Liberalism’s Winners and Losers in California

When trying to understand why Californians continue to elect liberals, several explanations routinely surface. Chief among them is the theory that conservatives forever alienated California’s diverse electorate by championing “discriminatory” policies.

The early example of this was Proposition 187, passed in 1994, which banned providing government services to illegal aliens. Most of Prop. 187 was overturned in court. Claiming it should serve “as a warning to immigrant bashers,” the Left is now well into their third decade of using it to bash conservatives in California.

The other, more recent example of an alleged discriminatory policy promoted by California conservatives—and also used ever since to taint them—was Proposition 8, passed in 2008, which defined marriage as a union between one man and one woman. The measure was also overturned a few years later by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Whether you support these social issues or oppose them—and conservatives are by no means monolithic in their positions on either of them, not now, nor at the time they were passed—they have come to dominate the political conversation in California. Racism. Sexism. The war on women. Gay-bashing. Immigrant bashing. “Transphobia.” Conservatives, go away. California is no home for you.

Along with social issues, California’s liberal elites also claim a popular mandate on the question of “climate change.” No public education system in America is more geared towards terrifying the next generation on this topic. When it comes to displays of unanimity, obsession, and panic over climate change, no media region in the world can rival the bloviating hysteria of California’s many local news anchors and pundits. California’s tech titans and entertainment moguls see profit and power in green technology, and, of course, it’s a green gold mine for California’s insatiable unionized public sector.

But is it this simple?

Even if California’s conservatives are forever tainted as planet-destroying bigots, aren’t the liberals nonetheless failing in the Golden State? The highest rates of poverty. The worst roads. The highest taxes. The worst schools. The most homeless. The fewest affordable homes. Water rationing. Mismanaged forests and catastrophic wildfires. The list goes on. California is a tough place to live. And the liberals and progressives who have held absolute political power in California for decades, own all of it. What gives?

There’s another explanation for California’s leftward tilt than the supposedly alienating positions of California conservatives. It is simple: A supermajority of Californians are exempt from the consequences of liberalism. These exempt Californians comprise four groups.

The Technology Elite

This is the smallest group, but it’s the most influential. These liberal voters are exempt from high taxes and high home prices because they’re wealthy enough to afford the high prices without feeling the financial pain. Who cares if your mortgage and property taxes amount to $10,000-a-month if you have a household income of well over $1 million per year?

The technology elite itself is stratified, but at every level, their exemption from the consequences of liberal politics remains intact. At the top are the tech billionaires and near-billionaires. These people are almost all politically liberal (or “libertarian progressive”), and they not only are completely unaffected by California’s high cost of living but are using their wealth to support liberal politicians and powerful liberal nonprofits.

In the middle of the technology elite’s pyramid are the attorneys, CPAs, successful PR executives and other high-end servants to the technology industry. With incomes easily averaging over $500,000 per year, and often living in two-income households, these mid-level elites can easily pay their mortgages, their taxes, and the private school tuition for their children.

At the base of the technology elite’s pyramid are the knowledge workers who write code or create press releases and marketing campaigns, or otherwise keep the technology giants growing. With engineer salaries averaging around $150,000 per year in the big companies, these workers can afford to share swanky apartments with plenty of money left over to fulfill their lifestyle desires. They are typically childless, which removes that expense, and the companies they work for shower them with ancillary benefits such as private buses for their commutes, along with company gymscafeterias, and play spaces.

The Public Sector

California’s unionized public sector is one of the highest-paid bureaucracies in the world, probably only rivaled by the federal workers in Washington D.C. Their pensions and other retirement benefits, which now average over $70,000 for only 30 years of work, threaten eventually to bankrupt California’s cities and counties and are the primary reason for the relentless drive—always pushed by their unions—for more state and local taxes.

While California’s public-sector unions bemoan the financial difficulty “nurses, teachers and firefighters” have to endure to “live in the communities they serve,” what they ignore is that nobody in California can afford to live in these communities. But their rates of pay, which in most cases are well in excess of what the market would require to attract qualified workers, partially exempt them from the worst effects of California’s high cost of living, as does the subsidized home loans, generous family health benefitshousing assistance, and a host of other benefits.

When California’s public employees claim they can’t afford to live in California, they’re right. But they’re considerably better off than most private-sector workers with comparable skills. And it is the financial power of California’s liberal public employee unions that buys the candidates who enact the laws that make it so hard for everyone else.

The Ultra-Low Income and the Undocumented

If you’re a code inspector looking for violations, and your city is coping with a budget deficit, where do you spend your time? Do you go into the barrios and hoods, looking for someone who didn’t get a permit before they replaced a window or water heater, or do you hit the solvent suburbs? Magnify that basic incentive by millions, and you have a pretty good picture of what’s happening in California.

If you want to add a room to your home, altering the foundation, in most California counties the time and money required to get the permits—especially if it involves kitchen or bathroom amenities—will add up to more than the cost of the construction. People of modest means either don’t bother, or they accept that their project will have to be much less than they want or could otherwise afford, because in California, you pay the government punitive amounts to get permission to do things that in most states you wouldn’t need a permit for in the first place. And you waste a lot of time.

Or, you just do it, because “we don’t need no stinkin’ permits.” Victor Davis Hanson, who lives in California’s Central Valley when he isn’t teaching at Stanford, has been writing about this for years. Here’s a vivid example of what he’s seen:

Many of the rural trailer-house compounds I saw appear to the naked eye no different from what I have seen in the Third World. There is a Caribbean look to the junked cars, electric wires crisscrossing between various outbuildings, plastic tarps substituting for replacement shingles, lean-tos cobbled together as auxiliary housing, pit bulls unleashed, and geese, goats, and chickens roaming around the yards. The public hears about all sorts of tough California regulations that stymie business—rigid zoning laws, strict building codes, constant inspections—but apparently none of that applies out here.

It is almost as if the more California regulates, the more it does not regulate. Its public employees prefer to go after misdemeanors in the upscale areas to justify our expensive oversight industry, while ignoring the felonies in the downtrodden areas, which are becoming feral and beyond the ability of any inspector to do anything but feel irrelevant.

Needless to say, low income and undocumented Californians don’t have things easy. But instead of having upward mobility, they have government handouts. Imagine how they would start voting if these code enforcers and business regulators started universally enforcing all of California’s intrusive regulations.

The Prop. 13 Privileged Class

To head off charges of heresy, let’s be clear: Prop. 13, which limits property tax increases, should not be touched until everything else in California gets fixed. Reform crippling anti-housing regulations and get home prices down to earth. Outlaw public sector unions and deflate the bloated public sector. Right-size the financially unsustainable pensions. That’s understood.

Moreover, the rationale behind Prop. 13 is durable and fair. When you buy a home in California, you pay market-rate property taxes. Over time, as the increasing value of your home outpaces the 2 percent per year that your property taxes are permitted to rise, the burden becomes less in real dollars. This parallels your children passing through the public schools, which are the primary beneficiaries of property taxes, and leaves you better able to stay in your home when you retire and have less income. Leave Prop. 13 alone.

But there are consequences. Take a look at voting patterns in California. How many of these school bonds and affordable housing bonds—almost always put to hideously inefficient use—would pass, if a sizable percentage of the voters weren’t paying negligible property taxes? Sure, it’s ok to tack another $200 per year onto a property tax bill to service a school bond, if the base rate is only $1,500 per year. And don’t forget that property tax rates are passed by homeowners to their heirs, so there is now a younger generation living in these homes—by the millions—who don’t feel the true burden of California’s wasteful spending.

Imagine how having to pay current rate property taxes on a 1,200-square-foot home that currently sells for $1.8 million would focus the mind. Perhaps it would no longer be a slam dunk for the tax-and-spend liberals to get elected.

California May Realign Despite Its Exempt Supermajority

This combination—successfully demonizing conservatives while exempting large swaths of the population from the consequences of liberal governance—has worked so far in California. But liberal dominance could come to an end, and it could happen swiftly.

California’s low-income communities are hit the hardest by the failed public schools, and they are increasingly unwilling to accept the conventional explanations.

Why are the worst teachers shuttled into schools in low-income neighborhoods, instead of fired? When are the elected school board representatives going to start telling the truth—that families and hard work and a cultural priority that values educational achievement is the surest guarantee of success, not more BS about discrimination? Low-income parents are rising up, demanding charter schools and reform of hiring and management rules imposed by the teachers union. Things are changing.

Similarly, California’s low-income communities are beginning to hear the message that maybe “climate change” isn’t the real reason it’s now impossible to build suburbs for all of California’s new arrivals; maybe it’s greedy real estate investors who just want to keep home prices high so they can extract higher rents and higher returns. Green activists beware. A backlash could be coming from places where you least expect it will come.

Even many of California’s public sector workers are able to see that liberal policies have gone too far. Many of them are still driven by a desire to serve the public, and not just to enjoy the lavish benefits, the often lackadaisical workload, and the lucrative pension.

Will California’s unionized firefighters really choose to march with the teachers union again, as they did in Los Angeles in January? Don’t bet on it. It’s becoming increasingly obvious what the teachers union has done to public education in California and firefighters have children in the schools, too.

An insurgency is brewing within California’s public sector, and significant percentages of them will either demand their union stop exclusively supporting liberal candidates or—thanks to the Janus decision—they will quit.

Can California’s Prop. 13 privileged class see past their exemption to realize how liberals have failed their state? Can the progressive libertarian technology elite? Maybe they will when the liberal mentality of California’s state legislature tips fully into a socialist mentality, imperiling their ability to manage their companies and their investments.

But only one of these four groups has to be peeled away to change the political landscape in California. The biggest wild card is low-income Californians, who have more reason than ever to make common cause with what’s left of California’s middle class. That day could arrive sooner than anyone expects.

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About Edward Ring

Edward Ring is a senior fellow of the Center for American Greatness. He is also the director of water and energy policy for the California Policy Center, which he co-founded in 2013 and served as its first president. Ring is the author of Fixing California: Abundance, Pragmatism, Optimism (2021) and The Abundance Choice: Our Fight for More Water in California (2022).

Photo: Gerhardt Ostertag/EyeEm/Getty Images

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