Why Can't California Create Viable National Leaders Anymore?


Once upon a time, Hollywood and California seemed to be leading the country, for better or worse, with outsized public figures and sometimes compelling, or at least entertaining, ideas.

California politicians like Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan achieved national power, establishing the primary strands of conservative thought.

California’s liberals were less successful, but at least they were influential. Jerry Brown never made it to the White House — he would have been our first Zen president — but he laid out many of the tracks, notably on the environment and fiscal restraint, that helped update progressivism over the past half century.

What happened?

Yet since Brown’s last attempt to win the White House a quarter-century ago, no presidential candidate from California has made a serious bid. Some normally perceptive observers, like longtime Democratic power player Mickey Kantor, predicted a year ago that 2020 would be the year Californians had a “better chance at winning the nomination” than seen in years.

Those expectations, to say the least, have not been fulfilled. This year’s theoretically “serious” California candidate, Sen. Kamala Harris, was seen as the intersectional dream candidate until her imperious personality and barely disguised opportunism flopped with voters. She didn’t make it to New Hampshire, much less the White House.

Others didn’t make it even that far. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti contemplated a run, but the fact that he is also presiding over a homeless disaster seems to have caused him think again. Gavin Newsom, who seems to be always playing for the next big part, decided to wait it out, but he is not even particularly well-liked in the state — he has among the lowest popularity ratings of any governor. He seems more suited to playing a president on TV than being one.

Then, of course, there’s Congressman Eric Swalwell, who, despite his incessant assaults on Trump on the House Intelligence Committee, never made any impression at all. After the 38-year-old aspiring Buttigieg left the race, it still seemed he was never there.

Tom Steyer, the onetime fossil fuel and private prison investor turned green Savonarola, has spent millions on the campaign, but won a pathetic 3.6 percent of the vote in New Hampshire, placing himself even behind the lame Joe Biden. He is now pouring millions into states like Nevada and South Carolina, hoping to buy support with economically ludicrous ideas like a $22-an-hour minimum wage. The good news, such as it is: he will soon be steamrollered by the far wealthier, and savvier, Michael Bloomberg, whose green-tinted campaign seems primed to buy out the state’s last non-socialist elected officials and influencers.

Competition key to political success

In politics, as in business, competition does wonders to hone messages. Before the last decade, California enjoyed a highly competitive political marketplace, divided not only between Republicans and Democrats but the warring factions of each party. For the most part, the state oscillated between pragmatic progressive Democrats like Culbert Olson and Pat Brown and moderate Republicans like Earl Warren and Goodwin Knight.

To win in California, you had to be good at extending your message to the other party and independents. Coming from California also suggested that you represented the aspirational future, with a diverse economy that produced middle-class jobs. Everything that the rest of America wanted — personal beauty, a nice home, good schools — was epitomized by the “California dream” that lured millions to the state.

The common theme, it’s hard to believe today, was competent government. In 1971, after Reagan’s re-election as governor, the economist John Kenneth Galbraith in New York magazine described the state government as run by “a proud, competent civil service” and enjoying among “the best school systems in the country.” Anyone reporting on Sacramento and looking at the state miserable educational record can only marvel at the state’s devolution.

The great political balance that created viable national candidates also has now sadly disappeared. Today the chance of a Republican rising to national prominence from California seems far-fetched. The state GOP, now barely alive, seems more animated by petty internal disputes than actually winning elections. Outside of raising money — President Trump attended a big money fund-raiser at the desert estate of Oracle founder Larry Ellison — the Republican Party has become California’s Whigs, an aging herd ready for its last round-up.

The Democrats’ devolution

The demise of California within the ranks of Democratic presidential politics is more surprising, and perhaps more revealing of the state’s recent evolution. Jerry Brown blames the dominance of East Coast media — he suggests California aspirants “move to New York”— but somehow that did not stop Nixon or Reagan, or even the first president with strong California ties, Herbert Hoover.

A more compelling explanation may be that California Democrats have gone well off the center, ever since the local GOP collapsed. Politicians like Olson and the Browns fought their way through tough opposition; Newsom and Harris reflect a one-party state where the only dangers to survival lie from the left. Unlike a Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, Joe Biden or even the early Bernie Sanders, California’s Democrats, on a statewide basis at least, increasingly do not have to compete for Republican votes or even appeal to moderates.

California’s increasingly hyper-progressive politics reflect a growing divergence between our state and the rest of the country. Our state is, if anything, more powerful both economically and culturally than 50 years ago, but it no longer stands as a reasonable aspiration for most Americans outside of the very rich, their heirs and the occasional extraordinary genius.

As California has become the home to the world’s leading young oligarchs — it’s home to 10 of the country’s billionaires under 40 and all who are self-made — it has also become among the most unequal states, with the largest gap between the middle class and rich in the nation. Once an irresistible lure, California is clearly losing its demographic appeal, consistently losing more residents, particularly among family-age people. For many Americans, California may now appeal more as a vacation spot, or a short-term stay, than a reasonable place to settle and start a family.

Not a national role model

None of these realities will alter the insistence among progressive that California should be seen as a role model to be emulated by the rest of the country. “The future depends on us,” Newsom said at his inauguration. “And we will seize this moment.” Progressive theorists like Laura Tyson and Lenny Mendonca laud California as the home of “a new progressive era,” an exemplar of social equity. Others see California as deserving of nationhood, as it reflects, as a New York Times column put it, “the shared values of our increasingly tolerant and pluralistic society.”

Reality, however, is starkly different. The state’s ill-conceived climate policies are accelerating the state’s feudalization, insane property inflation, sky-high energy prices and may as well contribute to the  homelessness crisis. These realities would burden any California presidential hopeful with associations likely not inspirational to people from east of the Sierra.

As it is, California’s foibles are sure to become targets in November of Trump and members of the national GOP, who may find running against our state a good tactic even without a Californian on the opposing ticket.

A lack of national reach does not mean California’s demise is either inevitable or in the near future, as some conservatives assert, and perhaps dream about. As long as the tech giants and high-end real estate thrives, the California “model” may be able to sustain itself. But it seems unlikely that an agenda of higher taxes, increased regulation and the use of grade schools as places of progressive indoctrination will have much appeal to people, including many Democrats, east of here.

This would be particularly true for those people still depend on industries such as fossil fuels, manufacturing and agriculture that California’s ideologies seem determined to stamp out. Rather than a new model for the nation, the state is likely to remain a financial, economic and cultural powerhouse but also a political anomaly.

Our state’s companies may control the internet and mass culture, and the climate remains second to none, but when it comes to creating saleable national figures, the Golden State has become a golden dud.

This piece first appeared in the Orange County Register.

Joel Kotkin is the Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and Executive Director for the Center for Opportunity Urbanism. His last book was The Human City: Urbanism for the Rest of Us (Agate, 2017). His next book, The Coming of Neo-Feudalism: A Warning to the Global Middle Class, is now available to preorder. You can follow him on Twitter @joelkotkin

Photo credit: Henri Sivonen via Flickr under CC 2.0 License.