A hoary—but not therefore inaccurate—cliché holds that as goes California, so goes the nation. That is to say, social and political trends that first appear in the Golden State eventually—and inevitably—take hold throughout America. Examples include the rise of capital-P Progressivism—Hiram Johnson was elected the nation’s first Progressive governor two years before Woodrow Wilson became president—the revolutions of the 1960s, and the tax revolt that in 1978 sparked California’s Proposition 13 and two years later swept another California governor, Ronald Reagan, into the White House.
If the old cliché remains true, then the rest of the country should be afraid—very afraid. My parents’ and grandparents’ California—the California of my own youth—is long gone. That California was the greatest middle-class paradise in the history of mankind. Its promise— which it mostly delivered—was nothing less than the American dream writ large, but better: freer, wealthier, sunnier, happier, more advanced, more future-oriented.
In barely one generation, that California was swept away and transformed into a left-liberal one-party state, the most economically unequal and socially divided in the country, ostensibly run by a cadre of would-be Solons in Sacramento and in the courts, but really by oligarchic power concentrated in a handful of industries, above all Big Tech and Big Hollywood. The middle class—what’s left of them—continue to flee high taxes, higher costs, cratering standards of living, declining services, deteriorating infrastructure, worsening quality of life, and an elite that openly despises them and pushes policies to despoil and dispossess them.
Despite California’s myriad evident failures, its grandees—in and out of government—consider the state a rousing success and model for the rest of the country. As do their fellow elites in Washington, New York, college towns, and the other True-Blue strongholds of post-1960s America. Perhaps the purest exemplar of today’s overclass, Mike Bloomberg—Harvard grad, Manhattanite, Wall-Streeter, billionaire, presidential aspirant, booster of open borders, open trade, and any and all measures that pound down wages—gleefully says that “California can serve as a great example for the rest of this country.”
Hizzoner is hardly alone. With apologies to the Red Hot Chili Peppers, America’s bicoastal oligarchs and tastemakers celebrate “Californication” as a heady brew of technological innovation, economic futurism, environmental consciousness, social enlightenment, and political progressivism. Or, as one Left-Coast booster put it, “gay marriage, medical marijuana, universal health care, immigrant sanctuary, ‘living’ minimum wage, bicycle-friendly streets, stricter environmental and consumer regulations.”
According to the public presentation of this vision—the marketing brochure copy—the New California formula provides everything, with no downsides: economic growth and job security; equitable distribution of inherently scarce goods and environmental protection; fantastic innovation alongside regulation that protects against every contingency; endless energy without drilling or carbon emissions; social reengineering with no erosion of the habits necessary for a strong economy or stable society—all gain, no pain, all the time.
There’s an underside to this vision, though: rising inequality and neo-feudalism, a yawning and widening gap between the wealth and political power of the haves and have-nots, demonization and persecution not merely of overt dissent but of passive refusal to celebrate the new order. These aspects the elites don’t talk about but quietly also push. “California is booming”—but only for them. When they say they want the rest of the nation to look more like California, the state’s dystopian, oppressive features are a big part—perhaps the biggest—of what they mean.
We shouldn’t be surprised. It’s the nature of an elite to work to augment, entrench, and perpetuate its privilege and power. The questions for the rest of us are: why should we go along, and how can we stop them?
The lands that, since 1850, have encompassed the American state of California are perhaps the most coveted, prized, fertile, livable, productive, and strategically significant in the world. There may be more important choke points: for instance, Istanbul astride the Bosporus and Singapore on the Malacca Strait. New York and London may be more globally dominant in our increasingly financialized economy than San Francisco or Los Angeles. But acre-for-acre, even before a single soul sets foot on it, California is the richest, most temperate, resource-laden, and enviable place in the world.
Yet just as a block of flawless marble requires a sculptor to become a statue, California didn’t build itself. The Americans who began trickling in after 1840, then flooding in after 1849, transformed that geographic raw material into what was, briefly, the most politically, socially, and economically successful society the West has ever known.
California’s multitude of natural advantages, combined with the farsighted efforts of its leadership and the rock-solid virtues of its majority middle class, once added up to the nation’s highest standard of living, incomes, educational attainment, health, and general well-being.
The public education system—at every level—was the envy of the world, and its strengths reverberated throughout the state. California schools churned out an extraordinary number of workers ready, willing, and able to man the economy at every level, from necessary and mundane brawn up to and including hard science and high tech. The schools’ quality and price—free through high school, dirt cheap for post-secondary—encouraged family formation and high birthrates. And those schools, with the exception of certain corners of the most elite universities, inculcated a unifying ethos that gave Californians a common pride in their country and state along with a common sense of citizenship as both Californians and Americans.
California’s infrastructure, too, was the envy of the world. Despite the natural fertility of the soil, California—except on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada, with its (typically) abundant snowpack runoff—lacks sufficient water to fulfill the land’s potential. No matter. Americans provided what nature omitted via the greatest irrigation system built since the Roman aqueducts—and in scope, reach, and sophistication surpassing even those.
Too “spread out” to make widespread passenger rail practical, economic, or efficient, California instead built the nation’s first and best network of highways and freeways, both to facilitate transportation within metro areas and to knit the state together. Already blessed with two of the world’s finest natural harbors—the San Francisco and San Diego Bays—Californians built another from scratch and made Los Angeles–Long Beach into the world’s busiest container port.
Think, also, of all the world-transforming industries that California either invented, pioneered, took over, or indispensably furthered—including railroads, oil, shipbuilding and navigation, automobiles, aerospace, motion pictures and television, nuclear physics, and (of course) computing. Add to these the state’s excellence in ancient industries such as mining, timber, farming, ranching, and fishing, and you have what is arguably history’s greatest combination and concentration of old and new.
Despite—or because of—all this world-beating success, California was for decades the country’s “easiest” and most pleasant place to live. The vastness of the land and the (relative) sparseness of the population outside the state’s (then) few concentrated urban centers made the cost of living on par with the national average. Combine that with above-average wages and well-above-average quality of life, and living and working in the state was actually a bargain. The weather alone—no humidity, very little rain, moderate temperatures, snow only if you seek it—attracted, and still keeps, millions. Then there are the plethora of natural marvels—beaches, forests, mountains, deserts, and nine national parks—to explore within a day’s drive. Man-made amenities included first-rate infrastructure, efficient services funded by moderate taxes, and high standards of living.
Outside the state’s few truly upper-class enclaves—Pacific Heights, Pebble Beach, Beverly Hills, La Jolla—virtually any man could earn a living and raise a family on one income almost anywhere. Every city, town, and county offered clean, functional housing for every income level, while shared services and infrastructure facilitated a level of social equality across the spectrum. Few even in the upper strata sent their kids to private schools. Beauty and weather aside (the coast is always more temperate than the hot valleys or the cold mountains), there was little difference in quality of life along the glamorous Pacific shoreline than in the vast interior.
It couldn’t last. Mid-twentieth-century California was too good a deal, too much of a steal, for people not to come and grab their piece of the California Dream. Which millions did—mostly, at first, other Americans but eventually, and increasingly, foreigners from our South, followed by newcomers from literally everywhere.
Yet the transformation of California wasn’t simply inevitable. It was pushed along by deliberate policy—often including a willful refusal to enforce certain laws, which is itself a policy. Nor did New California just “happen”; it was created no less than the Old. We’ll examine the “how” below. But first let’s look at the features and contours of modern California.
California Today: Self Image
California’s ruling class does an excellent job of presenting precisely—and only—the image of their state that they want you to see. Their self-image is perhaps best exemplified by the tourism ads the state beams and streams to the rest of the country. In these slickly produced spots, a succession of movie and TV stars, recording artists, famous athletes, politicians, and other luminaries take brief breaks from surfing, skiing, skydiving, sailing, climbing Half Dome, singing, acting, picking wine grapes, or some similarly upmarket and/or übermenschy activity to look directly into the camera and entice ordinary Americans to come spend their precious vacation dollars in California. The backdrop, too, is always glamorous: a beach, a movie set, a Napa winery, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Santa Monica Pier, Big Sur, the Avenue of the Giants, and the like.
This is not merely a matter of putting one’s best foot forward; it’s rather a state whose self-conception pretends that its less-than-glamorous parts simply don’t exist. In those ads, freshly paved roads are crawling with hybrid and electric cars on their way to the coast—but look in vain for pickups traversing potholed gravel beds on their way to a Kern County oil field. Dinner plates are bursting with organic vegetables—but the Great Central Valley, 11 percent of the state by land area, where most of that food is grown? Out of sight. As are the various barrios, ghettos, trailer parks, tent cities, and people sleeping in their cars. All of those are integral to modern California, too, but California’s grandees don’t want you to notice—or know about—any of them.
In the real California, six big industries dominate: technology, entertainment, tourism, the ports (Chinese container ships don’t unload themselves), agriculture, and government. California’s image-makers prefer to focus on the first three, with limited nods to agriculture (cult Cabs and artisanal cheese, yes; Salinas Valley lettuce or Fresno County raisins, no) and government. Not, needless to say, the latter’s competence, which is all but nonexistent, but its woker-than-thou “progressivism.”
An out-of-state tourist, certainly, and a business traveler, mostly, will only ever see Haute California: the thin ribbon along the coast up to Marin, or maybe Mendocino (north of which the coast gets kind of redneck, or—as we Californians say—“Okie”), plus outposts in the interior such as Palm Springs and Lake Tahoe. Unless he’s in the food or farm equipment business seeing clients or suppliers along Highway 99, or petitioning the government, the businessman will likely spend his time in the gleaming glass towers of downtown San Francisco or Los Angeles, perhaps along the Miracle Mile, or—more likely—in the low-key but hypermodern office parks of Sand Hill Road or the toy-stocked preschool playgrounds of tech firms in SoMa and Mountain View. A petitioner in Sacramento will see a junior imperial capital, glitzy and glossy despite its unglamorous location on the Valley floor, whose wealth—like that of all imperial capitals—derives from taxing and spending the productivity of the surrounding provinces. The tourist—unless she’s on a budget, in which case she’s a fool for coming to California at all—will see the state at its very, very best: the aforementioned natural amenities plus swanky resorts, opulent hotels, and elegant eateries.
Economically, culturally, socially, and even physically, Haute California looks, sounds and feels like The Future. Can anywhere else claim the world’s highest-margin, highest-impact, life-revolutionizing industry? Or a globe-bestriding story-telling colossus that journalist John O’Sullivan, at a conference on the Paramount lot, once called “the Athens of a new Hellenistic world”? The state’s newer buildings may be awful but—so modern! Richard Meier’s ghastly Getty, high above Sepulveda Canyon, set the tone for nearly every major project since: from the Frank Gehry monstrosities that seem to dominate every streetscape to the Killer Robot from Outer Space (Helen Bernstein High School) that squares off across the Hollywood Freeway against Stasi Headquarters West (Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels), to the gulag-chic de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park that replaced the gracious original, to the flying-donut-that-just-touched-down-in-Cupertino where Tim Cook and his court rule with velvet-gloved intensity.
A crucial element of the California Dream in the twenty-first century is to marshal the Enlightened Future to confront, conquer, and crush the Benighted Past. Structurally, so far, the wrecking ball has been restrained. That first Getty, the picture-perfect copy of a Roman villa in Pacific Palisades; the Beaux Arts San Francisco, Pasadena, and Beverly Hills City Halls; the Corinthian California Palace of the Legion of Honor? They still stand but are—emphatically—remainders of the Eurocentric Past, reminders of how far into The Future the state has progressed.
One wonders, though, on what terms and for how long the Missions—the twenty-three Spanish-Catholic adobe church-settlements from which California grew—will be allowed to remain. They are historic, surely, and “Hispanic,” sort of, but not in the way meant today: non-white and therefore Good. The Missions, and the mission of their founder—and true founder of California, Saint Junipero Serra—stand in stark contrast to the ethos of modern California. He and his fellow Franciscan friars were religious, ascetic, morally serious, and unapologetically ethno-nationalistic. No wonder, then, that at the time of this writing, statues of Father Serra (and of many others) are falling to woke mobs all over the state.
Yet in a way, the friars’ missionary zeal lives on in modern California, which insists on sweeping aside—even attacking as evil—norms, standards, and traditions observed for millennia. So you’ve become used to distinguishing “male” from “female” using English pronouns that predate Chaucer? Here comes the California Wokerati—headquartered in Berkeley, Santa Cruz, Westwood, and the Castro, backed by Malibu and Menlo-Atherton money—to cancel you for being Literally Hitler. Such provocations are in part tests to see if you really belong. Those who can adapt, quickly and enthusiastically—who affirm the New Normal without a moment’s hesitation—can stay. Those who can’t or won’t—well, that’s what Idaho is for. California is reserved for the Elect.
For a certain kind of person—ashamed of where she’s from, embarrassed by her background, her family, neighbors, co-workers and even friends—visiting or, better yet, moving to California can be a godsend. Finally, she is free of Babbittry, absolutism, colonialism, slavery, fascism, the Inquisition, plastic straws, MAGA hats, and other dreadful things people flee red states to get away from. Finally, the only opinions to breach her delicate ears will be the correct ones. Finally she can bathe in the purified, rarified air for which she was born.
But whether you share these sentiments or not, if all you know of California is Silicon Valley and Hollywood (not the physical Hollywood, which is a slum, but meta-Hollywood, the tony haunts on LA’s West Side and along Ventura Boulevard where movies and streaming series are actually written and made), Rincon Hill and Century City, Montecito and Newport Beach, Disneyland and Squaw Valley, Coronado Island and the Ahwahnee Hotel, the French Laundry and Spago, then the state does, indeed, look pretty good.
It’s certainly expensive. Leave aside housing prices for now; hotels alone cost per night what within a middle-aged person’s lifetime used to cover a month’s rent. Restaurants abound, many of them very good, some even spectacular—and spectacularly priced to boot. The shopping, too—at least in Union Square, Rodeo Drive, and Carmel—is world-class.
But be careful. Stray too far in the wrong direction from Union Square into the Tenderloin, or from a newly revitalized downtown LA into Skid Row, and you’ll be kicking away trash, tripping over needles, stepping in poop, and fighting off thieves, drug addicts, and the mentally ill. Be careful with that, too: if you actually land a punch, even in selfdefense, chances are you’ll be prosecuted while your attacker will be hailed in the Chronicle or the Times as an innocent naïf victimized by the privileged patriarchy (i.e., you).
A Very Brady Transformation
Perhaps the best lens through which to understand California, Then-Versus-Now, is The Brady Bunch, a sitcom that ran on broadcast television (remember that?) from 1969 to 1974. For those who need a refresher, the show depicted a middle-class family with six children (!) whose non-dufus dad (!!) provided, on one income (!!!), not just sustenance but also a spacious semi-suburban detached house, with front and back yards, in the City of Los Angeles (!!!!)—specifically, LA’s San Fernando Valley, ground zero for middle-class bliss not just in California but in the entire postwar United States of America. And not just anywhere in that vast, rectangular plain but in Studio City, down at the Valley’s good, southern edge, within spitting distance of the north slope of the Hollywood Hills. Oh, and all six of those kids attended clean, safe, orderly, and competent public schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD).
The crazy thing about the above summary is less how fantastic it sounds today but how plausible—true to life, even—it was then. Yes, in those days you really could live a comfortable middle-class life and raise a passel of kids on one income in California—and not just in some distant desert exurb like Lancaster or Central Valley farm town like Lodi, but in New Sodom itself.
Two decades after the series went off the air, Hollywood—even then out of ideas and mining old TV shows for “reboots”—turned its sights on The Brady Bunch. But the writers and producers all knew that recreating the prelapsarian innocence of the original couldn’t possibly pass the laugh test in far-off 1995—they lived in the real LA, after all. A measure of ironic distance would be required.
The Brady Bunch Movie kidnaps the groovy, double-knit, bell-bottomed early-1970s Bradys and drops them into a contemporary California already in steep decline. The opening frames set up the joke: we see junkies, litter, graffiti, pawnshops, and tattoo parlors lining a decayed Hollywood Walk of Fame. Zoom down from an aerial shot onto LA’s famous freeways and they’re packed, bumper-to-bumper, in the middle of the day. To ram home the ubiquity of crime in the new, improved California, concertina wire is everywhere. One bumper sticker reads “Driver Carries Only $20—in AMMUNITION,” a defiant nod to another common sign of that time, dashboard placards reading “No Radio”—which, translated, meant “Please Don’t Bother Breaking My Window; There’s Nothing in Here to Steal.” A tracking shot shows the 101 North through the Cahuenga Pass to be an absolute wreck, in a state of semi-permanent, never-to-be-completed “repair.” (A quarter century later, it still feels like it’s paved with medieval cobblestone.) Amber Alerts announce an endless series of off-ramp closures along with the usual litany of Old California natural disasters—earthquakes, wildfires, killer bees, fruit-fly infestations—but one is more specifically tuned to the man-made plagues endemic to New California: “DRIVE-BY GANG WAR RIOT.”
Similar contrasts are played for laughs throughout the film, as the naïve, throwback Bradys confront carjackers, gangbangers, and predatory immigrant scammers. The older kids’ high school is overrun with disruptive punks, many of them ethnic minorities. (Needless to say, this movie could not get made today.)
The film’s opening also makes clear that not everyone in New California is simply a parasite or a mark. Well-dressed screenwriters are shown tapping out dialogue on their laptops in trendy cafés while agents (or studio execs) pass by in an expensive convertible barking into brick-sized cell phones. The makers of this mostly forgotten comedy figured out long before the social scientists and politicians that California circa-1995 was already well on its way to becoming the most unequal state in the union and one of the most unequal societies in the world.
As for the Bradys’ famous house—reportedly, after the White House, the second-most photographed residence in America—it sold in 2018 for $3.5 million. Granted, the buyer—home-renovation cable channel HGTV—paid a steep premium for the structure’s fame. But the initial asking price, a more accurate measure of a similar home’s worth, was $1.885 million—well out of reach for any family even remotely “middle-class,” even on two incomes. And that’s before mom and dad factor in the cost of private school, since these days handing your kids over to the LAUSD (assuming you can’t get them into one of its few, intensely competitive “magnet” schools) is tantamount to child abuse. Private school tuition for six kids in the southern San Fernando Valley adds up to multiples of a mortgage that’s already laughably unaffordable.
Welcome to New California, where services less than half as good cost more than twice as much; where half of what you pay for in taxes you’d be a fool to use and the other half is either worthless or a guided missile targeted right at your nose; where infrastructure and quality of life crash through the Valley floor while crime soars; where your daily commute time quadruples along with the price of gas; where “middle-class” homes cost $800 per square foot; where—if you’re dumb enough to stay—you live far worse than your parents and pay multiples for the “privilege.”
Michael Anton is a lecturer and research fellow at Hillsdale College. A former national security official in the Trump administration, he is also a senior fellow at the Claremont Institute. He is the author of "The Stakes: America at the Point of No Return" (Regnery Publishing, 2020).