Could California’s upper middle class become the vanguard of the Republican realignment?
There are basically two kinds of Californian refugee-exiles who receive media attention—the lower middle class and the ultra-rich. The former leave the state in hopes of entry into a modestly middle class way of life that includes home ownership and decent public schools. They are such a common sight in Texas that, according to a Texan friend of mine, billboards along the highway between San Antonio and Austin read “Californians, don’t forget why you moved here. Vote Republican!” The latter include figures like Elon Musk, who publicly sparred with government officialsand ultimately made good on his threats to leave the state. The lower class, the truly destitute, quite literally can’t afford to leave. They’re stuck. It is true that, as Joel Kotkin points out, California increasingly represents a neo-feudal economic order of select oligarch overlords and a vast underclass of landless (non-homeowner) serfs.
The media focus on the superrich and lower middle-class migrants who vacate the state in droves leaves out one important—albeit shrinking—piece of the picture: California’s upper middle class. Bari Weiss, in an excellent piece lampooning the woke monoculture of America’s elite urban private schools, “The Miseducation of America’s Elites,” alludes to them with her reference to “two-career couples who credit their own success not to family connections or inherited wealth but to their own education.” These are lawyers, bankers, doctors, entrepreneurs, etc., who look rich on paper and who, anywhere else in the country, with the exception perhaps of San Francisco or Boston, would be. They make a combined income in the low to mid-six figures; they send their kids to pricey private schools; and they own homes that, while not the size of a shoebox, are a pittance compared to what you could get for the same money in Houston or Dallas. They, like the lower middle class and the mega-rich, live under the shadow of a question and temptation: to flee or not to flee? Unlike the other two groups, however, the push and pull factors are not as black and white.
They are not too poor to afford California and yet not so rich as to be saving millions of dollars a year in taxes if they move. Do they stay or do they go? They can afford to own a home, or they are part of what I call California’s landed aristocracy, meaning their parents or grandparents bought into the real estate market before the property price explosion and thus inherited either a house or the necessary equity to purchase a home. For all intents and purposes they lead a comfortable existence, even if there’s not a lot of money left to spare after taxes. But here’s the catch: Like those interviewed in Bari Weiss’ article, they haven’t gone woke.
They are “California Republicans,” as I’ve heard them refer to themselves—fiscally conservative and socially moderate. Many are closet Trump voters; others view themselves as classical “liberals” in the 19th-century meaning of the term. And they can’t help but feel like they’re being snookered. They live in a state where they pay out the nose just to look well-to-do and, to top it off, the ambient social and political culture paints them in broad strokes as racists, sundry categories of “-phobes” and now neanderthal no-maskers with blood on their hands if they aren’t in support of indefinite school closures. At their kids’ soccer games and anywhere else in public—at least until they know they are in safe company—they hold their tongue lest they exhale a politically incorrect utterance.
As an independent school teacher in an affluent pocket of suburban Los Angeles, I witness this dilemma regularly. The climate of constant cultural revolution described in Weiss’s article, coupled with a lockdown-induced deteriorating quality of life, have caused even the most loyal of center-right upper crust Angelenos to question their fealty to the state they love. For close friends of mine who acknowledge they would be as much “cultural migrants” or “political refugees” as economic exiles, Newsom’s interminable school lockdowns were the straw that broke the camel’s back. “I never actually felt oppressed before…but with those lockdowns I literally felt like the government was oppressing me. And I couldn’t even tell anyone at my work what I thought about it.” The lockdowns were bad enough in themselves, but they also brought into sharper relief a host of other issues that made them think of California not just in the day-to-day and month-by-month of the lockdowns, but in increments of decades and ultimately generational terms.
“We’re going to add tens of thousands of homeless in the next decade, and when I drive to work every overpass above the freeway has a tent encampment. It’s like we live in a third-world city,” this same friend points out to me. “Eventually they’ll repeal Prop 13 [a landmark from 1978 proposition limiting property tax increases], and we won’t be able to afford to live here anymore. Do I want to just sit here and wait for that to happen, or do I get out before it’s too late and my property value crashes? Plus, think how expensive it is to start out in California. Do I really want my kids trying to start out here? I could barely afford to buy a house fifteen years ago. I’m just setting my kids up for disappointment if we stay in this state.” This friend imagines Texas as a kind of promised land–a lower cost of living, less homelessness and more like-minded conservatives who will not cancel them just because of their political beliefs. Again, a reference to Bari Weiss’s article is illustrative here. As she details, when a doubter of woke ideology asked his friend to engage him in a conversation about the school’s social justice policies and pedagogy, the friend replied, “Dude, that’s dangerous ground you’re on in our friendship.”
For progressive liberals, America’s further balkanization into red and blue states is less a concern than something to be encouraged. If you don’t like California, get out. Not woke means not welcome. Move to “Texastan” as I’ve seen it referred to in derisive tweets by left-wingers. Likewise, the libertarian-esque wing of the Republican party—at odds, I might add, with the Republican party’s pro-family, pro-localism faction—advises Americans to vote with their feet and go where the jobs are, or where the politico-cultural climate is more hospitable. The Golden State’s loss is the free-market’s gain, so the logic goes.
But what if California’s dwindling upper middle class–not poor enough to be compelled to flee, not rich enough to view their assets as entirely disembodied from the place in which they earned them–is, or could become, the vanguard of the new realignment Republican movement sweeping the GOP? What if, on the eve of a recall of Governor Newsom in which his approval rating is low even among Democrats, California’s dwindling bourgeoisie could become the moral compass of the party’s nationalist-populist consolidation? What if well-to-do Californians, more than GOP advocates in red states, are specifically attuned to the failures of liberal misrule and the remedies that resonate with an ethnically and culturally diverse electorate? And what if they, more than the cash and time-strapped lower middle class or the hyper-mobile megarich, have both the requisite monetary resources and regional civic pride to keep a dog in the fight to save California?
History and context is illustrative on this point. In his engrossing Marxian screed City of Quartz, Mike Davis describes in equal parts disdain and begrudging admiration how Southern California suburbanites were the canaries in the coal mine of the Reagan Revolution. In sections of his book with titles like “Sunbelt Bolshevism” and “Suburban Separatism,” Davis details how Reagan’s nationwide tax revolt was incubated by Howard Jarvis’s property tax rebellion mentioned above, along with homeowner activism against densification of communities characterized by single-family homes. Whereas Davis sees racism and a coldhearted disavowal of the welfare state, I see the blueprint for a conservative playbook that lasted an entire generation and that, even in the Clinton years, won many a debate on the issues of taxes, patriotism, immigration, and law and order. Maybe history is capable of repeating itself, with a new revolutionary cadre of conservative activists fighting a guerilla-style rearguard action deep behind enemy lines. A So-Cal sunbelt bolshevism of the right, version 2.0.
The future GOP must embody a politics of permanence, a politics of place—that is, a politics that genuinely conserves instead of seeing the whole country, with all its regional varieties of culture and economics, as merely the playground of free market forces. Such a GOP just might find its footing, and its voice, in a California whose lumpen upper middle class opts for fight over flight and chooses to defend the distinct economy, regional culture, and way of life that made them who they are. Call it Reagan’s sunny optimism meets Trump’s scorched earth populism, with a twist of California cool.
Kurt Hofer is a native Californian with a Ph.D. in Spanish Literature. He teaches high school history in a Los Angeles area independent school.