Back before the country lost its mind, journalists sent to report on California first reflexively noted its eccentricities, then deployed an entire lexicon of wondering clichés to describe the importance of what they’d seen: The “Golden State,” they wrote, was studded with “signposts to the new,” the place where “the future came to happen.”
This, though, is the age of Trump and to his supporters California has become an “outlier,” a pariah no longer part of the “real America.” The state’s crime was to prefer Hillary Clinton’s candidacy in such numbers that she won the popular ballot by nearly 3 million votes, thereby denying Donald Trump a democratic mandate for his intended transformation of the United States, its economy, trade relationships and foreign policy. In fact, Clinton’s 48% to 46% victory in the popular count has become the basis for a new right-wing defense of the Electoral College.
In a piece cited across the Internet’s conservative news sites, Investor’s Daily wrote, “While Clinton’s overall margin looks large and impressive, it is due to Clinton’s huge margin of victory in one state — California — where she got a whopping 4.3 million more votes than Trump. California is the only state, in fact, where Clinton’s margin of victory was bigger than President Obama’s in 2012 — 61.5% vs. Obama’s 60%. But California is the exception that proves the true genius of the Electoral College — which was designed to prevent regional candidates from dominating national elections.”
Since Clinton also carried New York and Massachusetts, it’s a little hard to grasp the author’s notion of a “region,” but never mind. Conservative commentator Michael Barone drilled down on what’s really wrong with California in one of his recent columns.
“California has been called the Left Coast for quite a while,” he wrote. “Just about everyone in Silicon Valley except Peter Thiel and in Hollywood except Pat Sajak supported Clinton. White middle class families have been pretty well priced out of the state by high taxes and housing costs, and the Hispanic and Asian immigrants who have replaced them vote far more Democratic.”
Barone argued that “the case against abolition” of the Electoral College “is one suggested by the Framers’ fears that voters in one large but highly atypical state could impose their will on a contrary-minded nation. That largest state in 1787 was Virginia, home of four of the first five presidents. New York and California, by remaining closely in line with national opinion up through 1996, made the issue moot.
“California’s 21st century veer to the left makes it a live issue again. In a popular vote system, the voters of this geographically distant and culturally distinct state, whose contempt for heartland Christians resembles imperial London’s disdain for the ‘lesser breeds’ it governed, could impose something like colonial rule over the rest.”
There we have it—Sacramento’s plot to “colonize” South Dakota.
Moreover, painful as it is to remind Barone—principal author of the authoritative Almanac of American Politics—of the statistical realities, a majority of Californians are Christians, 32% Protestants and 28% Roman Catholics. California also is home to the second largest Jewish population in America, the largest group of Mormons outside of Utah and the country’s largest Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu populations. Hardly the sort of demographics that add up to a contempt for heartland Christianity.
What’s really at work in the right-wing’s demonization of California is not really loyalty to Trumpism or traditionalist devotion to the Electoral College. It’s fear of the future. When Trump vowed to “make America great again” the right read his rhetoric as a promise to take us back in time—to the years when white men went off to work and white women stayed home with the kids and minority races were just that, minorities who kept to themselves.
California, by contrast, already is what more of America will look like in the years to come. No single race is in the majority or enjoys a lock on political or economic power. Seventeen percent of all Americans live in California and 38% of them are non-Hispanic whites, 38.8% are Latinos, 14.7% are Asians, 6.5% are African American, 1.7% are Native Americans—numerically, the country’s largest concentration of indigenous people—and 3.8% describe themselves as of mixed race. More Californians—43%–speak a language other than English in their homes, though it will confound Trump supporters to know that immigration from Mexico slowed long ago and the majority of new immigrants come from Asia, mainly China.
“Californization” may have become an epithet on the right, but what really troubles nostalgic populists is that the future works. California is not only America’s most populous state, but also its richest and most productive. (In fact, across the country, counties that went for Clinton account for two-thirds of America’s total economic output.) If the Golden State were an independent country, according to the most recent World Bank ratings, it would have the globe’s sixth largest economy. The overall U.S. economy was the world’s largest last year with a $17.95 trillion output. China was second with $10.98 trillion, followed by Japan, Germany and the United Kingdom. California was sixth with a $2.46 trillion economy ahead of seventh place France, followed by India and Italy.
California’s economic growth outpaced America’s national average of 2.4%, increasing by 4.1% when adjusted for inflation. That far outstripped Texas, the right-wing’s low-tax, business-friendly darling. Critics will sneer that the renewed tech boom accounted for most of that growth, but once again, the facts show otherwise: Los Angeles added thousands more jobs than Silicon Valley and the Bay Area did last year—107,000 compared to 84,200—and the state continues to have the nation’s most productive and lucrative agricultural sector.
Californians’ ballot box inclinations are more than a matter of ethno-partisanship, as Barone and others have alleged. With the nation’s highest number of immigrants—including 7% without papers—Californians oppose Trump’s anti-immigrant nativism because their day-to-day experience demonstrates how destructive the president-elect’s policies would be. Similarly, when it comes to protectionism of the sort Trump hopes to implement, California has critical interests at stake. Free trade and globalization have burnished the Golden State’s economy.
According to state economic figures, international trade supported 775,000 “high-paying” jobs in California last year and the vast majority of the state’s exporters are small or medium-sized companies with fewer than 500 employees. Those firms sell to 229 countries with the biggest customers Mexico, China and Canada—countries with Trump appears on the verge of launching a trade war. Since the signing of NAFTA, which Trump decries as the beginning of the end for the American economy, the United States’ free trade agreement partners have grown rapidly and, last year, they purchased 41% or $67 billion worth of California’s exports. A trade war with either China or Mexico would hit California’s vital agricultural sector with particular force, since those two countries are the state’s biggest customers after the European Union.
Fox cable personality Bill O’Reilly put the right’s unvarnished case for the Electoral College and against California with particular clarity. “The left sees white privilege in America as an oppressive force that must be done away with. Therefore, white working-class voters must be marginalized, and what better way to do that than center the voting power in the cities?
“Liberals believe that white men have set up a system of oppression and that system must be destroyed. The left wants power taken away from the white establishment.”
There it is: white anxiety and populist nostalgia masquerading as Constitutional traditionalism.
The problem is that we don’t live in the past. The future happens, whether you want it to or not—and Californians are happily making the most of it.