For roughly 100 years, California was America’s synecdoche: the part of the country that best represented its whole. It was town and country, coastal metropolis and interior farmland, opportunity and freedom. It was Hollywood, the defense industry, and the high-tech economy. Its people were both high-achieving and laid-back, able to enjoy the state’s natural bounty, from the beaches and cliffs to the forests and Sierras. California boasted a pioneering public education system, in which every child, no matter how poor, could receive a good education. It had affordable suburbs, built around nuclear families. It was growing, quadrupling its population after World War II. In a word, California represented progress.
Now the state has become America’s shadow self. True, it is more prosperous than ever, surpassing Germany last year to become the world’s fourth-largest economy. But Los Angeles, San Francisco, Sacramento, and smaller cities are today overrun by homeless encampments, which European researchers more accurately describe as “open drug scenes.” Crime has become so rampant that many have simply stopped reporting it, with nearly half of San Franciscans telling pollsters that they were a victim of theft in the last five years and a shocking one-quarter saying that they had been assaulted or threatened with assault.
These pathologies are just the most visible manifestations of a deeper rot. Less than half of California’s public school students are proficient in reading, and just one-third are proficient in math (with a stunning 9 percent of African-Americans and 12 percent of Latinos in L.A. public schools proficient in eighth-grade math). Education achievement declined precipitously in California in 2021, as the state kept children studying at home well after kids in other states had returned to the classroom. Californians pay the most income tax, gasoline tax, and sales tax in the United States, yet suffer from electricity blackouts and abysmal public services. Residential electricity prices grew three times faster in 2021 than they did in the rest of the United States. And the state government, dependent on income taxes, faces a projected $23 billion budget deficit that will only grow if the nation’s economy enters a recession. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given these trends, California’s population stopped expanding in 2014 and has slightly declined since, resulting in the loss of a congressional seat after the 2020 Census.
Homelessness and disorder loom as the biggest problems. Most of the assaults and threats that San Franciscans reported came from the city’s large number of homeless and mentally ill addicts, who are allowed to sleep, defecate, and use drugs in public. Los Angeles is in even worse shape, as the city is so much larger than San Francisco and the local government is, against stereotype, even more progressive. Skid Row can no longer contain its massive population of street homeless; the city’s government has all but legalized open-air drug dealing and use. Over the last decade, homelessness increased 43 percent in California, even as it fell 7 percent nationally.
Some signs of hope seem to have emerged on this front. Since taking office in December 2022, the new mayor of Los Angeles, Karen Bass, has worked to shut down drug markets and tried to move people into shelter and housing through a program called “Inside Safe.” Venice Beach voters elected to the city council a moderate named Traci Park, who worked with Bass to move street-dwellers inside. San Francisco’s mayor, London Breed, closed an experimental government-funded drug-consumption site in June, responding to complaints from residents, business leaders, and mothers of homeless addicts. In November 2022, San Franciscans elected a majority of moderates to the city’s governing board of supervisors, who, like the mayor, favor stronger action to remove self-destructive addicts from the streets. Those changes followed a voter recall earlier that year of a radical district attorney, Chesa Boudin, whose policies of de-prosecution encouraged disorder.
But there is less than meets the eye to these developments. Bass’s office reports that just 31 homeless people in Hollywood, and fewer than 100 in Venice, had been moved inside between December 11, 2022, and January 21 of this year. For context, according to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, there were 41,290 total homeless in Los Angeles in 2020, of whom 70 percent were “unsheltered”—living in tents or cardboard boxes on sidewalks and underneath overpasses. Voters increased the progressive majority on the Los Angeles City Council and tossed out the sheriff of Los Angeles County, who had advocated a tougher response to crime, drugs, and violence, in November 2022. In San Francisco, a judge halted efforts to move the city’s vulnerable homeless indoors before torrential rains pounded the state for weeks; the judge had sided with a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union against the city. And six months after closing the drug-consumption site, Mayor Breed and the Board of Supervisors announced in early January that they intended to open 12 new sites across the city. In the state’s two major cities, significant improvement on crime, drugs, and homelessness is unlikely under current political leadership.
What explains California’s dramatic decline? And what would it take for the state to return to its former greatness?
The reasons progressives give for California’s problems stopped making sense long ago. Since the 1970s, they have attributed much of the state’s difficulties to Republicans’ unwillingness to fund social programs. The cause of homelessness, they alleged, was Ronald Reagan’s decision to close mental institutions and tighten civil-commitment standards as governor and his refusal, as president, to fund “community-based” alternatives. But progressives have been unable to make that argument credibly for decades. For 12 years, Democrats have held a supermajority of the California legislature and controlled the governor’s mansion. California spends much more than other states on homelessness and mental illness, yet has worse outcomes.
Without Republicans to blame, Democrats have turned to the state’s housing shortage as a catch-all explanation. A lack of housing does cause problems in California, as Christopher Elmendorf explains in this issue. Los Angeles and the Bay Area struggle even to build apartments near mass-transit stations. Insufficient housing, massively driving up the cost of keeping a roof overhead, contributed to the state’s population drop-off since 2014, as well as to the loss of many tech companies and jobs to more affordable locales in Texas and Florida. And it’s not just housing that is missing—the inability of California’s local governments to build hospitals, group homes, and shelters has undermined cities’ ability to solve the homelessness problem.
But expensive housing is not the main driver of street disorder. Advocates of development, such as progressive state senator Scott Wiener, cynically insist in public that expensive rent causes thousands of people to wind up living and dying on city sidewalks, yet freely admit in other contexts that leaders’ refusal to mandate psychiatric or addiction treatment is the true culprit. If California were to deal with homeless addicts and untreated mental illness on a statewide level, as in Massachusetts, and not locally, then the street population could get treatment in drug-recovery communities, hospitals, and group homes in cheaper parts of the state, such as the Central Valley.
The story is little better when it comes to K–12 education. California spends more here than most states, too, with dismal results. If the state allowed parents to choose the best schools for their children and injected competition into school administration, student performance would undoubtedly improve.
But such sensible reforms face fierce opposition from the ideologically extreme nonprofit organizations and public-sector unions that dominate California politics. Homeless-services providers make political donations to the same politicians who give them billions in contracts to help the homeless, creating a homeless-industrial complex that discourages real change. And the reason that California’s children had to stay home when other children went back to school during the pandemic, for instance, is the outsize influence of the teachers’ union. After former state senate president Gloria Romero passed a “parent trigger” law, giving parents the right to take over underperforming schools, in 2010, the California Teachers Association spent millions on ads to tank her bid for schools superintendent, derailing her political career in the process. Democratic state legislators, she recalled later, “always wanted to know where’s CTA” because that’s “their sugar daddy.”
Conflicts of interest aside, the leaders of these organizations tend to be motivated more by power than by money. Teachers’ union officials “walk around [in Sacramento] like they’re God,” observed Romero. A nonprofit activist named Jennifer Friedenbach, who runs the Coalition on Homelessness, has accumulated so much power in San Francisco through sheer ideological influence, manipulation of language, and bullying that she effectively controls hundreds of millions of the city’s budget spent on homelessness. L.A. County’s advocate-dominated Board of Supervisors controls both the city’s and the county’s spending on mental health and education and is thus more powerful than state legislators.
Or consider environmental nonprofits. Groups like the Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council, and Climate Works often dictate what infrastructure can get built and combine pro-scarcity environmentalism with woke identity politics. For half a century, these neo-Malthusians have blocked new housing, power plants, and water storage and desalination in the state.
Many of the advocacy groups support policies that license self-destructive behavior, the true driver of crime and homelessness. No city needs to have any unsheltered homeless. Shelters can be built; people can be required to sleep in them. California cities don’t do this because progressive politicians have, for decades, demanded that taxpayer resources flow to expensive apartment units rather than to low-cost shelter beds. Groups like Friedenbach’s Coalition on Homelessness protest, lobby, and sue to prevent the city from requiring that people sleep indoors. California’s progressive leaders, judges, and voters have disempowered the police, reduced the state’s jail and prison populations by nearly one-third, and allowed the spread of public camping, drug use, and prostitution.
The progressive defense of urban chaos is that it is cruel, racist, and immoral to insist that criminals, addicts, and the mentally ill obey the law. When a homeless man shot and killed an Oakland postal worker in January 2023, a local politician came to the aid of the criminal’s family, not the victim’s. Such behavior is typical. In California, addicts and the mentally ill are treated as sacred victims and permitted to take over large parts of cities. To victims, everything should be given, and from them, nothing required. Once labeled victims, they become blameless; if they harm others, it is the system’s fault. These ideas, once radical, are today the conventional views of the people who run California, from its legislature to its governor’s office to the myriad organizations that influence them.
To understand the intellectual roots of this toxic policy mix, Friedrich Nietzsche is an illuminating guide. Writing in the nineteenth century, Nietzsche foresaw a coming crisis of nihilism. Nihilism had at least two manifestations, in his view. One was the notion that life has no inherent meaning, value, or purpose. Humans are no different from frogs, as the nihilistic antihero, or villain, of Ivan Turgenev’s 1862 novel, Fathers and Sons, explained. Thinking and feelings are just the excretions of bodily organs; there’s nothing divine about humans. Nihilism was also a psychology and ideology of destruction.
For Nietzsche (and others who followed), the first form of nihilism precedes the second. If life has no inherent meaning, then humans can, say, pursue empty pleasure, whether through drugs or sex or some other form of escapism, at no cost. But another response to the loss of meaning has been to invent new religions, usually in the form of totalizing political ideologies that provide the intoxication of power. As Communism was the nihilistic alternative to industrial capitalism and fascism the nihilistic alternative to liberalism, woke progressivism can be seen as the nihilistic alternative to our postindustrial, post-scarcity society, whose institutional structures are the enemy of sacrosanct racial and sexual identities. It is a political ideology, a psychopathology, and a religion all in one.
Today’s nihilists are busily destroying the institutions that make civilization possible. Of course, opposing civilization is ultimately possible only if one takes it for granted. Our grandparents may have known what real poverty was like, but few of us do. Today’s nihilism is the ideology of the privileged, the children of the people who worked hard and made it—a descent from the successful nineteenth-century Russian farmers in Fathers and Sons to California’s 1960s-era “trustafarians,” who inherited nest eggs and never had to work, to San Francisco’s contemporary homeless, who get $700 per month in cash welfare from the city and most likely spend it on drugs. That such nihilism took root in America’s most prosperous, libertine state should not surprise us: there were always more bars than churches in San Francisco, the last American city to shut down opium dens.
California’s decline, then, flows from the same forces that destroy all once-great civilizations. It became decadent and nihilistic, escapist and intoxicated. A victim of its own success, it has been brought down by the spoiled children of its successful creators. Unable to create a civilization as glittering as the one created after World War II, with a string of great schools, waterways, and cities, the baby-boomer generation used its power to unmoor civilization—and the power plants, meritocracy, and law and order upon which it depends. What Governor Edmund Brown helped build after World War II, his son, Governor Jerry Brown, sought to undo. This may seem paradoxical. But even the will to ruin, Nietzsche noted, is a kind of will to power. For post–Cold War progressives to put their stamp on the world, they could not simply modify the glittering California civilization that their predecessors had created. They had to destroy it.
Is it possible to be optimistic about California’s prospects? The spread of nihilism, decadence, and secularism can appear ineluctable. Voters say that they are unhappy about homelessness, but Angelenos voted for progressive Democrats for mayor and city council. In focus groups, white voters in Los Angeles expressed horror at the thought of voting for a white man over a black woman; they didn’t like what they thought such a vote would say about them. Neither Latino nor black Angelenos were nearly as antiwhite as the white voters. In other focus groups, voters stated the belief—a preposterous one—that centralized power plants shouldn’t be necessary and that solar panels and batteries should be enough. Few residents today make the connections between those two trends and the decreasing availability of reliable, cheap electricity.
While politicians across the board are more pro-police than they were in the summer of 2020, they are doing nothing to address the state legislature’s overregulation of policing, which is driving good officers away from dangerous cities. When cities try to bring homeless people indoors, progressive judges block them. Yet nobody is talking about the need to centralize shelter, as well as psychiatric and addiction care, at the state level, in order to get the state’s unsheltered homeless indoors and, one hopes, rehabilitated. And while the Covid-19 lockdowns alienated many parents, they have not organized into a force sufficient to resist the teachers’ unions, much less to secure school choice.
It is thus understandable why so many have given up on California and treat it simply as an example of what not to do. But change in the U.S. often starts in California and moves east. And neither party has set forth a compelling alternative to the California model. Anti-woke liberals and conservatives alike who have chosen to stay in California should take the opportunity to build a new political movement based on a clear-eyed assessment of the situation, an expansive vision, and first principles. A political coalition that differentiated itself from the Democratic Party’s progressive wing, while retaining support from moderate Democrats, could command immense political support by focusing on two issues alone—homelessness and schools. Add public order, nuclear energy, water desalination, and sensible housing policies, and such a movement could be of generational importance.
First principles first. Such an alliance should have humanism at its foundation. To be pro-human is to be pro-health and pro-civilization. The possibility that life has no inherent meaning could even lead some who hold this view to infuse it with meaning as an act of faith, saying yes to life and the well-ordered society. Nihilism could, taken as a spur to action, serve as a kind of death meditation: an awareness that our time on earth is finite and that we should make the most of it.
At the heart of civilization are cities, which, to flourish, must make their public spaces available for all to use. That means that people must be forbidden to camp on sidewalks, no matter how victimized they are. Though many mental-health problems can be improved via exercise, cognitive behavioral therapy, and psychiatric care, California has failed to increase the physical exercise of its children or to invest in sufficient inpatient psychiatric capacity, despite voters repeatedly voting to tax themselves more to invest in mental health. A new anti-woke alliance must protect civilization by improving human health, from better physical education in public schools to the enforcement of anti-camping laws to higher-quality, standardized, and statewide delivery of mental-health care to California residents.
This agenda would be popular, I believe. A large majority of California voters say that they support mandating psychiatric care or rehab for people who break laws against camping, drug use, and defecation in public. Even in progressive San Francisco, nearly three-quarters of the public support removing homeless people from the streets and requiring that they move in to shelters, go to rehab, or get psychiatric care. Already, to the extent that politicians in L.A. and San Francisco are capable of addressing public safety, it’s thanks to the popular backlash against rising crime.
Other crises in California are spurring change in the right direction. Serial blackouts and changing attitudes toward nuclear power resulted in Governor Newsom’s decision to keep operating the state’s last nuclear plant last year. Anti-Malthusians should next demand the restart of San Onofre in Southern California, more reactors at Diablo Canyon, and more natural-gas plants, so that the state doesn’t have to keep relying upon old diesel generators in minority neighborhoods.
California presages the country’s demographic future, and its leaders should forge a pan-racial alliance that accounts for past injustices without creating new ones. California voters in 2020 rejected racial preferences in education, employment, and contracting by a larger margin than they had a quarter-century earlier. Working-class members of minority groups don’t share elite ideological obsessions; they want public order, good jobs, and better schools. Now, the anti-woke movement should be seeking school choice and the recriminalization of loitering with the intention of soliciting prostitution, theft, and drugs. And the state should consider innovative ways to facilitate not only recovery from addiction but also reintegration into the workplace and with families, while also keeping the binds of the justice system intact until the most psychiatrically disordered Californians are treated.
At the heart of the new anti-woke alliance’s offering to California voters is a memory of what California once was—and anger at those preventing its restoration. California’s cities should be safe, its schools the greatest, and its people the healthiest, yet they’re not—and taxpayers’ money too often makes things worse. In the grip of ecological and human pessimism, the state’s leaders are pursuing an antihuman agenda.
Such anger should be motivating. It is grotesque that, in the name of repairing slavery, we are depriving all kids, but especially black ones, of a proper education. It is abhorrent that, in the name of helping victims, we are leaving them to be assaulted, overdose, and die on our sidewalks. We can’t change the fact that California is America’s synecdoche, the part standing for the whole. And so we must change the synecdoche.
Top Photo: California’s unrivaled natural beauty has contributed vitally to its success. (SUNDRY PHOTOGRAPHY/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO)