California: where freedom goes to die

California: where freedom goes to die

Gavin Newsom has turned the Golden State into a woke dystopia.

Joel Kotkin

Joel Kotkin

Topics Politics USA

California was once a byword for liberty and opportunity. The so-called Golden State was home first to the Gold Rush, then to Hollywood and then to the tech revolution in Silicon Valley. Californians have long been proud of that legacy – indeed, during a 2022 debate against Florida governor Ron DeSantis, California governor Gavin Newsom boasted that his state epitomised ‘freedom’. While this might once have been true, under Newsom’s direction, and that of the state’s essentially one-party legislature, California has been transformed into something unrecognisable.

However much one might dislike DeSantis’ sometimes heavy-handed approach to fighting wokeness in Florida, California is unlikely to meet most people’s definitions of freedom. The state government of California now forces shops to have a gender-neutral toy section. It seeks to extract billions as reparations for slavery. It aims to control speech and indoctrinate the young. It is attempting to regulate virtually every aspect of life in the name of ‘saving the planet’.

Maybe it depends on how you define ‘freedom’. California certainly offers freedoms to those on the margins. The homeless, undocumented migrants and petty criminals now have the freedom to commit crimes without much worry of prosecution. Back when Newsom was campaigning to be mayor of San Francisco 20 years ago, he pledged to eliminate homelessness in 10 years. Now California’s homeless numbers are growing not just in San Francisco, but also across the whole state. Overall, California has 30 per cent of the US’s homeless population. The state is hardly a ‘model for the nation’, as Newsom proudly proclaims.

Left out in this freedom equation are the basic rights of ordinary citizens – the people who pay taxes, raise families and rent or buy houses. For them, Newsom’s version of freedom is the ‘freedom’ to suffer the highest crime rate in a decade. For the pleasure of lackadaisical law enforcement, and a deteriorating infrastructure, California’s middle and working classes get the right to pay among the country’s highest state taxes. At the same time, businesses suffer a regulatory tsunami, with over 400,000 rules to adhere to, a number unparalleled in any other state.

This is a far cry from the ‘Californian ideology’ of old. The term was coined by two British academics in 1995 who wrote of ‘a bizarre fusion of the cultural bohemianism of San Francisco with the hi-tech industries of Silicon Valley’. They saw this mélange as a critical driver of the state’s innovative culture and economy. California had an essentially libertarian approach to economic growth, wide-open social freedoms and relentless entrepreneurialism. It was an open society back then – the opposite of what California is now becoming.

California may have once been liberal, or even libertarian, but now its politics are defined by the increasingly illiberal ‘progressive’ agenda. Newsom, even as San Francisco mayor in the 2000s, has long shown an authoritarian streak. In 2009, he demanded that the city’s farmers’ markets, food suppliers and vending machines offer only ‘healthy and sustainable food’. He also forced city workers to cut bagels into halves or quarters, and to replace crisps with vegetables, in a bid to reduce obesity.

As governor, Newsom and his legislature have been able to extend this kind of nanny-state authoritarianism to the whole state. California’s legislators have passed laws that restrict what doctors can tell their patients about Covid-19. These rules also prevented experts at Stanford University from testifying in court on the educational impact of lockdowns. This is part of what venerable Sacramento reporter Dan Walters describes as ‘a recent trend in California’s state government toward secrecy’. Increasingly, it operates effectively as a one-party state.

Newsom’s government has displayed the kind of authoritarianism that his buddy, President Xi of China, might appreciate. While supposedly ‘repressive’ Republican states like Texas and Florida work to prevent online censorship, Newsom’s California attempts to control social-media content from Sacramento. It has also severely diminished the rights of families, staunchly supporting schools to allow gender-confused children to transition behind their parents’ backs.

Newsom and Co have waged war on tobacco and banned flavoured vapes. They have even considered banning cigarettes for anyone born after 2007, in perpetuity. Bear in mind, this is in a state where marijuana is essentially legal and state-sanctioned. There’s even a new proposal in Sacramento to ban children under 12 from playing American football, a policy likely to be unwelcome among working- and middle-class people, particularly in the state’s interior.

It is in education, though, where Newsom’s authoritarian vision shines through the most. In California’s community-college system, with 116 colleges and 1.8million students, refusing to sign on to the ‘diversity, equity and inclusion’ agenda can lead to your firing. This increasingly repressive ‘diversity-friendly’ campus culture has done nothing, however, to stem the toxic spread of anti-Semitism. Even the left-leaning dean of UC Berkeley’s law school, Erwin Chemerinsky, admitted that ‘nothing has prepared me for the anti-Semitism I see on college campuses now’.

Worse still, California’s school system is totally failing to educate children. Less than half of pupils meet national standards for literacy and barely one in five meets them for mathematics. And yet the Californian government still manages to find the time to pursue indoctrination on a massive scale. The state has now mandated lesson programmes on climate change, as well as new social-studies curricula that promote a critical race theory view of history. Taught by well-organised activist teachers, Californian children are more familiar with decolonisation and green issues than their times tables or the basics of grammar.

The proliferation of racial identity politics, in particular, has led to demands for the state’s small African American population to receive reparations. Already, a state task force has backed the idea of handing out $1.2million to every descendant of slaves. All this in a state where slavery was never legal, at least when under American control. Of course, California also has no means to pay for this reparations programme, particularly given its massive budget deficit. Debt has ballooned thanks to public spending having tripled on a per-capita basis over the past 50 years.

The next big thing on the identity-politics agenda is a proposed bill to revive affirmative-action quotas, which were resoundingly voted down in a referendum in 2020. California’s left is desperate to resurrect the ‘freedom’ to divvy up Californians by race and to discriminate against better-performing prospective university students, many of whom are themselves Asian ‘people of colour’.

Nothing has accelerated California’s decline quite like the state’s climate-change fetish. Under Newsom, California has passed a series of laws that make it almost impossible to build affordable housing. The state has essentially banned single-family zoning as a part of its ‘war against suburbia’, which is precisely where most Californians reside. Instead, in a bid to slash CO2 emissions, it seeks to increase housing density and restrict development to places where public transport is widely used. Outside of San Francisco and inner-city LA, this is essentially nowhere. Local control of zoning has been all but eliminated in favour of the state’s climate-oriented policies.

Ultimately, California’s climate policies erode the lives of middle- and particularly working-class Californians. Environmental attorney Jennifer Hernandez calls such policies ‘the green Jim Crow’. The industries that have traditionally helped nurture upward mobility – manufacturing, construction and energy – are all being systematically undermined by climate regulation, not least as they have led to some of the highest energy prices in the US. Adjusted for cost of living, California now has the highest percentage of people living in poverty in the nation. Newsom’s idea of ‘freedom’ means that millions of Californians have the liberty to be poor.

The state’s headlong drive to achieve ‘Net Zero’ emissions has even made cooking harder. Newsom intends to force new restaurants to use electric stoves and ovens rather than gas cookers – an energy source that simply doesn’t work for cooking most Asian foods or for searing meats. Unsurprisingly, both the California Restaurant Association and ethnic business organisations oppose the policy.

Not content with destroying restaurants, Newsom has his sights set on other Californian businesses, too. More recently, the state has decided to impose minimum wages of roughly $20 an hour or more on industries like fast food and medical care. That means franchisees, many of them minorities, are being forced to lay off workers. They are now looking to either abandon their businesses or replace workers with automation. It’s true that those still working may benefit from the higher wages. But many more will indulge their ‘freedom’ to stay at home and enjoy the benefits of the expanding welfare state. Pizza Hut in California has already announced the furloughing of 1,200 delivery workers before the minimum-wage hike takes effect in April.

In California, our masters value not hard work or paying taxes, but dependency. Undocumented immigrants, hardworking or not, will get free healthcare. Working people, meanwhile, are paying ever-higher health-insurance premiums. Shop owners who want to protect their shelves from marauding criminals are given short shrift by lawmakers. It should be no surprise that California, once an irresistible lure to ambitious migrants, now ranks among the worst states in attracting newcomers.

Companies are also leaving the state in ever-greater numbers. Thanks to a bill passed last year, large companies – from oil firms to retailers – will soon have to report their ‘carbon footprint’, including travel by employees. The state harassment of businesses doesn’t stop at climate issues, either. Under a new law signed by Newsom late last year, venture capitalists now have to report the racial and gender breakdown of the companies they fund. California has a particular vendetta against Activision-Blizzard, a major videogame company. The state has forced the firm to spend a small fortune fighting off accusations it is ‘fostering a sexist culture’ and subjecting female employees to ‘constant sexual harassment’ – claims the state now admits had no evidence behind them. Meanwhile, entrepreneurship, the key to California’s past prosperity, is fading in the wake of regulatory and tax burdens. It now has a start-up rate less than half that of Florida.

Could things get less deranged in future? Newsom may be a woke tyrant, but he is also an opportunist of the first order who is desperate to hold on to power. Aware of his fading poll numbers and with an eye on the White House, he has vetoed several of the progressive left’s more lunatic bills recently, including an attempt to allow for supervised ‘drug injection’ sites. Newsom has even fought off the environmental lobby by refusing to shut down one of the state’s last nuclear power plants. His spokesman lambasted the greens’ demands as ‘fantasy and fairy dust’.

Newsom might also be wary of alienating the oligarchs and his family connections, notably the Gettys. They may have financed his campaigns and would likely want to see him in the White House. But they do not want their wealth to be expropriated. Perhaps this is why Newsom has expressed opposition to a proposed wealth tax. Many fear this could further accelerate the already devastating flow of affluent people out of the state – one of the leading causes of California’s fiscal crisis.

In California, we see the fulfilment of George Orwell’s vision that ‘freedom is slavery’ and ‘ignorance is strength’. But perhaps Californians, already distressed about the state of our state, will finally say ‘basta ya’ – enough already. Then we might see a return to the older version of freedom that the Golden State was once known for.

Joel Kotkin is a spiked columnist, the presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University and executive director of the Urban Reform Institute. His latest book, The Coming of Neo-Feudalism, is out now. Follow him on Twitter: @joelkotkin

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics Politics USA


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