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How the American Dream went up in flames Both Left and Right have turned on California, tired of the dysfunctional state's hypocrisy

Why is California falling apart? Credit: Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty

November 19, 2019   6 mins

Which is the most unpopular state in America? A place that both Left and Right can agree is on the edge of collapse — and probably deserves to be. A state whose contribution to American life is to exist as a cautionary tale and whose citizens are pitied by pious conservative Oklahomans and radical liberal New Englanders alike.

The answer might surprise you. It’s California.

A strange and rather depressing madness has gripped the United States in recent months, and there has been an almost universal effort to denigrate one of the sunniest, wealthiest, happiest places on earth. In the past, California’s critics (of whom there have been plenty) have been driven by envy or puritanism or both. Now they are motivated by a self-destructive politics that uses the Golden State as a warning rather than an inspiration.  From the Left Californians are assailed as airheads fiddling while their state burns, and from the Right as welfare queens with an over-fondness to government spending.

Poor California. The political extremes are belting out a chorus of scorn for a place that used to be renowned the world over for being, well: California.

The state has always been the very incarnation of the American Dream. Ideas are born there. Myths are created. Space is given to people who have made the journey west, in body and in spirit. It is a vital part of the enterprise we call America.

Now all are conspiring, conservatives and liberals alike, to murder their muse.

Let’s take their attacks one by one, beginning with the party in power in DC and its supporters around the nation. The Republicans are upset because California is a bit of a one-party operation these days: the fact that the Democrats are in charge and loudly oppose president Trump has made the state the enemy of the entire Republican party, at least for the time being.

In a video, much shared recently on social media, Donald Trump’s so called spiritual adviser, the TV evangelist Paula White, can be seen praising the President, God, money and herself.

About half way through the edited highlights of the Paula White assault on our senses comes the following claim.

Southern California has passed a law saying the Bible is hate speech and the sale of the book has been banned.

For the avoidance of doubt:  this is not true. But I suspect quite a number of conservative Americans would quite like to think it were true, or could soon be true.

That’s because California, political birthplace of Ronald Reagan, powerhouse of economic successes past and present, future-focused, can-do California, is regarded increasingly by the American Right as a cess-pit, a lost cause, a failed state. They point out – with some justification – that life for many Californians who are not part of the Obama/Clinton/Hollywood set has not been great in recent years. Folk can still read the Bible in San Diego but the rest of the nation is tired of being looked down on by a California that seems so dysfunctional.

Victor Davis Hanson, a California academic and Trump supporter, asks the question, “Is California becoming pre-modern?

For Mr Hanson – and many on the Right of US politics including many perfectly reasonable people — think the place is falling apart because of the composition of its population.

“Millions of fed-up middle-class taxpayers,” Mr Hanson says, “have fled the state. Their presence as a stabilizing influence is sorely missed. About one-third of the nation’s welfare recipients live in California. Millions of poor newcomers require enormously expensive state health, housing, education, legal and law-enforcement services.”

Many of those poor newcomers, it is worth pointing out, are Hispanic. California is now majority minority and it’s beginning to rattle some people.

But to cry racism –  justified perhaps in some cases – cannot wish away the sense that something is wrong with the way the state is run. In particular, a law (designed to reduce the strain on prisons) that decriminalised thefts where less than a thousand dollars was taken, seems to have led to an upsurge in petty (ish) crime that has made life more unpleasant  for many people of all races and income levels, in particular those who work in shops.

California’s Proposition 47, which was approved by nearly 60% of voters in 2014, reclassified small scale drug and property crimes as misdemeanours. Shoplifters have had a field day. This impression of lawlessness does not improve the nerves of people still trying to live decent Californian lives.

But California is still home to so much commercial innovation, so much private wealth creation.

It seems inconceivable that the Republican party can turn its back permanently on California and Californians. There is a list of post-Trump moves the party is going to have to make if it wants to stay in touch with the wider nation. It has to learn once again to respect faiths other than Christianity. It has to go back to respecting science. And I would add one more: someone sunny and western (a modern Reagan perhaps) needs to address Republicanism’s rampant Californiphobia.

And what of the Left, who, as I say, are nominally in charge? Well they seem to have fallen even further out of love with the state they run. Followers of the Left-wing potential Democratic nominee, Bernie Sanders, and particularly of fellow Leftie Elizabeth Warren, are so over the tech world of San Francisco and Silicon Valley. The inequality that the tech crowd seem happy with does not sit well with the younger Democratic crowd.

In particular, the housing crisis in the San Francisco Bay Area, fuelled by mega-salaries in tech companies, has come back to haunt them. They are pouring money into housing schemes now — but it’s too late to rescue their reputation for careless breaking of social contracts, and something has undoubtedly broken in the bond between woke tech and the party it previously energised and funded.

How telling it was earlier in this year, when Amazon announced it was abandoning plans to build a much heralded  headquarters in New York City. The Left-wing New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez led a chorus of cheers: the tax breaks that would have gone to Amazon would be better spent on local schools she said. California style tech-dependence? No thanks!

This feeling that California is not a model of how life should be lived has been accentuated by news that’s made national headlines in recent weeks. A particularly bad season of wildfires have served to whip up a frenzy among environmentally sensitive liberal Americans with a penchant for morality tales.

So: California is burning because it has been so careless with its wealth. The rich who live along the coast have not thought about the poor who live further inland. Addicted to their fast cars and private jets, they are less keen on paying their taxes and as a result public transport and public housing have suffered from lack of investment. And worst of all, the rich who have starved California of tax cash and opposed public transport plans and got on with their multi car lives as if nothing has changed, have failed to think about climate change.

As one New York Times columnist put it, “California, as it is currently designed, will not survive the coming climate. Either we alter how we live here or many of us won’t live here anymore.”

The Atlantic agreed that the wildfire crisis was “raising the question of whether the country’s dreamiest most optimistic state is fast becoming unliveable”.

It would be hard for anyone to deny that California is in trouble. Homelessness blights its cities. Transport is inadequate. And farmers, starved of water from the sky, have been pumping groundwater at such a rate that towns in the central belt have been sinking into the earth. The huge farms that still produce around a quarter of all America’s food cannot carry on like this.

Meanwhile, politicians of every stripe conspire to talk it down, rather than talk of rescue. And by doing so they risk talking down the enterprise upon which they all depend: America’s foundational sense of optimism.

And Lord knows generations of Californians have needed that optimism to survive. The reality of life in this state has been as brutal – perhaps more so – than in any other. San Francisco was destroyed by fire over and over again in its early years, and devastated completely in the 1906 earthquake. The city flag depicts a phoenix.

Go to the ghost town of Bodie — on the border with Nevada — and you can still see what life was like for generations of gold-rush Californians. Bodie saw boom times and an eventual bust as mining ceased. The bust was so complete that the townspeople just left. Doors still swing in the wind. The cold dry climate has preserved the buildings where the hookers and chancers once mingled. You can close your eyes and feel their struggle for survival.

Struggling and overcoming adversity. It’s what Californians are. Yes, there’s the Beach Boys California Dreamin malarky, but the real California is an earthier kind of dreamin’. It’s about the foundational myths of America. It needs to live, or the idea of the whole nation could die.

Justin Webb presents the Americast podcast and Today on Radio Four. His Panorama documentary “Trump the Sequel”, is available now on  Iplayer


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