President Donald Trump loves bashing California—its “ridiculous” sanctuary cities, its “gross mismanagement” of its forests, even the “disgusting” streets of San Francisco. He also enjoys slagging California liberals, like House Intelligence Committee Chair “Liddle” Adam Schiff, House Financial Services Committee Chair “Low IQ” Maxine Waters, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who “has behaved so irrationally & gone so far to the left that she has now officially become a Radical Democrat.” On Wednesday, after Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom decided to scale back the state’s troubled high-speed rail project, the president gleefully mocked it as a green fiasco: “Send the Federal Government back the Billions of Dollars WASTED!”
Now that progressive Democrats are pushing for a California-style Green New Deal to fight climate change, and progressive California Senator Kamala Harris has become a front-runner for the Democratic nomination to challenge Trump, the president’s allies have begun framing 2020 as a last stand against the hippie-lefty Californication of America. Turning Point USA founder Charlie Kirk has warned that “Democrats want California to be the blueprint for America,” while Dan Patrick, the Republican lieutenant governor of Texas, has suggested that Trump’s reelection slogan should be: “I’m not going to let the Democrats turn America into California.”
California has earned its reputation as the politically correct capital of Blue America, a heavily urban majority-minority coastal state where it’s legal to smoke pot but illegal for retailers to provide plastic bags or cops to ask suspects their immigration status. Taxes are high, the first year of community college is free and driver’s licenses have a third option for residents who don’t identify as male or female. But while California has plenty of problems, from worsening wildfires to overpriced housing to that troubled bullet-train project that became the latest target of presidential mockery, there’s one serious hitch in the GOP plan to make California a symbol of Democratic dysfunction and socialistic stagnation: It’s basically thriving.
“California is doing awesome,” says Congressman Ted Lieu, an immigrant from Taiwan who co-chairs the policy and communications committee for the House Democratic Caucus. “It’s a beautiful, welcoming, environmentally friendly place that proves government can work. Who wants to run against that?”
California is now the world’s fifth-largest economy, up from eighth a decade ago. If it’s a socialist hellhole, it’s a socialist hellhole that somehow nurtured Apple, Google, Facebook, Tesla, Uber, Netflix, Oracle and Intel, not to mention old-economy stalwarts like Chevron, Disney, Wells Fargo and the Hollywood film industry. California firms still attract more venture capital than the rest of the country combined, while its farms produce more fruits, nuts and wine than the rest of the country combined. During the Great Recession, when the state was mired in a budget crisis so brutal its bond rating approached junk and it gave IOUs to government workers, mainstream media outlets were proclaiming the death of the California dream. But after a decade of steady growth that has consistently outpaced the nation’s, plus a significant tax hike on the wealthy, California is in much sounder fiscal shape; while federal deficits are soaring again, the state has erased its red ink and even stashed $13 billion in a rainy day fund.
Of course, every state is in better economic shape than it was during the Great Recession, but California has enjoyed its renaissance while pursuing policies Republicans associate with economic ruin. It has an $11-an-hour minimum wage, scheduled to rise to $15 by 2023. Its unusually aggressive implementation of Obamacare since 2013 has reduced its uninsured rate from 17 percent to just 7 percent. Its ambitious clean energy and climate policies in many ways inspired the Green New Deal; the state is committed to generating 50 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2030 and 100 percent by 2045, and its stringent fuel-efficiency standards help explain why it’s home to half the nation’s electric vehicles.
In general, California is flourishing while pursuing the exact opposite of the policies Trump is pursuing in Washington. And it has sued the Trump administration dozens of times, not only taking the lead on the new 16-state lawsuit against the president’s emergency wall declaration, but fighting for loan forgiveness for students defrauded by for-profit schools, net neutrality and Obamacare’s guarantees of free birth control, while fighting to stop the ban on travel from several Muslim countries, the ban on transgender service members, and a slew of environmental rollbacks. For example, Trump is trying to dismantle California’s strict fuel-efficiency rules, which have become de facto national rules since other blue states have adopted them and every automaker has complied with them, and California Attorney General Xavier Becerra is now battling the administration in court to protect them.
“If people want to call what California is doing socialism, fine, but it isn’t having a negative impact on the economy,” says political scientist Chris Hoene, executive director of the California Center for Budget and Policy. “By just about every measure of productivity, we’re at the upper end of the spectrum.”
That hasn’t stopped Republicans from making California their go-to nightmare scenario. In 2018, Senator Ted Cruz warned that liberals wanted Texas to be “just like California, right down to the tofu and silicone and dyed hair.” Democratic candidates for governor were accused of trying to turn Nevada and Florida into California, and Colorado into “RadiCalifornia.” In the Georgia governor’s race, Republican Brian Kemp’s stump-speech mantra about Democrat Stacey Abrams was that she was trying to import “radical California values.” The Republican National Committee’s nickname for Harris in its news releases is “California Kamala,” and it rarely mentions her without mentioning her “San Francisco values.”
California is so gigantic that it’s hard to pinpoint what its values really are. There are huge differences between its cities, exurbs, and rural areas, between crunchy Northern California and glam Southern California, between upscale coastal California and downscale inland California. But it’s undeniably a socially and politically progressive state, with laws banning pet stores from selling dogs that weren’t rescued, restaurants from giving their customers plastic straws unless asked, and employers from asking job applicants about their current salaries. Even the traditionally Republican suburbs of Orange County voted Democratic in 2018. And while economic conservatives consider its high-tax, pro-regulation policies “anti-business,” researchers have not found evidence that those policies drive businesses to other states or squelch innovation in California, although they do seem to encourage some retirees to move elsewhere. The president tweets on a platform created in California. It’s somewhat odd to portray the state that created health clubs, blue jeans, Pandora and Hulu as Venezuela in the making.