Getty Images
Getty Images
Navigate to News section

Build Back Red California

The transformation of Dust Bowl migrants into surfing suburbanites was a social and economic miracle that supercharged the American dream. It can be replicated today.

by
Walter Russell Mead
May 24, 2023
Via Meadia
Walter Russell Mead analyzes the revolutionary changes upending American life in the hope of rekindling the American dream for Gen Z and beyond
See all in Via Meadia →︎
Getty Images
Getty Images

Few developments in the modern history of American politics have been as consequential as the transformation of Ronald Reagan’s red California into the blue California of Kamala Harris and Gavin Newsom. The fall of red California not only changed the balance of power in American electoral politics. It also set off a convulsion in the Republican Party, helping turn the optimistic progressive conservatives of the Reagan era into the embittered culture warriors of more recent years.

Until the Depression, California was a solidly Republican state. Between the Civil War and 1932, Democrats only rarely carried the state, winning a majority of its electoral votes in 1880 and 1892, and winning by just over 3,000 votes in 1916. It was one of six states that voted for Teddy Roosevelt on the Bull Moose ticket in 1912. From 1932 to 1948, it swung into the Democratic column, giving Franklin Roosevelt a 67% popular vote victory in 1936. But Harry Truman eked out a narrow victory by only half a percent when he won California in 1948, and from 1952 through 1988 California was back in the Republican fold, defecting only in the 1964 Democratic landslide. Since then, the state has cast its electoral votes for the Democratic candidate in every election, and while no modern candidate has matched Franklin Roosevelt’s 1936 total, the Democratic candidate has won more than 60% of California’s popular vote in every presidential election since 2008.

Reagan’s brand of sunny conservatism has since been obliterated in the state. Now among the bluest of blue states, California politics are better known today for incubating ever more elaborate forms of wokeness and identity politics. California’s history of producing truly constructive mainstream political and social movements and ideas going back to the 19th century is all but forgotten. In today’s politics, “Made in California” mostly means far-left social experiments or angry but futile Republican critiques.

Whatever one thinks about Donald Trump and his war with the old Republican establishment, the difference between the “Morning in America” Republicans of Reagan’s time and the MAGA Republicans of today is clear. Reagan Republicans believed that America could do anything it set its mind to accomplish. Today’s Republicans are more likely to see America as fighting a desperate rear-guard battle to survive. The decline and fall of red California had a lot to do with the great Republican mood swing, and many of the most eloquent proponents of conservative gloom are California-based Republicans who see the state’s current challenges as the deeply dystopian product of blue state progressive politics run wild.

California, as ever, is a paradox—a distilled and intensified version of the paradox of America itself. Cali-optimists, and there are quite a few of them, point to the state’s continuing role in the tech industry, to its leadership role in the fight against climate change, its progressive social values, and the extraordinary quality of its universities, hospitals, and biotech research facilities to argue that California remains at the frontier of human development.

Others point to grimmer indicators like crushing tax burdens; the highest or near-highest rates of adult illiteracy, economic inequality, incarceration, welfare dependency, and homelessness in the nation; and the steady flight of both industries and skilled workers to other states to argue that California is a failing state.

The optimists are of course right that California, which would be the fifth largest economy in the world if it were an independent country, remains a technological powerhouse. The Information Revolution and the revolution in biotech treading hard on its heels would both be moving much more slowly without Californian ingenuity and business sense. Between UC Berkeley and Stanford, the Bay Area remains a center of innovation and both intellectual and economic dynamism that the whole world yearns to copy.

At the same time, the Cali-pessimists are clearly not wrong. Homeless encampments filled with drug-addled lost souls, miserably failing school systems, wholesale store closings due to mass theft, a fiscal structure that looks more and more like a Ponzi scheme, businesses and middle-class workers in flight: This is surely not the best that our civilization can attain, nor is it an acceptable future for the United States.

California is a paradox—a distilled and intensified version of the paradox of America itself.

It is, in any case, a far cry from the California I first caught sight of in the summer of 1970, when my brother, a good friend, and I somehow got my father’s clapped-out Volkswagen bug over the Rocky Mountains. This was one of the last summers before the oil shocks and OPEC; we bought gas for 17.9 cents a gallon in Los Angeles that August.

California was a paradise in those days. The giant sequoias, the Golden Gate Bridge, Yosemite Falls, Death Valley, Hollywood, Disneyland: One iconic sight after another rolled past as we nursed our Volkswagen gingerly across the state. There were rosebushes on the median strips of the highways. The cities gleamed, artichokes were a nickel each at roadside stands, and the combination of the free California spirit and the state’s natural beauty was as intoxicating as any of the substances that the state’s residents, even then, avidly consumed. Like generations of Americans before us, we had crossed the endless Plains, forbidding mountains, and harsh deserts of the American West to reach a golden land of endless promise.

Detroit might have given us cars and what some call the “Fordist” economic system of mass affluence based on mass production of industrial goods, and Wall Street made American finance a uniquely sophisticated and flexible force. But it was in California that the marriage of mass production and banking created modern American consumer society, and it was California that gave the dream factories of Hollywood and Silicon Valley to the world.

Today, once again, California is America—only more so. The scientific and technological fruits of the Information Revolution have produced a cornucopia of riches and innovation. But that cornucopia doesn’t nourish the society around it. Worse, the social dysfunction threatens the dynamism as the political choices made by an angry society undermine the economic conditions and legal framework that make wealth creation on such a massive scale possible.

If America is going to work in the 21st century, California must thrive. New political coalitions will have to form around policies that make the Golden State a great place for middle- and lower-middle-class people. Fortunately for California, and for the country, its own history provides a roadmap.

Imagine a staunchly Republican state, shaken to the core by a wave of desperate migrants from backward, poor rural areas. Driven by a mix of economic change, demographic expansion, and an unprecedented climate crisis, the migrants storm across the poorly policed frontier. Competition for jobs increases. Economic inequality soars. Tent cities and homeless encampments proliferate across the state. Longtime residents are appalled and offended by the inrush of culturally alien, low-skilled rural migrants, changing the culture and demography of many cities and towns. Left-wingers criticize this nativist reaction and attribute the plight of the newcomers to basic defects in the capitalist system. Ranchers are more welcoming, however, as the desperately poor newcomers make ideal seasonal workers on farms.

The political center of gravity in the state lurches abruptly leftward as Democrats win votes with big spending social programs and job-creating infrastructure projects. These changes, combined with the gloomy national economic climate, put the state firmly in the Democratic column, and as Democratic presidential candidates win roughly 60% of the state’s popular vote in four consecutive elections, the national balance of political power changes, ushering in a generation of Democratic political advantage.

This of course is the story of California in the 1930s and 1940s, when the vast migration of Okies and other poor white migrants fled the Dust Bowl and Southern poverty, dodging the Highway Patrol and other police forces that tried to keep them out. And these Southern migrants, coming from historically Democratic states, brought their old political allegiance with them.

For New Deal Democrats and their far-left fellow travelers, the Okies, and the hostility of the “old California” toward their plight became iconic touchstones in the politics of symbolism and activism that accompanied the New Deal. A famous Woody Guthrie song bemoaned the harsh conditions the Okies faced on arrival. John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath chronicled the suffering of a group of bankrupt former farmers fleeing the Dust Bowl in Oklahoma to arrive, desperate and penniless, in an unwelcoming California.

In Steinbeck’s novel—carefully crafted, one must note, to check all the boxes that censorious communist and far-left writers used at the time to evaluate whether a given novel was genuinely proletarian and progressive—the Joad clan heads west in a broken-down Hudson sedan. Tough matriarch Ma Joad holds the clan together. Her unmarried daughter Rose of Sharon endures unspeakable suffering and, in the redemptive if melodramatic climax to the novel, feeds a starving father with the breastmilk she had hoped to give to her stillborn baby. Rose’s brother Tom becomes a fearless defender of the oppressed, supporting unionization drives and risking imprisonment and death to stand up for the common man.

The left saw those migrants as the harbingers of the socialist future of the United States. But the Okies of the Central Valley and the Southland did not become the foundation of a new Democratic majority. Instead, they became the core of Ronald Reagan’s electoral base. By the 1950s they were living the American dream, and they liked it.

The Grapes of Wrath remains a landmark of American literature, but if Steinbeck had returned to his characters 30 or 40 years later, he’d have had a very different story to write. Ma Joad might have ended up as the “Little Old Lady From Pasadena,” leaving her garden of white gardenias to become the terror of Colorado Boulevard in her ruby-red Dodge. Rose of Sharon would be a Phyllis Schlafly-loving Reagan activist reunited with her husband, now owner of a small chain of franchise fast-food outlets. Tom Joad, converted at one of Billy Graham’s Southern California evangelistic crusades, would be pastoring a megachurch in the Orange County suburbs. All of them would be worried about the new waves of desperate, penniless immigrants coming over the Pacific Ocean and the Rio Grande.

The transformation of the 1930s migrant wave from desperate climate refugees to surfing suburbanites was an economic and social miracle that changed the trajectory of American life. The great question hanging over California and the future of the United States today is whether and how the same kind of change can happen to the latest wave of immigrants. Will the dusty, desperate migrants scuffing over the border someday become affluent homeowners and staunchly patriotic defenders of the American way? Can California’s promise be renewed for a new generation?

The truth is that we already have everything we need to make California golden once again. The highway to wealth that transformed the horizons of the Okies is still open. The obstacles to growth are mostly in our heads.

On the right, there is a fear, exacerbated by the Biden administration’s inexcusable incompetence and paralytic gridlock when it comes to securing the border, that the latest wave of new Californians is a vast, unassimilable mass who will submerge everything that was good about the old California without adding anything new and valuable to the mix. Republicans in California are going to have to learn the lessons of Texas and Florida, where pro-growth, pro-opportunity, and pro-family policies are attracting growing numbers of new immigrants to the GOP. Like the Okies, these immigrants are people who for the most part loathe dependency and the politics of clientelism. To have a future, California Republicans will have to develop leaders and organizations based among immigrant communities on the basis of policies that address their concerns and embrace their values.

The door is open for California Republicans if they dare to walk through it. For anxious millennials, aspirational zoomers, and above all for millions of immigrants, home ownership remains the key to the American dream. Tight land use and zoning restrictions plus ever-increasing regulatory requirements for new home construction have turned California, once a haven for first-generation homeowners, into the most expensive housing market in the country. As of April 2023, the state’s median home price stood at $765,900; if housing costs are factored in, California has the highest poverty rate in the nation.

The completely artificial and unnecessary housing shortage also hits renters. According to a 2022 report by Joel Kotkin and Marshall Toplansky, median rents in California adjusted for income are 47% higher than the national average, and 79% higher in major coastal metropolitan areas. Racial minorities and young people are particularly hard hit by these conditions. A 2020 study by Matt Levin of CalMatters found that while Black Americans comprise only 5.5% of California’s population, almost 30% of those experiencing homelessness on any given night are Black. Nearly 50% of Black Californians lived in “cost burdened” households where rent or mortgage payments consumed more than 30% of household income, the study reports. Almost a quarter of Black households in California paid more than 50% of their income for housing.

Students are also affected. The Wall Street Journal reports that students from the University of California, Santa Cruz scramble for camper trailers in a university-operated trailer park. A 2022 survey found that 44% of UCSC undergraduates were paying 70% or more of their meager monthly wages on rent.

The Republican Party started its history promoting cheap land and the construction of rail lines across the American West. The result was a line of red states across the continent. Cheap single-family housing is not the only thing California needs, but the political party that succeeds in providing it will gain a lock on some important voting blocs.

Opportunity is bipartisan, but Democrats are unlikely to take the lead in the reform process that California requires. The power of public sector unions in Democratic politics condemns the party to the support of unsustainable models of governance, tax policy, and social service delivery. And, while immigration is part of what makes America a great country, great countries need borders. Current Democratic Party border policy is irretrievably broken, and California cannot flourish as it should until some kind of order is restored and law, not politics, governs what happens on its frontier.

Worse, the toxic marriage of climate activism and elite NIMBYism makes many Democrats instinctively oppose the pro-growth policies the newcomers desperately need. The left once promoted home ownership for American workers, but these days its sentiments echo communist folk singer Pete Seeger’s disdain for “little boxes on the hillside” where “ticky tacky” middle-class Americans raise ticky tacky kids.

Worse still from the standpoint of the blue-nosed, blue-stocking, upper-middle-class NIMBY perspective, poor Californians and immigrants need abundant, cheap power and water to live the way they want. “According to United Way of California,” note Kotkin and Toplansky, “over 30% of California residents, including 50% of Hispanics and 40% of Blacks, lack sufficient income to meet basic costs of living even after accounting for public assistance.” Thanks to poor water and energy policy, however, poor Californians pay inflated prices for these basic necessities, too. The State Water Board estimates that many of the state’s residents struggle with unaffordable water costs. According to a 2022 Los Angeles Times article, 1 in 10 California households has fallen behind on its water bill. Data from the Energy Information Agency in 2021 showed that the average retail price of electricity in California was 77% more than the national average, and the highest in the continental United States. The state also has the highest gasoline prices in the country.

This is all as artificial and unnecessary as the housing shortage. Anti-growth activists often cite California’s water problems as a key reason for making single-family housing unaffordable for California’s lower middle class. Pointing to recent droughts and water shortages attributed to climate change, greens fear that if new generations of residents embrace the old California suburban lifestyle, the state’s water needs will become unsustainable. They have a point. Despite heavy rains and snow in the 2022-23 winter, key sources like the Colorado River remain dangerously low, and California recently joined Arizona and Nevada in a pact to reduce the amount of water taken from the Colorado River basin by more than 10%.

The problem is real, but far from insoluble. More dams and reservoirs could capture and store more of the winter runoff. Nuclear power could provide the abundant low carbon energy that could reduce energy bills for California households even as it powered seawater desalination. Unfortunately, many of the wealthy donors and green activists in California’s Democratic establishment consider all such measures anathema and when they can’t ban them outright, drag any proposed dams, reservoirs, and power plants through years of litigation. Their entrenched attitudes make it highly unlikely that the current incarnation of the party will lead the charge.

A single-family home in the Latino neighborhood of Maywood, in Los Angeles County
A single-family home in the Latino neighborhood of Maywood, in Los Angeles County David McNew/Getty Images

The path to renewal in the Golden State does not require wrenching or revolutionary change. The conditions that made California a land of opportunity for displaced white Southerners still exist or can be duplicated today. World War II and the Cold War made California a center of high tech, aerospace, defense manufacturing, and shipbuilding. We are going to have to rebuild that capacity now. The shift to working from home will create more jobs in the suburbs and, by reducing the need for long commutes to central cities, open more land to exurban living. Meanwhile, land is still abundant, the climate remains glorious, and there are no water problems that modern engineering and cheap power cannot address.

Most of the policies that Californians need today are latter-day extensions of the policies that made the Okies rich—and what the new Californians want is pretty much what the Joads wanted. They want physical safety for themselves, their loved ones, and their property; they want and expect rising standards of living, so that their children live better lives; they want to live with honor and dignity; they want some version of the American dream to be realistically achievable; and they want to believe that all these goals work together in a way the commonsense reasoning of the average American can grasp. California succeeded in delivering on all five in the 20th century. That success is replicable now.

What California needs is a political party that runs on a coherent pro-growth, pro-middle-class platform that clears the clogged arteries of the state’s economic growth system. This would not be a dogmatically libertarian party. The roads, power plants, desalination, and other water projects that California needs for the next stage in its growth will not happen without state and federal engagement. But it would not be statist either, as much of its work will involve clearing away the bureaucratic and legal obstacles to growth that make it almost impossible in too much of the state to run a business or build anything from a house to a highway. It will not be a Balkanizing party built on the fetishization of ethnic and racial difference, but its policies will promote the prosperity of struggling Californians who are disproportionately Black, Hispanic, or of Asian or Pacific Island origin. It will be a progressive party, aiming to improve the living standards and the life prospects of ordinary Californians regardless of religion or race. But it will also be a conservative party, celebrating the family and community values that equip each generation to play its part in the work of the nation, and upholding the traditional American principles of political and economic liberty as the best guarantees for our common future.

Such a party will attract the hostility of those who see clientelism and ethnic grievance as the building blocks of their political machine. And what could be called the “turquoisie,” the upper- and upper-middle-class coalition of conventional blue model progressive ideologues and green climate activists who unite around anti-growth policies, will oppose the emergence of such a movement with everything it has.

But it will attract the support of those who have a stake in California’s, and America’s, growth and success. Cutting California’s unsustainable “turquoise tax”—the high state and local taxes driven by poor management and the excessive power of public sector unions, plus the costs, direct and indirect, of anti-growth green policies and excessive regulation—is a project that can unite a large majority of Californians against an entitled, dysfunctional establishment.

Woody Guthrie was a great singer-songwriter, but like Pete Seeger and many others in those grim times he was also an apologist for Stalin’s mass murders who thought the Soviet Union was a shining model of human progress. He bitterly opposed American participation in World War II while Stalin was aligned with Hitler, then hastily reinvented himself as an anti-fascist crusader when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union. His radicalism grew out of anger and despair: anger over the horrific suffering of the migrating Okies, and despair that traditional American values and ideas could help them.

The anger was justified; the despair was not. The songs, in any case, were great. But neither the American communists and their fellow travelers nor their embittered populist rivals like Huey Long had the answers that the Okies and their fellow migrants needed. It was smart centrist Democrats and forward-looking Republicans who unleashed the prosperity that enabled Ma Joad’s children and grandchildren to surf more and suffer less. We need more of that magic today.

Walter Russell Mead is the Ravenel B. Curry III Distinguished Fellow in Strategy and Statesmanship at Hudson Institute, the James Clarke Chace Professor of Foreign Affairs and Humanities at Bard College, and the Global View Columnist at The Wall Street Journal. He co-hosts the weekly Tablet news podcast What Really Matters.