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California Über Alles

How the resistance is leaving its heart on the Left Coast

A few months after the election, a friend posted a photo to Instagram of the California state flag waving above his porch. “Never thought I’d fly a rebel flag on my house,” read the caption. “Also never thought I’d consider this a rebel flag. But here we are.”

Californians, always eager to see ourselves as the cultural and social vanguard, have never been more smug about our relationship to the rest of the country. Hillary Clinton’s margin of victory here was 4.3 million votes. When you consider this fact alongside the new president’s agenda, which contradicts our stated values on almost every issue, California has never felt more separate from the rest of America. We think of ourselves as beacons of how the country could function—if only more people had rejected Trump’s siren song to return to the golden age before civil rights and smartphones.

I’ve never been so happy to live here, and yet I’ve been second-guessing my choice to leave my hometown in Iowa. As I watched the returns roll in on election night, sharing my despair with friends who came to California from places like Ohio and Georgia and North Carolina, I couldn’t help but wonder how things might have been different if we hadn’t all moved West to write magazine articles and select the music for Apple commercials and design websites. What if we’d stayed in our hometowns and cast our lot with—and our votes in—the counties that raised us?

Of course, we can’t know. What is clear is that none of us are going back—especially not now. We’re secure in the certainty that California, for all of its problems, does not need to be made great “again.” Unlike voters in many states, we appreciate environmental regulation and clean-energy incentives. We’ve got lots of high-paying jobs in fields like tech and aerospace and entertainment. To many of us, drug policy means decriminalization and easy access to high-quality organic weed, not public-health initiatives to combat opioid addiction. Immigrants are our friends and neighbors and family members, not an abstract threat. When’s the last time you read about a white-nationalist group gaining traction in our state? Nope, not here. And I haven’t even mentioned the weather.

This line of thinking has led to a post-election surge of support for California to secede from the union. Though the case for California’s exceptionalism is usually made in liberal terms, the men behind Yes California were registered as Republicans when they began their campaign for independence—and one of them, Louis J. Marinelli, resides in Russia. They formed the group three years ago, and their puckish crusade gained fresh momentum as liberal Californians began to see themselves as rebels holding on to their core values in the face of the excessive cruelty of the Trump regime.

A Reuters poll in January found that 32 percent of respondents in California voice support for a so-called “Calexit,” the highest since Yes California was formed. In April, movement leaders announced they were withdrawing their secession ballot initiative—Marinelli said he would seek permanent residence in Russia to live “a life without the albatross of frustration and resentment towards ones’ homeland”—but another Yes California leader, Marcus Ruiz Evans, has promised to come forth with a new California nationhood proposal by the summer.

“California is an economic [and] cultural powerhouse, and nationhood is the next logical step,” argued Ruiz Evans in an op-ed published in the San Jose Mercury News in January. “Events in Washington, to say nothing of the attitudes in the red states, make the possibility much more likely.” While Ruiz Evans cited secession-provoking federal actions ranging from Trump’s Muslim ban and border wall to climate-change denial and the bid to repeal Obamacare, it’s California’s economic advantages that allow him to make his case persuasively. California is a rich state that contributes more in federal taxes than it sucks up. Why should we be subsidizing people beyond our state lines when they’re actively undermining our values?

“States’ rights” has long been a rallying cry for reactionary conservatives hoping to stem the tide of social progress—a way of communicating that we are not all in this together. After Obama’s election, the every-state-for-itself model was in vogue among Southern conservatives. Now, apparently, it’s liberals’ turn to be alienated from the federal government and lash out petulantly. It’s an understandable impulse: if the bulk of America wants to roll back voting rights and abortion access and environmental protections, let it. California’s millions of Hillary voters have seen the charts that show how working-class Trump supporters will be hurt more than helped by his proposed policies, and our schadenfreude is palpable. Back in the Bush era, coastal liberals asked, “What’s the matter with Kansas?” In the Trump era, the answer is, “Who cares?”

How to Secede in Business

In a sense, I seceded from Middle America thirteen years ago, when I graduated college and took my education and earning power with me to the coasts. Countless others made the same decision. Having surveyed the economic and cultural landscape in the small towns and mid-sized cities where our parents still live, we decided to head for urban centers thousands of miles away. For some people, this was a life-or-death decision. (Rural LGBT kids are more likely to be assaulted at school than their urban peers—not exactly an enticement to stick around.) But for me and many others, it felt more like a lifestyle choice. If you’d asked me at the time why I was moving away from the Midwest, I would have told you it was cultural—that I just felt more in tune with city people than I did with the folks I grew up with, or that I liked going to museums on the weekends.

Back in the Bush era, coastal liberals asked, “What’s the matter with Kansas?” In the Trump era, the answer is, “Who cares?”

But it was, of course, also an economic decision. The jobs are better in big cities. My earning potential is greater because I picked up and moved. And California’s economy is strong because it continues to attract people like me.

It’s tempting to interpret the waning economic prospects and cultural relevance of rural America as an inevitable consequence of casual bigotry. If these people were just a bit more forward-looking—more accepting of immigrants and gay people, more interested in new technology—then maybe people like me would stay put. And maybe those states would still be attracting employers. Maybe there would be TV shows and movies set there. Maybe they’d even be drawing in transplants rather than hemorrhaging the best and brightest of each generation. Oppressive state laws can drive people away; in several states, for example, major businesses have scuttled investment plans in response to anti-LGBT legislation. The Associated Press found that North Carolina’s so-called bathroom bill, passed last year, will end up costing the state at least $3.76 billion over twelve years in canceled business.

Yet in the end, this vision of culture-wide economic payback for the politically backward interior is as much a fantasy as the notion that Trump can bring back manufacturing jobs. The real reason that jobs have disappeared from large swathes of the country has more to do with neoliberalism than with social issues. Broadly speaking, California is a winner in this system. Most other places in America are not.

The Golden State has long contained some of the richest zip codes in the country, but it’s increasingly becoming a state where only the wealthy can build a decent life for themselves. This is apparent in places like Los Angeles’ Boyle Heights, where my friend flies his rebel flag but rising housing prices are breaking up the Latino community that’s called the neighborhood home since the 1950s. Zoom out the lens, and you can see that it’s not just a local issue: since 2011, housing prices across the state have gone up 71 percent. That’s had real consequences. Between 2007 and 2014, more people left California than migrated here. Leading the exodus were people without college degrees—in other words, the same demographic that’s credited with delivering Trump a landslide victory in red states.

The hard truth about liberal secession fantasies is that California is not a place where progressive policies enable everyone to become successful. It’s a place to which people move to enjoy their success when they’ve beaten the odds elsewhere. As Kendrick Lamar reminded us, people come to California for “women, weed, and weather”—not decent wages, affordable education, and accessible health care.

Ruiz Evans’s case for secession rests on the claim that Californians’ “views on education, science, immigration, taxation and healthcare are different” from those prevailing in much of the rest of the country. This is certainly true when you look at polling on the issues. But when it comes to policies and outcomes, California’s unique values are less apparent. To take just the first example on Ruiz Evans’s list, California’s per-pupil spending on K-12 education has declined for years, falling well below the national average. In this realm, California is comparable to states like Florida and Texas—even though California also boasts some of the highest-performing high schools in the nation. This is not a sign of our more progressive views on education; it’s an indication that the state is deeply segregated along lines of race and class.

Flipping Out

Secession is a pipe dream that distracts us from the problems keeping California from being the liberal paradise we’d like to think it is. It also allows Californians to reject the parts of the country we disagree with politically—and the administration they voted into office—rather than accept the challenge of figuring out how to engage with them.

Despite hundreds of protest signs airing sentiments to the contrary, Trump is our president, and we are still bound to the states that voted for him. (This should be most apparent to those of us who defected to the coasts.) The sooner we let the implications of that sink in, the sooner we can go about containing his agenda—and eventually, replacing him with someone better. And the sooner we acknowledge our disproportionate command of economic and cultural resources, the sooner we can go about putting them to better use.

The election was the wake-up call that some activists needed to understand this. New projects like Flippable, Sister District, and Swing Left are organizing liberals to invest their attention and money in state-level races outside of safely Democratic enclaves. This is something that right-wing strategists figured out decades ago: state and local elections matter. They spent a generation taking over state legislatures to ensure that Congress would be good and gerrymandered once they regained control of it.

What if we’d stayed in our hometowns and cast our lot with—and our votes in—the counties that raised us?

This is not a strategy that liberals have embraced in recent decades. Talking points aside, the metropolises have evinced surprisingly little interest in following through on a politics that benefits the American interior, be it in trade accords, agricultural policy, or the union movement. “What are they gonna do, vote Republican?” was the rationale that the Clinton administration floated as it dismissed organized labor’s objections to NAFTA, and it’s a refrain that has been taken up by Democratic leaders ever since. The first major policy promise the Obama White House blew off was card check, taking a page from the Clinton White House playbook. Now we know that the answer to that question is “Yes, they will vote Republican.”

Calling for policies that benefit the working class, though, is not synonymous with pandering to Trump supporters. According to the Economic Policy Institute, people of color will be a majority of the American working class by 2032. And despite the easy caricature of the Trump base as hillbillies and out-of-work Rust Belters, it’s bound together more by race than by class. Trump outperformed Clinton among college-educated whites, too: the people at the top of the economic and social heap who have no interest in extending the rights they enjoy to everyone.

For efforts like Flippable and Swing Left to really take root, liberals have to embrace not only a long-game majoritarian strategy without a short-term payoff, but bridge some deep divides within the movement. Arguing for a renewed focus on economic uplift for the working-class residents of America’s rural interior has often gone hand-in-hand with writing off the concerns of women and people of color as mere identity politics. It’s telling that the liberals arguing in favor of more empathy for working-class rural Trump voters tend to be white. In the wake of the Trump insurgency, social scientists and journalists have filed hundreds of dispatches from rural America, making the alienation of working-class whites the most-covered story of the election.

Some of these dispatches deliberately downplay racism and go beyond mere empathy to imply, obnoxiously, that members of the middle-American working class are morally superior in their own way. J. D. Vance, author of Hillbilly Elegy, praises his people for their “loyalty, honor, and toughness.” He recently wrote a treacly op-ed about his plans to move from Northern California back home to Ohio, bringing venture-capital investment with him. He’ll keep his job with Mithril Capital Management, the Peter Thiel–backed fund where he works. Still, it’s an extreme decision, one that will probably be the basis of his next book.

Frank Rich has decried such efforts to understand Trump voters as “hillbilly chic”—an exercise in cheap, sentimental pandering steeped in liberal guilt. Writing in New York magazine, he asked, “After the debacle of 2016, might the time have at last come for Democrats to weaponize their anger instead of swallowing it?” Trump voters are unreachable, he argued, so let them go. “Let them reap the consequences for voting against their own interests,” he wrote.

Such sentiments may feel like satisfying emotional payback in response to a Trump movement that reveled in the social-media taunt “fuck your feelings” when it was reproached for its bigotry and xenophobia. But the larger problem here should be obvious: even if you relish the misfortunes of Trump supporters, they aren’t the only ones who suffer when morally bankrupt and politically unaccountable Republicans control every branch of the federal government and most state legislatures. What’s bad for those working-class white folks tends to be even worse for the nonwhite working-class people who voted against Trump in droves. What’s more, as working-class whites suffer, they don’t typically blame Republican leaders. They scapegoat minorities. The secessionist impulses expressed by Rich and other liberal pundits would, in practical terms, stoke an already toxic climate of mounting racial animus in American politics.

A Long Engagement

It’s easy to write off Trump-supporting regions when you’re a liberal who sees little or no reason to ever pass through the benighted red-state interior. But despite what both the Vances of the world and their critics would have you believe, “Trump supporter” is not synonymous with “rural American,” and “rural American” is not synonymous with “white person.” According to Census data cited by the Wall Street Journal, “Small towns in the Midwest have diversified more quickly than almost any part of the U.S. since the start of an immigration wave at the beginning of this century.” Cutting ties with rural areas means relinquishing the fastest-diversifying parts of America. Another Wall Street Journal analysis of Trump voters prior to the election found that the GOP candidate did particularly well in counties that have more than doubled in diversity since the year 2000. It’s easy to argue that white people should suffer the consequences of their willful political ignorance. It’s harder to argue that people of color should go down with them.

The hard truth about liberal secession fantasies is that California is not a place where progressive policies enable everyone to become successful. It’s a place to which people move to enjoy their success when they’ve beaten the odds elsewhere.

The heartland isn’t monolithically conservative. My home state of Iowa split its Senate seats for decades, electing both a liberal member and a conservative one, and many of the midwestern states that delivered Trump the Electoral College have a similar history of mixed representation. Now that Trump is going to fail to deliver on his promises to improve the economic prospects of the people who voted for him in these states, the time is ripe for liberals to put forth an economic agenda that rests not on racial fearmongering but on guaranteed access to health care, fair wages, education, and affordable housing.

And as it turns out, these needs are every bit as acute in California as they are in Iowa. To move toward a true majoritarian liberal strategy means we must challenge more than a few ingrained narratives about American politics. It means rejecting the fallacy that California is a liberal utopia, a place where we coastal transplants can enjoy the moral high ground over our high school classmates who remained in our hometowns to raise their families. It also means dispensing with the opposite fallacy: that those who stayed behind have some sort of shopworn dignity that the rest of us lack.

And this is because, ultimately, division helps Trump advance his agenda. It keeps Republicans firmly in control of state legislatures and the House. So we must resist the urge to smugly turn our backs on the glum spectacle of the self-inflicted economic immolation of Trump country. We must keep it together. If you had a choice about where to build your life, you now have an obligation—not to move back to your beleaguered homeland, but to stay engaged with it. And if you hope to maintain any genuine sort of moral high ground in your adopted state, you have an obligation there, too: to work to make its policies align with your beliefs.

This is not, as Rich suggests, as simple as adopting Trump’s shoot-from-the-hip rhetorical style. Nor is it a question of luring venture capitalists to rural Ohio—where, in all likelihood, they would bring the same mounting inequality and diminished returns that have made Silicon Valley a fortress of paper wealth. It’s a matter of supporting candidates who share our values and have a track record of actually getting them enacted in policy. That’s a hard thing to prove when Democrats are not in power. But as I write these words, opinion polls show that Bernie Sanders is the most popular political leader in the country. Surely that suggests an opportunity to build on the best parts of his 2016 platform and to get behind other Democrats who are known for supporting such policies. There are several, like Sherrod Brown and Elizabeth Warren, who enjoy a cross-demographic appeal. The time is also ripe to capitalize on the fiasco of Trumpcare and place single-payer health reform back on the table. Similar opportunities will surely present themselves on other issues, from education reform to infrastructure investment, as the president fails to deliver on promises to his base. The trick will be to continue to frame these issues as nationwide problems that we all have a stake in solving.

Those of us who have the economic freedom to migrate to pursue better jobs and a broad range of economic opportunities are the ones who bear the greatest burden for bridging the country’s internal geopolitical divides. Believe me, I understand the temptation to separate yourself: it’s true that I am different from the people I grew up with who chose to stay in Iowa. Part of that difference is, now, an economic and cultural advantage. So I have a dual responsibility: to see that California actually makes good on its professed values, and to ensure that those values incorporate the rest of America. Refusing to rationalize elite neglect is the real rebellion.