I Wish We All Could Be Californian
The New York Times by Daniel Duane Nov. 18, 2016
artwork © Geonni Banner
San Francisco — THIS is going to sound very California, but here goes: I drowned my election sorrows by surfing. It didn’t help, but I was struck by something afterward. All my life, I’ve seen strangers on California beaches — bearded bodysurfers drinking local Bourbon, Republican volleyball players eating vegan energy bars — trade warm glances that say, “I salute your lifestyle choices and respect your privacy.” After the election, those furtive nods implied nausea, terror and a compassion born of confidence that others felt much the same. Within that compassion, I sensed the emergence of something new in California public life: an awareness that we Californians are bound together as one people by the shared values of our increasingly tolerant and pluralistic society.
Everybody knows by now that California tacked left on Election Day: 61.5 percent of our voters choose Hillary Clinton for president; we made Kamala Harris the first Indian-American (and second African-American woman) to be elected a United States senator; we reaffirmed overwhelming Democratic majorities in state politics; and we voted to legalize marijuana, ease parole for nonviolent criminals, raise taxes on cigarettes, extend income-tax increases on the wealthiest few, boost school spending, restore bilingual education, encourage the reversal of the Supreme Court’s noxious Citizens United ruling and ban single-use plastic bags.
The national outcome made our progressivism feel so threatened and precious that a pre-election video of Gov. Jerry Brown saying, “We’re going to have to build a wall around California to defend ourselves from the rest of this country” went viral. He was joking, but the mental image helped us all see in physical terms — Pacific on one side, Sierra Nevada on the other — what has become obvious in cultural terms. Namely, that California is now both a place and a body politic apart.
Secession goes by different names — Calexit, Califrexit and a group called Yes California, which aims to put an exit referendum on the 2019 ballot for all the obvious reasons. California, for example, pays many billions of dollars more in taxes annually than it gets back in federal spending and has every year since 1987, despite our own crumbling infrastructure and underfunded public schools. Then there’s our relative impotence in shaping the federal government, given an Electoral College that makes one vote for president in Wyoming worth more than three in California, and the fact that Wyoming gets one United States senator for every 291,000 people, roughly speaking, while California gets one for every 19.2 million. Each of California’s 53 congressmen have to represent over a hundred thousand people more than Cynthia Lummis, a Republican who is Wyoming’s lone representative.
Secession has virtually zero chance of success, which is doubtless one reason that retiring Senator Barbara Boxer just introduced an equally hopeless bill to change the Electoral College. But Caleavefornia talk does reflect sincere frustration at being overtaxed and underrepresented in a country that suddenly seems unenthusiastic about our way of life. Californian officials have begun channeling that public mood into bracing us-against-them rhetoric. The Los Angeles chief of police, Charlie Beck, has declared that his officers will take no part in deporting undocumented immigrants. Governor Brown promised to “protect the precious rights of our people and continue to confront the existential threat of our time — devastating climate change.” Senator-elect Harris conceded that most Californians are feeling dispirited and said, “You are not alone, you matter and we’ve got your back.”
Then there is the joint statement released on Nov. 9 by the State Senate leader, Kevin de León, and Assembly speaker, Anthony Rendon: “Today, we woke up feeling like strangers in a foreign land, because yesterday Americans expressed their views on a pluralistic and democratic society that are clearly inconsistent with the values of the people of California. We have never been more proud to be Californians. By a margin in the millions, Californians overwhelmingly rejected politics fueled by resentment, bigotry and misogyny.” They went on to call California a refuge of justice and opportunity “for people of all walks, talks, ages and aspirations — regardless of how you look, where you live, what language you speak, or who you love,” and promised that, as they put it, “We will not be dragged back into the past.”
This last bit matters because California’s past is not pretty. The genocide of indigenous Californians was remarkable among North American Indian wars for its sheer scale and evil. California resentment of Chinese laborers in the Gold Rush mines and on the railroads helped produce the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the first federal law to restrict immigration by people of a specific ethnicity. During World War II, Californians incarcerated thousands of law-abiding American citizens of Japanese descent while leaving those of German and Italian descent unmolested.
After that war ended, African-American migrants to California were surprised to find racist real-estate redlining and a virulent West Coast version of Jim Crow. Tim Watkins, president of the Watts Labor Community Action Committee in Los Angeles, told me that his father was sent out here alone from Mississippi at age 13 because a lynch mob was after him. “When my father got off a train in L.A., the first thing he saw was a ‘Whites Only’ sign on a restaurant,” Mr. Watkins said. “When he married my mother, a white woman, he could not marry her here, so their marriage certificate is in español because they went down to old Mexico.”
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 helped, but not enough to stop the violent Watts uprising of 1965 or the Rodney King riots of 1992, both of which expressed collective fury over systemic racism. As recently as 1994, Gov. Pete Wilson, a Republican, revived a flagging re-election bid by backing Proposition 187, which barred the state from providing public services to undocumented immigrants. Proposition 187 passed, but was never really implemented. According to Senator de León, Wilson’s re-election did for California what Mr. Trump’s election and promised deportations might yet do for America: It woke up the Latino vote and ushered in the deep-blue politics that have since helped to legalize same-sex marriage, make Obamacare work, turn virtually the entire state into one big sanctuary city for undocumented immigrants and enact far-reaching climate-change regulations.
Anyone who doubts that progressivism is good business has to reckon with the fact that California is now the sixth largest economy in the world, ahead of France, Russia and India, with $2.46 trillion in gross domestic product.
It’s not all sunshine, of course. California’s $54 billion agriculture industry thrives on the exploitation of migrant workers, and our poverty rates and income inequality are among the nation’s worst, thanks partly to a technology economy that makes millionaires in coastal cities but does little for the hinterlands except raise the cost of living. That helps to explain why 3.7 million Californians — 33 percent of the vote — chose Donald Trump and why California’s electoral map resembles the national one, with red counties in the rural white interior and blue mostly on the coast.
Many Californians are also casting a gimlet eye at the two big industries whose leaders talk a liberal game but sell products that arguably undermine civil society: entertainment and technology. In Los Angeles, that conversation includes movies and TV shows that, in the words of the actor and author Robinne Lee, “often extend the perception that it’s a white man’s world and everyone else is just a guest star.” In Silicon Valley the obvious culprits are Twitter, which has become a hate-speech superhighway, and Facebook and Google, both of which capture eyeballs by tailoring news feeds and search results to make us feel good. In so doing, and especially by supporting the mass dissemination of fake news and outright lies, they radically reinforce the biases that drive Americans into dangerously oppositional camps of red and blue.
But the overwhelming — and novel — sentiment coming out of Nov. 8 remains one of common identity, which is remarkable in a place that is 38.8 percent Hispanic, 38 percent non-Hispanic white, 14.7 percent Asian and 6.5 percent African-American, and where just about everybody knows both steady churchgoers and at least one loving and stable family with two moms or two dads. Paola Martinez-Montes, director of the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment in San Diego, says that California’s African-American and Latino communities no longer see themselves as oppositional and that she has also been in touch with the A.C.L.U. and Planned Parenthood. “We’re starting to understand that we are going to walk in this together, and that’s really positive,” she told me.
Senator de León, by the time I caught up with him, was already on an airplane bound for a climate-change conference in Morocco.
“I’m going to be mobbed — everybody is going to be asking me what the hell happened,” he said by telephone, just before the plane took off. “I’m going to tell them that if the rest of the country doesn’t want to go our direction, we’re going it alone.”
photo/layout: Geonni Banner figures:Brooke Fletcher