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California Liberal Dreamin’

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Klein’s op-ed on the sharp limits of California liberalism is overdrawn, but not illegitimate. It’s not a national crisis for progressive politics. It does however demonstrate what happens when the progressive movement is dominated by rich homeowning liberals.

There is an old finding in political science that Americans are “symbolically conservative” but “operationally liberal.” Americans talk like conservatives but want to be governed like liberals. In California, the same split political personality exists, but in reverse: We’re often symbolically liberal, but operationally conservative. Renaming closed schools is an almost novelistically on-point example, but it is not the most consequential.

The median price for a home in California is more than $700,000. As Bloomberg reported in 2019, the state has four of the nation’s five most expensive housing markets and a quarter of the nation’s homeless residents. The root of the crisis is simple: It’s very, very hard to build homes in California. When he ran for governor in 2018, Gavin Newsom promised the construction of 3.5 million housing units by 2025. Newsom won, but California has built fewer than 100,000 homes each year since. In Los Angeles, Mayor Eric Garcetti persuaded Angelenos to pass a new sales tax to address the city’s homelessness crisis, but the program has fallen far behind schedule, in part because homeowners fought the placing of shelters in their communities.

Some of this reflects the difficulty of wielding power in a state where authority is often fractured and decentralized. But that does not explain all of it. Watching SB50, State Senator Scott Wiener’s ambitious bill to allow dense construction near mass transit, fail has become an annual political ritual. Last year, Toni Atkins, the Democratic State Senate leader, sponsored a modest bill to allow duplexes on single-family lots. It passed the Senate, and then passed the Assembly in slightly amended form, and then died because it was sent back to the Senate with only three minutes left in the legislative session. All this in a state racked by a history — and a present — of housing racism.

The symbolically liberal and functionally conservative is the real insight here. And to go to pretty accurate leftist critiques of liberalism, where the real cut here is between an often symbolic identity politics version of liberalism and a liberalism that would actually reduce inequality in a material way, requiring actual action that might reduce personal privilege. Walk around Providence’s East Side, the wealthiest neighborhood in the city. The number of Black Lives Matter signs in wealthy yards where you know damn well the kids in those houses aren’t attending public schools is amazing. Putting out a sign means…nothing. It’s a literal nothingburger of an activist action. But it sure allows one to feel good about themselves when they oppose density or rent control or anything else that would reduce inequality in an actual way.

California voters and Prop 22 is another example of how this works, as Luke Savage explores in the Atlantic.

Under the leadership of key figures associated with the Democratic Leadership Council (most notably Bill Clinton), Democrats not only acceded to core tenets of Reaganism but reoriented their electoral base toward white-collar professionals and other, more affluent constituencies. Accordingly, the union halls and diverse working-class neighborhoods that had helped secure Democrats their congressional majorities since the 1930s gave way to Silicon Valley and Wall Street. The new liberalism became more market-focused than that of FDR’s New Deal, LBJ’s Great Society, or Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition.                                                          

The consequences of this shift on the overall political landscape, and on American society, have been profound. Although Republican politicians certainly bear considerable responsibility for the rising social inequality of the past several decades, it’s also no accident that the two spiritual heartlands of modern American liberalism—New York and California, where Democrats now enjoy huge legislative majorities—boast some of the worst income disparities in the country. Today, incentives for Big Business, attacks on unions, and deference to organized wealth have as much of a home in liberal bastions as they do in places such as Texas and Kentucky.

Biden’s recent victory suggests that Democrats are still sometimes able to assemble broad alliances of voters encompassing parts of America’s multiracial working class as well as affluent new-economy professionals and wealthy suburbanites. Party strategists, however, have continued to center the latter groups. And, as the Prop 22 episode illustrates, the values of those groups have come to influence liberal thinking and policy making at the highest level. Indeed, the further entrenchment of precarious gig-based work is a natural by-product of liberalism in its current form. As long as Democrats embrace both market individualism and well-off voters, they will inevitably place greater emphasis on the desire for convenience among white-collar workers than on the need for security among those toiling in the gig economy.

Though they may periodically succeed in capturing votes from working-class and affluent professionals alike, Democrats cannot simultaneously foreground the interests of well-off consumers or managers and the workers who now bring them lunch via smartphone app. As the history professors Matthew Lassiter and Lily Geismer recently put it, the “strategy of chasing college-educated professionals, and thereby prioritizing their policy interests,” ultimately “risks hamstringing progressive social movements, misdirecting scarce resources, and thwarting the potential for bold policy reform.”

With tech companies almost certain to mobilize their considerable resources in an effort to extend California’s new model to other states, and perhaps even enshrine it in federal law, the fight over Prop 22 was only the first of many similar bouts ahead. Coming as it did from inside the bosom of the modern Democratic Party itself, Prop 22 is therefore just the latest symptom of a liberalism suffering from a chronic case of affluenza—and a harbinger of the struggle that could come to define its future.  

Now, you can say that some of this leftist analysis of the Democratic Party is flawed. And if there’s one thing Biden is showing it’s that you can push him to the left when the party is moving in that direction. But it’s hard to square those critiques of the left with the Prop 22 vote, where California voters pretty strongly showed that they aren’t going to make the necessary divisions to improve the lives of the state’s working class. I’m very much not the kind of leftist that says we need to pretend like we can unite the working class while intentionally alienating suburbanites. That’s silly. But these are real problems with modern liberalism and California is kind of a worst case scenario with all of it.

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