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.
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Joel Kotkin is the author of The Coming of Neo-Feudalism: A Warning to the Global Middle Class. He is the Roger Hobbs Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and Executive Director for Urban Reform Institute. Learn more at joelkotkin.com and follow him on Twitter @joelkotkin.