Hayward – 1999 Regional Meeting of The Philadelphia Society
Pacific Research Institute
Los Angeles Regional Meeting of The Philadelphia Society
October 16, 1999
I call the following reflections, "Notes from a Native Son," in self-conscious
imitation of Joan Didion’s 1966 essay "Notes from a Native Daughter." Like
Didion, I am a native Californian, who, having spent the last five years living in
Washington DC, has a new perspective and appreciation for the virtues and
vices of the Golden State, and above all, a deeper understanding of why Ronald
Reagan could never have become Ronald Reagan in New York or Maryland or
Florida, but could only have come from California.
Like Didion, I am drawn constantly back to the state of my birth. I sometimes
wonder if some nefarious state agency has found a way to affix a LoJack theft
alarm on my soul. But more likely it is my chromosomes. My grandfather, an
English immigrant who had lived in Asia and in several parts of the U.S. before
he turned 30, first came to Los Angeles for a visit in 1916. He intended to stay
for two or three weeks. He stayed 50 years. I have tried to leave, three times
now, and have failed each time. Next month I move from DC back to the Gold
Rush country of Northern California.
"Going back to California," Didion wrote, "is not like going back to Vermont,
or Chicago. Vermont and Chicago are relative constants, against which one
measures one’s own change." Not so California; it is the embodiment of that
stupid Buddhist cliché: the only constant is change.
I’ve often felt while living in the East that I ought to be accorded diplomatic
status. James Q. Wilson once observed that Easterners wonder "what kind of
state could be responsible for Hollywood." I have undertaken many times to
explain to easterners the contrast between California and the East, for what it
can tell us about the political culture of our country. The east is a lot more
serious place, for one thing.
USC, for example, has the Lusk Center for Real Estate and Urban Planning,
named for a prominent Orange County developer who has since gone broke;
Georgetown University, by contrast, houses the Kennedy Institute of Ethics,
named for a family that is bankrupt morally rather than financially, and where the
study of oxymorons is undoubtedly high on the curriculum.
Or consider the last mayoral election in San Francisco: one candidate stripped
naked in the shower with two other men on live radio as a way of currying favor
with the homosexual vote. . . and he was the conservative candidate. The other
candidate was of course Willie Brown-the original slick Willie. He won, and
now the Bay Area can be said to suffer from a full-scale Brown-out-since the
Artist Formerly Known as Governor Moonbeam is now Mayor of Oakland.
Now there’s really no there there in Oakland.
It is a pervasive delusion, Didion wrote, that California is only five hours by air
from New York. California is much, much father away than that. National
Review has long been fond of saying "we will never understand California." On
reason, perhaps, is that they have never thought to ask James Q. Wilson to
explain it to them.
Being conservative, our reckoning about the future of conservatism in California
depends on its past. California has a rich history, of course, but is, in a vital
American sense, a state which has no past; only a future. That is why it is useful
to revisit Wilson’s highly prescient 1967 article in Commentary called "A Guide
to Reagan Country." Ten years ago I asked Wilson about the genesis of the
article, and he said he proposed to Norman Podhoretz to write an article
explaining how it was that California, where Democrats outnumbered
Republicans by more than a million votes at the time, could have possibly have
elected Ronald Reagan as its governor by nearly a million votes.
"You’re not going to endorse Reagan," Podhoretz asked Wilson with some
alarm. Surely not, Wilson reassured him. Wilson hastened to reassure
Commentary’s readers as well: "I left [California] a long time ago to acquire
some expensive Eastern postgraduate degrees and a political outlook that would
now make me vote against Reagan if I had the chance. I do not intend here to
write an apology for Reagan; even if I thought like that, which I don’t, I would
never write it down where my colleagues at Harvard might read it."
Wilson’s "Guide to Reagan Country" was chiefly about southern California, the
political center of gravity in the state. LA Times endorsed Goldwater for
President in 1964, and Reagan for Governor, twice. Today it is doubtful Che
Guevara could garner the endorsement of the Times.
San Francisco, and northern California generally, has always been more liberal,
more cosmopolitan-more "eastern" in character. It is not perhaps an accident;
San Francisco is the next highest population density among American cities
after New York. People there even wear bow ties, which are nearly unheard of
here in LA-in LA the issue is whether to wear a tie at all-and have heard of
Southampton; Gatsby may have wrecked his car on the 101 near Santa Barbara,
but his club membership was surely with the Pacific Union Club on Knob Hill,
rather than Jonathan Club in downtown LA.
What Wilson noticed was that the political character of southern California was
wholly unlike the settled political patterns of the east, including even eastern
suburbs, and that these new patterns would soon come to dominate throughout
the sunbelt. Everyone thinks Kevin Phillips came up with this after the 1968
election, but in fact Wilson was there first.
Wilson: "If I had to cite only one way in which Southwestern politics differ
from Northeastern politics, it would be this: the former region is developmental,
future-oriented, and growth-conscious; the latter is conserving [as distinct from
conservative], past- or present-oriented, and security conscious."
"A conserver . . . needs more government in order to protect present stakes
from change, from threats posed by other groups, and from competition."
This, by the way, I think gets to the heart of the matter of the current national
controversy over urban sprawl. Having moved to the suburbs, people now wish
to see the exercise of more government power to preserve the character of their
neighborhoods and communities.
With this background, there are two queries to take up: Is the political center of
gravity shifting back to the Bay Area, and does southern California still have that
same future-oriented political character that Wilson espied in 1967?
I hesitate to make predictions, following the advice of the movie producer Sam
Goldwyn, who used to say: "Never prophesy-especially about the future." So
consider the following thoughts speculation more than prediction.
The political center of gravity may indeed be shifting back to the Bay Area.
Never mind that our two U.S. Senators are from the Bay Area-the less said
about them, the better. More significant is the rise of Silicon Valley-California’s
province of Nerdistan-as the commercial/entrepreneurial center of the state. The
Valley is politically immature, and shows hopeful signs and deeply problematic
signs. Everyone talks about Silicon Valley so I won’t go on about it any more
The more pressing questions concerns southern California? Is it still
characterized by a future-oriented outlook? With the due caveats for changing
circumstances, I think the answer is yes. I haven’t time to develop many of the
reasons why I think this is so, so I’ll just quickly mention two, and then sit
Republicans, to frame the matter in partisan rather than ideological terms for a
moment, are dispirited just now, as they were creamed in the last election. But
we should recall that Republicans were consistently routed in the eight years
before Ronald Reagan, too, so much so that not even Richard Nixon could win
In ideological terms, the great worry is that the surging number of minorities in
California, culminating in just a few years with an outright latino majority in the
state, is foreclosing a conservative future for the state, or at least a Republican
future. The latter may be true, but that will be the Republicans’ fault in my mind.
I offer one piece of data, and a couple of anecdotes. Hispanic males have the
highest labor force participation rate of any ethnic group. This is an
entrepreneurial group, which will tell in the fullness of time. Surveys show that
hispanic attitudes toward O.J. Simpson’s guilt were very close to white
attitudes. Why, a lot of people have been wondering, hasn’t Governor Davis
jumped on the "smart growth" bandwagon, like Maryland’s Gov. Glendening or
Pennsylvania’s Gov. Ridge? One reason is that some hispanic businesspeople
have been telling him that to them, "smart growth" sounds like "Send Mexicans
Across the River Tomorrow."
This kind of tension recently played itself out in clash between hispanic
Democrats and White Democrats in the state legislature over a modest bill that
would have eased some of the environmental hurdles-but not any health and
safety codes-to building affordable housing for migrant farmworkers.
Republicans and hispanic Democrats supported the bill-and would have formed
a majority to pass it on the Assembly floor; and when the bill was blocked in
committee by white liberal Democrats beholden to the environmentalists, a full
scale shouting match erupted within the Democratic caucus that spilled out into
the capitol hallways. The media has turned a blind eye to these kind of tensions;
when my colleague Lance Izumi tried to report on this story in his monthly
column in the California Journal-Lance is the token conservative writer for the
Cal Journal-the editors cut his column at the last minute ostensibly for "space"
But the point is, it doesn’t require a lot of imagination to see why demography
need not be destiny in California. California may march off in a direction
disconnected from the rest of the country for a while, or no longer the
trendsetting state, as Michael Barone has been arguing, but we need not
suppose that these are no prospects for a conservative future in California.
I will close with a gloss on one of Didion’s typically lyrical passages: "California
is a place in which a boom mentality and a sense of Chekhovian loss meet in
uneasy suspension; in which the mind is troubled by some buried but
ineradicable suspicion that things had better work here, because here, beneath
that immense bleached sky, is where we run out of continent."
I always thought this passage from Didion was much too overwrought, and
could only have been written by a California transplant who had spent too much
time hanging around the morose offices of the New York Review of Books.
Chekhovian loss? California? In the same sentence? "Things had better work
here." I know what Ronald Reagan would say: Of course its going to work out
here. Why would we think anything else?