Beginning in 1892, the United States held 27 consecutive elections in which our idiosyncratic Electoral College awarded the presidency to the candidate who won the nationwide popular vote. In two of the six most recent presidential elections, however—2000 and 2016—the victorious candidate received the second-largest number of popular votes. What accounts for this recent departure from a pattern that was so reliable for so long?
Part of the explanation is that the country is divided—closely and, to an increasing extent, bitterly. When George W. Bush won the 2000 election, despite receiving 544,000 fewer votes than Al Gore (0.52 percent of the total), Michael Barone called America “the 49 percent nation.” Sixteen years later, after Donald Trump had won the 2016 election on the same basis and then narrowly missed getting reelected in similar fashion, Barone identified a further reason for the new trend: “for the first time in our history, the largest state in the Union—New York from 1820, California from 1964—votes at one end of the political spectrum rather than near the center.” Thus, Hillary Clinton won 2,869,000 more votes than Trump in 2016. But she won 4,270,000 more than he did in California, prevailing by a margin of 61.7 percent to 31.6 percent. (Only Hawaii and Washington, D.C., gave Clinton a higher percentage of their votes.) In the nation outside California, Trump won 47.8 percent of the vote, compared with Clinton’s 46.6 percent.
States’ political identities change over time. In 2020, Joe Biden lost every West Virginia county to Trump, who won 68.6 percent of the state’s vote. Such dominance makes it easy to forget that West Virginia was, not so long ago, reliably Democratic. Jimmy Carter won there twice, including against Ronald Reagan in 1980. Bill Clinton also won there in his two presidential campaigns. In between, it was one of the ten states that Michael Dukakis carried in 1988.
California’s transformation—from what we would retroactively call a red state in the early twentieth century to a purple one after World War II to deep blue in the twenty-first century—is obviously more consequential. With a population 22 times larger than West Virginia’s, California is home to nearly one out of eight Americans. Its 54 electoral votes provide one-fifth of the total needed to win the presidency.
But the emergence of blue California is also fascinating historically, given the state’s legacy as the birthplace of Reagan Republicanism. Ronald Reagan abandoned show business for politics in 1966, when he won 57.6 percent of the state’s vote in his first political campaign, defeating Democratic governor Pat Brown, who was seeking reelection to a third term. In that era, California was somewhat more Republican than the rest of America, at least when it came to voting for presidents. Richard Nixon had carried his native state against John Kennedy in 1960 and would go on to win it again in his successful campaigns of 1968 and 1972. Even in 1976, with no Californians on the ballot for president or vice president, Gerald Ford won in California, despite losing the national election to Jimmy Carter. All told, in the ten presidential elections from 1952 through 1988, Republican nominees secured California’s electoral votes nine times, Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 landslide against Barry Goldwater being the sole exception.
Beginning with Bill Clinton’s victory in 1992, the Democratic nominee has won California in the eight most recent elections. Democratic dominance is even more pronounced in down-ballot races. No Republican has won election to the U.S. Senate from California since 1988. After the 1966 elections, California’s delegation to the U.S. House of Representatives consisted of 14 Republicans and 24 Democrats. Following 2020, the numbers were seven Republicans and 46 Democrats. Since 2006, every election for statewide office—governor, attorney general, treasurer, and so forth—has seen a Democratic victor. Except for a few months in 1995 and 1996, when Republicans held a slight majority in one chamber, Democrats have controlled both houses of the state legislature since 1970. Democrats presently account for three-quarters of the members in both the state senate and the state assembly. Unable to enact, prevent, postpone, or investigate anything done by the Democratic power structure, Republican legislators go to Sacramento mostly to hear one another’s speeches.
We can begin to make sense of California’s political shift by consulting “A Guide to Reagan Country: The Political Culture of Southern California,” a Commentary essay published in May 1967, six months after Reagan had been elected governor. The author, political scientist James Q. Wilson (1931–2012), made it clear that he was writing an analysis rather than an endorsement. Nonetheless, as Tom Wolfe later observed, “Wilson was the first writer to sense the power of Reagan’s constituency as it spread out of California and up through the West, completely changing our politics.”
The son of a salesman, Wilson was born in Denver but grew up in Long Beach, which he describes as one of “the lower-middle-class suburbs of Los Angeles.” He wrote in Commentary that he had left California “a long time ago in order to acquire some expensive Eastern postgraduate degrees and a political outlook that would now make me vote against Reagan if I had the chance.” (Wilson received his undergraduate degree in 1952 from the University of Redlands, some 60 miles east of downtown Los Angeles, in San Bernardino County. He went on to serve in the navy, and then enrolled in graduate school at the University of Chicago. After receiving his doctorate, Wilson joined the Harvard University faculty in 1961.) Wilson wrote in 2009 that he had voted for John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Hubert Humphrey in the presidential elections of the 1960s, and worked on Humphrey’s campaign. He is better remembered, however, as one of the neoconservative intellectuals—Wilson said that a better term would have been “policy skeptic”—associated with The Public Interest, which launched in 1965. He ended up advising every Republican president from Richard Nixon to George W. Bush and, in particular, serving on a task force on violent crime and as a member of the Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board during Ronald Reagan’s presidency.
Though his 1967 essay set out to explain California’s new governor, not praise him, Wilson said that “we have to take Reagan quite seriously” because Reaganism “will be with us for a long time under one guise or another.” The frame for “Reagan Country,” then, is that to understand Reagan and Reaganism, it is necessary to know something about mid-century California—and that to understand California, it is necessary to know something about Reagan and Reaganism. As Wilson explained in a 1987 interview with Steven Hayward and Ken Masugi for the Claremont Review of Books, he wrote the essay for his colleagues and peers in the East, who believed that Reagan’s election was “an expression of the Hollywood mentality.” That is, Reagan’s victory was considered more ridiculous than ominous: after conservatism’s epic repudiation in 1964, only Californians would be nutty enough to hand their state over to a smoother, friendlier Goldwater. The GOP was in the process of recovering from 1964, but most of its prominent winners were moderates, whose basic quarrel with the New Deal and Great Society at home, and the containment strategy for waging the Cold War abroad, was that the Democratic Party administered these policies less capably and honestly than Republicans could. Leading moderates included John Lindsay, elected mayor of New York in 1965, and Edward Brooke and Charles Percy, elected to the Senate from Massachusetts and Illinois, respectively, in 1966. Among those who considered themselves informed and astute, such as Wilson’s colleagues at Harvard, the consensus was that these politicians were the GOP’s future. Reagan was an outlier.
That was fitting because California was an outlier, too, despite having become the most populous state in the Union two years before Reagan’s election. America was a bigger country in those days than it is now. Air travel, not deregulated until 1978, was too expensive for many to consider. So were long-distance telephone calls in a system not deregulated until 1984. AT&T, then part of the Bell System monopoly, felt it necessary to assuage fears of concentration with its massive, successful “Reach Out and Touch Someone” ad campaign, launched in 1979 and crafted to assure customers that long-distance calling was, in the words of the ads’ creators, a “simple, non-traumatic experience.”
Given such impediments, scarcely believable in our hyperconnected century, distance bred isolation, which, in turn, bred estrangement and disdain. One California writer, Caitlin Flanagan, recently described the challenge facing another, Joan Didion, who could not commence a journalistic career in New York without confronting “the ridiculous fact of being from California, which in the 1950s was like being from Mars, but with surfboards.” Wilson wrote “Reagan Country,” he said later, to disabuse Harvard scholars and other eastern intellectuals of the belief that only California’s “pervasive shallowness” could explain its voters’ decision to entrust the state’s future to “an aging matinee idol.”
In fact, “Reagan Country” argued, “The important thing to know about Southern California is that the people who live there, who grew up there, love it” and do so in “the realization that they have found the right mode of life.” (Southern California, Wilson’s home, was also Reagan’s base. Los Angeles County, Orange County to its south, and San Diego County to its south accounted for 64 percent of the 994,000-vote margin that Reagan amassed, statewide, in defeating Brown.) The Southern Californian mode of life emphasized the suburban over the urban, the individual over the communal. “People had no identities except their personal identities,” Wilson wrote. “I never heard the phrase ‘ethnic group’ until I was in graduate school.” Its residents preferred houses to apartments, and private automobiles to mass transit. Long before there was a Reagan candidacy, Wilson wrote, there was “a ‘Reagan point of view’ in the Southern California electorate,” one “powerfully shaped by the kinds of people who went to California and the conditions of life there.”
This individualism had both a moral and a material basis. In the mid-twentieth century, large numbers of Southern Californians were the sons and daughters of migrants from “the Midwest, the border states, and the ‘near South.’” Wilson added, “Almost none came from Europe.” In Paradise Lost: California’s Experience, America’s Future (1998), journalist Peter Schrag notes that the most common native language for foreign-born Californians in 1960 was English, spoken by immigrants from Canada and the United Kingdom. The Southern Californians whom Wilson discusses came to adulthood shaped by a “fundamentalist Protestant individualism” that constantly emphasized “the obligation of the individual to find and enter into a right relationship with God, with no sacraments, rituals, covenants, or grace to make it easy.”
The material basis for the California worldview was the extraordinary post–World War II economic boom, which transformed all of American society but lifted Californians’ standard of living faster and higher than everyone else’s. The Cold War, in particular, turbocharged California’s economy. Veteran California journalist Dan Walters pointed out last year that in 1960, defense spending in California, much of it on Southern California’s robust aerospace industry, totaled $5 billion, several times more than the state government spent on all its functions. “Reagan Country” explained that Southern Californians living through this expansion were more concerned “about the growth in the size of the economic pie” than about “preserving the size of their present slice.” Accordingly, “The purpose of government was to facilitate this growth—open up new land, bring in water, make credit easy, keep the defense plants rolling.”
Few Reagan voters had, like the candidate, read National Review and Milton Friedman. Reagan and his supporters all ended up in about the same place, though. Mid-century Californian individualism was tolerant regarding private pursuits but censorious if those pursuits entailed sins—large or small, of commission or omission—that detracted from others’ pursuit of happiness. A concern for “property, propriety, individual responsibility, economic growth, and limited government” were key elements of Southern California’s “general political culture,” Wilson wrote in 1967. He expanded on the idea 20 years later. Californians, he said, “regard it as faintly offensive if they are described as exemplifiers of middle-class values, because they take those values for granted. Of course one is polite and maintains one’s property and washes one’s car, because you’re maintaining a shared sense of standards. Of course crime is a problem and the courts should be severe. In the East these are all controversial statements. You have to act embarrassed if you don’t own a dirty, used Volvo.”
So, what changed? How did California’s Republican Party go from being dominant to competitive to irrelevant? Any explanation must begin with the simple truth that the kinds of people inhabiting California, and the conditions of life there, are very different in 2023 from the way they were in 1966. Congress passed the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 after Ted Kennedy asserted on the Senate floor that “the ethnic mix of this country will not be upset” as a result of the new law.
This turned out to be incorrect, profoundly so in California. In 1970, 76 percent of California residents were white, a proportion that fell below 50 percent by 2000 and stood at 35 percent in 2020. The black proportion of the population also declined, from 8 percent in 1970 to 5 percent in 2020. Standing against these losses were big gains among Asians (from 3 percent in 1970 to 15 percent in 2020) and Hispanics (13 percent in 1970, 39 percent in 2020). Going into the 2020 election, the Pew Research Center reported, the only states where white residents accounted for fewer than 50 percent of registered voters were Hawaii, New Mexico, and California.
One frequently repeated theory about the California GOP’s decline is that Republican governor Pete Wilson won a Pyrrhic victory when he tied his reelection campaign in 1994 to the passage of Proposition 187, which amended the state constitution to deny many public benefits to illegal immigrants. It won by a landslide, 58.9 percent to 41.1 percent. So did Wilson: by 55.2 percent to 40.6 percent over his opponent, state treasurer Kathleen Brown, the daughter of former governor Pat Brown, Reagan’s predecessor, and sister of former governor Jerry Brown, Reagan’s successor. (Kathleen Brown never ran for public office again, but her brother won a third gubernatorial term in 2010 and was reelected to a fourth in 2014.)
Owing to rulings by federal courts that Prop. 187 infringed on the federal government’s authority to regulate immigration, the new law was never enforced. But as scholars and commentators have argued, its political effects were profound. In 2016, The Atlantic’s Peter Beinart wrote that California’s Hispanic voters “swung sharply against the GOP” after 1994. More Hispanics registered to vote, a larger percentage of them voted Democratic, and the state’s Republican Party “still has not recovered.”
The evidence is more equivocal. In the 1992 presidential election, for example, George H. W. Bush won 32.6 percent of the vote in California and 38 percent in the rest of the country, a difference of 5.4 percentage points. In 1996, after Prop. 187 had supposedly catalyzed Hispanics’ rejection of the GOP, Bob Dole won 38.2 percent of the vote in California and 41 percent in the rest of the country, a difference of 2.8 percentage points. Especially given Dole’s limitations as a presidential candidate, this is not an improvement that one would expect if Prop. 187 had been the crack in the dam that unleashed a flood.
While California’s electorate has a different demographic profile from those in other states, its subgroups do not vote very differently from the way they do elsewhere. In 2020, according to the exit poll shared by major media outlets, Joe Biden received 75 percent of the Hispanic vote in California and 76 percent in New York. White voters also voted almost identically: 51 percent for Biden in California, 50 percent in New York. The biggest difference between the two big, blue states—Biden won 63.5 percent in California and 60.9 percent in New York—is that New York’s electorate was somewhat whiter than California’s, at 60 percent compared with 49 percent, and California’s was nearly twice as Latino as New York’s, at 31 percent to 16 percent.
It’s true that the Republican Party has been far stronger in the other two mega-states, Texas and Florida, and that it has done better with Hispanic voters in both than it has in California and New York. In 2020, Donald Trump won 41 percent of the Latino vote in Texas, where Hispanic voters accounted for 23 percent of the electorate, and 46 percent in Florida, where they were 19 percent of all voters. Trump ended up with 52.1 percent of the overall vote in Texas, 51.2 percent in Florida, and 46.7 percent nationwide. Suffice to say that there is no way to synthesize the advice that California’s Republican Party will not matter again until it atones for and retraces its steps from Prop. 187, and that it can be as competitive with Hispanic voters as the Texas and Florida GOP by offering a political profile closer to Donald Trump’s.
A more complete and persuasive explanation for the disappearance of Reagan Country begins with the impact on California of Ronald Reagan’s greatest achievement in public life: laying the groundwork for peaceful victory in the Cold War. As Dan Walters explained in 2008, Republican competitiveness in California had depended on fighting Democrats to a draw in the Los Angeles metro region, and then winning enough votes in the agricultural inland to offset Democrats’ advantage in Northern California, especially the San Francisco area. Aerospace and other civilian defense workers, even ones who belonged to labor unions, were crucial to this strategy. But the end of the Cold War saw Pentagon spending decline from 5.7 percent of GDP in 1985 to 2.7 percent in 1999. These cuts “not only sparked California’s worst recession in a half-century,” Walters wrote, but also “generated a massive social change as an estimated 1.5 million people, many of them defense workers and their families, fled from the state.”
No longer competitive in Southern California, the GOP has lost the ability to contest the state overall. Joe Biden won 71 percent of the vote in Los Angeles County in 2020, 60.2 percent in San Diego County, and 53.5 percent in Orange County. The three, together, cast 7,389,000 votes, more than Pennsylvania and 45 other states. The most populous California county that Trump carried was Kern, whose biggest city is Bakersfield. Kern accounted for 305,000 votes, fewer than the District of Columbia.
It’s no coincidence that the California GOP’s position was tenable at the beginning of the 1990s and had become impossible by the decade’s end. Not only did Hispanic (and Asian) voters start becoming more numerous and, perhaps, more Democratic, but growing numbers of Republican voters started to become ex-Californians. They were not alone; 1990 marked the beginning of a new era in California’s demographic relationship with the rest of the United States. In 1900, California was the 21st most populous state, with a population 4 percent smaller than 20th-ranked Mississippi. By 1950, when it was the second-most populous state, California’s population had increased sevenfold, by 612.9 percent, while the rest of the country grew by 88.3 percent. Between 1950 and 1990, California’s population nearly tripled again, growing by 181.1 percent, more than three times faster than the rest of the U.S., which grew by 55.6 percent.
Since 1990, however, California’s population has slightly declined relative to the rest of the country. (The state had 32.9 percent more inhabitants by 2020; the rest of the nation had 33.3 percent more.) California’s congressional delegation stayed the same size after the 2010 Census as it had been after the one in 2000. And after 2020, California lost one of its seats in the House of Representatives. Neither event had occurred before.
California has become, for the first time in its history, a net exporter of Americans because its government is no longer willing or able to satisfy the demands that made its citizens Reagan voters in 1966: keep the military-industrial complex humming, open up land, bring in water, and facilitate growth. A new commitment to environmentalism and participatory democracy that marked the tenure of Governor Jerry Brown in the 1970s has left California with a government that elaborately weighs the effects of new initiatives, public and private, and gives interest groups and activists opportunities to delay or scuttle any project or development plan to which they object. What government has become bad at, though, is one of its core functions: making and implementing policy decisions. If anyone ever builds a Hapless Hall of Fame, an entire wing will be devoted to California’s high-speed rail project. On the promise of a system completed by 2020 that would transport passengers between downtown Los Angeles and downtown San Francisco in under three hours, the state’s voters authorized a $33 billion bond issue in 2008. The most recent estimate for the project’s final cost is $113 billion. At the current rate of progress, the system will not be completed in the twenty-first century.
There’s enormous room for the public sector to improve, but even the miraculous reacquisition of governmental competence may not be enough for California to meet its most serious challenges. In 1965, Joan Didion called her native state a place “in which the mind is troubled by some buried but ineradicable suspicion that things had better work here, because here, beneath that immense bleached sky, is where we run out of continent.” Fifty-eight years later, it increasingly feels as though California is running out of California. I moved from New York to Los Angeles County in 2005, before the real-estate boom turned into the mother of all real-estate busts. Back then, real-estate agents urged homebuyers to “drive until you qualify.” Every freeway exit farther away from downtown Los Angeles, in other words, lowered the per-square-foot cost of housing. Your budget determined how distantly you would have to live before you could receive a mortgage for a house of acceptable size and quality.
No one gives such advice anymore, and not only because that bygone boom ended catastrophically. People will agree to commute only so far and live only so distantly, California’s defining love of the automobile notwithstanding. Greater Los Angeles is a five-county metropolitan area with 18.6 million residents—3.5 million more than the six states that constitute New England. Even if the state’s government still had the desire and capacity to build more and wider freeways to accommodate this huge population, the remedy would help in the short run but make matters worse . . . well, down the road. “Induced demand” is the economist’s term for the doom-loop of relieving congestion with new highways, which encourage more driving and lead to more housing construction in formerly remote and unreachable locations, all of which ends up worsening congestion. (Expanding mass transit, Governing magazine noted last year, can aggravate the problem, since “those who switched to rail would make the highways momentarily less crowded—tempting more drivers to head out.”)
It may be, then, that California is approaching its carrying capacity. If it responds by growing up instead of out—building apartments instead of single-family homes, relying on mass transit instead of autos—Greater Los Angeles will become more like New York or Hong Kong, but even less like Reagan Country. The people who loved it in the belief that they had found the right mode of life will either put up with a different mode of life or find a different place to live.
California’s moral order, as discerned by Wilson in 1967, proved to be as fragile as the material circumstances that launched Ronald Reagan’s political career. That equilibrium of individualism constrained by clear, strong, and detailed standards of respectability did not last, not even until Reagan left office in 1974. New sensibilities led to Reagan signing two bills during his first term as governor, one in 1967 that weakened California’s legal restrictions on abortion, and another in 1969 that made California the first state with “no-fault” divorce, so that dissolving a marriage no longer required one spouse to establish the other’s wrongdoing in court. The number of legal abortions performed in California increased from under 1,000 in 1967 to more than 100,000 per year prior to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. Divorce went up, too, in California and across the country. Nearly every state enacted its own version of no-fault divorce within a few years after California’s law went into effect. Sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox says that while fewer than 20 percent of the marriages begun in 1950 ended in divorce, 50 percent of those that began in 1970 did.
Michael Reagan, the son adopted by Ronald Reagan and his first wife, Jane Wyman, wrote in 2011 that his father came to regret signing both bills, neither of which was expected to catalyze dramatic behavioral changes throughout California. There’s no reason to doubt the accuracy of the son’s account or the sincerity of the father’s feelings. But politicians act within the limits of public opinion. Had Reagan not signed those bills into law, it is probable that his vetoes would have been overridden by the legislature or that another governor, perhaps a Democratic successor who had defeated Reagan, would have signed similar bills.
The Reagan Country moral code was based on deferred gratification: self-discipline and self-denial for the sake of greater future rewards. The 1960s made clear, most emphatically in California, that deferred gratification could not stand prosperity. The Golden State’s version of the Affluent Society led to a new consensus: the logic of life in America’s wealthiest, sunniest, most beautiful state dictated that it was time to stop deferring and start gratifying. The community code that Wilson identified, with its emphasis on property, propriety, responsibility, and a shared set of standards, came under attack for being hypocritical and repressive. The California of the Reagan years was in the vanguard of social trends that repudiated middle-class morality: the sexual revolution, drug culture, and a student protest movement. The most appalling manifestations of the transvaluation of values all came from California: Haight-Ashbury, Jonestown, the Black Panthers, the Manson Family, and the Symbionese Liberation Army.
According to Lou Cannon, his discerning biographer, Ronald Reagan applied to politics the lesson that he had learned in show business: it’s important to know when to leave the stage. Eligible to run for a third gubernatorial term in 1974, Reagan declined. Many factors entered into that decision, of course, but it is plausible that a sixth sense about public opinion, also carried over from a career in Hollywood, warned Reagan that his message would play better outside California than in it. It’s true that Reagan went on to carry California against Jimmy Carter in 1980 and against Walter Mondale in 1984, but he won 93 out of a possible 100 states across those two elections. In the 1984 landslide, California was only his 37th best state.
At the moment of its greatest victory, then, Reaganism’s birthplace had begun to turn away from it. The sensibilities that Reagan expressed in 1966 and James Q. Wilson explained in 1967 have little purchase on California’s public life half a century later. Will they ever again? The biggest reason to doubt a second act for Reaganism in California is mobility: as conservative voters leave, the state turns even bluer, inducing still more registered Republicans to vote with their U-Hauls. The biggest reason to think that Reaganism might be part of the future here is unpredictability: nobody saw Reaganism coming in 1966, either. (Pat Brown was delighted when Reagan won the GOP primary, confident that the party had nominated its least electable candidate.) If California voters draw the Occam’s razor connection between Democratic hegemony, government dysfunction, and a declining quality of life, Reaganism 2.0 may not only arrive, but it might show up sooner than anyone thinks possible.
Top Photo: When Ronald Reagan defeated Pat Brown for governor in 1966, California was more Republican than the rest of America. (BETTMANN/GETTY IMAGES)