retirement. Brown claimed to end Republican misrule, although in truth Schwarzenegger’s politics are barely Republican. And Schwarzenegger wouldn’t have been governor except that the Democratic incumbent was recalled by the people in 2003 for almost bankrupting the state.
Republicans haven’t controlled both houses of the State legislature since 1970. Republicans haven’t dominated the State’s representation in the US Congress since 1958. In November 2020, Californians voted for Democrats in both US Senate seats and 43 of the 53 US House seats.
And California has supplied the Democratic Party’s leading lights in Washington, including the Speaker of the House (Nancy Pelosi), the Senior Senator (Dianne Feinstein), the Chair of the House Intelligence Committee (Adam Schiff), and the current Vice-President (Kamala Harris, formerly the state’s Attorney General). All of them worked their politics in San Francisco, not Sacramento, where the state government sits. Newsom was Mayor of San Francisco from 2004 to 2011, and a commissioner in the Mayor’s office from 1996. California progressivism is actually a very small and incestuous world.
The more the Democratic Party embraces California progressivism, the more out of touch it looks. California progressivism is ripe with hypocrisies waiting to be discovered whenever the media stop fawning. Gavin Newsom’s personal behaviour has turned residents of the union’s most progressive state into critics. His long rise and quick fall foretell the trajectory of the newly woke Democratic Party.
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