In 1973, Coleman Young, an African American former labor organizer with ties to the American Communist Party, ran for mayor of Detroit. Young narrowly beat the city’s police commissioner, partly by arguing that cops targeted minorities. Once in office, Young rolled back enforcement and slashed the police force by 20 percent. Detroit’s crime exploded. Businesses and middle-class residents fled the city; polls showed a majority of whites feeling threatened. Detroit’s economy and social order collapsed during Young’s two-decade mayoralty. “He left the city a fiscal and social wreck,” as political scientist James Q. Wilson wrote. Yet he kept getting reelected by larger margins, as his black support stayed strong.

The arc of Young’s mayoral reign—a rapidly deteriorating city combined with ongoing political success—is a strange phenomenon that economists Edward Glaeser and Andrei Shleifer dubbed the Curley Effect, after the early-twentieth-century Boston mayor James Michael Curley. Curley won the mayor’s office in 1913 through “incendiary rhetoric” and “aggressive redistribution” that shifted resources from WASP communities to his political allies in Irish neighborhoods. Tightening his hold on the mayor’s office, he remained in power for more than four decades. As with Young years later, Curley’s political fortunes benefited because those most likely to vote against him had left the city.

The Curley Effect has typically applied in cities, where politics is often called “tribal” because of strong ethnic or racial ties. Today, however, a new tribal politics—an ideological kind—is influencing state fortunes. Many now say that they wish to socialize with, marry, and live near only people with similar political opinions, and these commitments are shaping state migration patterns post-pandemic. Surveys show conservative voters in blue states dissatisfied with their current environments and likely to move, and progressives in the same places intending to stay.

For now, Republican locales are profiting. Not only have Republican jurisdictions been winning the migration battle, luring households with lower taxes and less regulation, but they’re also magnetizing new investment and industries, driving an economic realignment: southern states have surpassed the Northeast in their share of national gross domestic product, for instance. National political power is also shifting.

In an earlier time, starkly diverging economic results and rising social disorder might have provoked political reform within a state. Voters frustrated with left-wing policies might have turned to more moderate Democratic candidates, or even switched parties to vote GOP. But now, the new tribalism is producing a state version of the Curley Effect. The voters most likely to vote for change are leaving blue states like New York and California, making the Left more dominant in those places and reform increasingly improbable. On everything from energy to taxes and regulation to cultural controversies over illegal aliens and spiking crime, blue-state lawmakers are passing radical bills and voters are electing more progressive politicians. How far can some of these states go? Is a course correction possible?

The mayoral reign of Coleman Young in Detroit exemplified the Curley Effect: presiding over rapidly deteriorating conditions while enjoying greater and greater political success. (Richard Sheinwald/AP Photo)

Coleman Young’s long mayoralty shows just how fast a city can fall when a single political force becomes unmovable. When he took office, Detroit had 1.5 million residents, an unemployment rate of 10.3 percent, and 18.6 percent of households living in poverty. The city unquestionably faced massive challenges in its auto industry, battered by foreign competition and the high costs of Detroit’s auto-worker labor pacts, and in racial relations, which had worsened after the city’s 1967 riots. By the 1973 mayoral election, the city needed desperately to attract new industry and to hang on to its traditional middle class.

But Young’s divisive, racially focused governance made virtually all the city’s problems worse. His response to police misconduct was not only staffing cuts and enforcement curbs; he also created separate layoff lists for white and black officers, to the benefit of the latter. The consequences of Young’s early push to defund the police were immediate. Homicides hit a record 751 in his first year in office and remained elevated throughout his tenure, earning the Motor City a new sobriquet: Murder City. His economic policy, meantime, turned swiftly acrimonious. To keep General Motors in Detroit, he promised the firm space for a new plant, using eminent domain to seize and destroy homes and businesses in the solidly blue-collar, ethnic community of Poletown to secure it. Detroit’s poverty rate reached nearly 30 percent, and unemployment doubled. The city’s budget cratered, and it became dependent on federal and state aid. Detroit’s population shrank by half a million—and kept declining.

Though state fortunes also wax and wane, rarely do they wane as dramatically as Detroit’s. In the modern era, most states have sufficient demographic diversity to prevent any one faction from seizing complete control of politics, closing off alternatives. As recently as 2003, for instance, reform roiled California’s statehouse, as voters recalled unpopular Democratic governor Gray Davis and installed Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger. In 1994, New York Republican George Pataki broke a 20-year period of Democratic gubernatorial control by defeating Mario Cuomo during a period of widespread discontent over the state’s flagging economy and high crime. Blue-collar Democratic areas north and west of Albany in New York and in California’s Inland Empire voted for change in these two examples.

America’s political landscape has since experienced enormous disruption, driven by, among other forces, the rise of social media, the decline of nonpartisan news, and extreme differences on Covid policies. A new political sectarianism has resulted, with people holding political and policy views as if they were uncompromisable religious beliefs. This tribalism has taken hold even as old barriers dividing people by race, ethnicity, and religion come down. A Pew poll several years ago found that marriages between people of different religions or races were getting more common, but that marrying someone with the “wrong” politics was increasingly out of the question.

Movement among states (and early on, territories) shaped and reshaped America. People moved for opportunity, whether that meant a new job or something even bigger—perhaps a chance to chart your course in a place with more open land and fewer people. Now, however, individuals’ views of whether things are better elsewhere often seem to depend on ideology. Residents of heavily Democratic states with high domestic net outmigration—more people leaving than arriving—are starkly divided politically. A UC Berkeley survey, taken just before the pandemic, found that 40 percent of Californians were thinking about leaving the state. That puts California among other strongly Democratic states—including New Jersey, Connecticut, Illinois, and New York—as places where the greatest percentage of the population is considering leaving, polls show. The Berkeley poll quantified responses by political orientation. More than seven in ten Republicans, and 65 percent of the “somewhat conservative,” were considering exiting. By contrast, only 38 percent of Democrats and of those deeming themselves at least somewhat liberal were thinking about leaving. Independent voters had soured on the state, too, with 55 percent mulling departure. People of different races were much more aligned than those with different politics: 56 percent of whites and 58 percent of blacks said that they were at least pondering flight.

These responses reflect radically divergent perspectives on California. Two-thirds of Democrats ranked the state a good place to live, compared with only 23 percent of Republicans. A clear dividing line: taxes. While 77 percent of Republicans and 60 percent of independents said that high levies were a reason they considered leaving, just 36 percent of Democrats thought similarly.

People are acting on these sentiments. California has been hemorrhaging residents for years, but its losses have sped up. In 2010, net domestic migration out of California totaled about 130,000 residents. That climbed to nearly 200,000 in 2019, and then skyrocketed. From the start of Covid lockdowns in April 2020 to mid-2022, the Golden State lost more than 870,000 net residents. In fact, the five biggest losers in that period were all solidly Democratic states, including New York, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Illinois. By contrast, states that lean Republican or conservative politically dominate the Top 10 leaders of in-migration, paced by Florida and Texas, which together welcomed some 1.1 million net newcomers during the pandemic.

The migration is changing America’s political balance. Blue states are getting more Democratic, even as the party moves further left. As outmigration has intensified in California, the share of Democratic voters has gone from 43 percent in 2004 to 47 percent in 2022, with Republican numbers dropping from 34 percent to 24 percent over the same period. While the percentage of independents has held relatively constant, polls show that these voters tend to be younger and lean more left—47 percent identify with Democrats and just 26 percent with Republicans.

In New York, the party registration gap has widened. Since 2016, Democrats have enrolled five times as many new voters as the GOP and now make up half of registered voters, compared with 22 percent for Republicans. Twenty years ago, the difference was one-third smaller. New York independents have also grown in number, to Republicans’ detriment. In New Jersey, a state with a strong independent tradition, Democratic registrations rose from 23 percent of voters in 2004 to 39 percent today, a 16-percentage-point gain. Republicans, at just 23 percent of the electorate, find themselves far behind.

The big migration winners have seen the opposite effect. As flight from Democratic locales accelerated, many residents of conservative-leaning states worried that the exiles would bring progressive politics with them. Texas newspapers warned of the “California-ing of Texas,” and Governor Greg Abbott tweeted at the 80,000 or so Californians arriving in his state annually: “Remember those high taxes, burdensome regulations, & socialistic agenda advanced in CA? We don’t believe in that.” But many of those leaving Democratic states are fleeing progressive politics, though they might not consider themselves Republicans. Over the last decade, North Carolina’s Democrats have fallen to 34 percent of registered voters, from 40 percent, for example, mostly because of new independent registrations. In Florida, Democrats have shrunk from 40 percent to 34 percent of voters; Republicans now make up 36 percent. Gallup rates both states, together with other migration winners like Georgia and Arizona, as politically “competitive,” meaning that elections can swing either way. But these states are now often considered more Republican than voter registrations suggest. By contrast, migration losers like California, New Jersey, and New York remain strongly Democratic, Gallup finds.

Charts by Alberto Mena

The American economic landscape is getting rearranged, too. Right-leaning areas with pro-business policies are attracting more investment and workers, often at the expense of blue strongholds. For instance, 2020 migration data in Illinois show that departing individuals had an average income of $118,000 per year, while newcomers averaged $74,000, indicating the loss of highly productive workers. In California, the net outmigration trend once disproportionately involved individuals without college degrees, mostly middle- and lower-income residents. More recent trends show a net outmigration of residents with bachelor’s degrees and higher incomes, too.

Some of the movement reflects firms relocating during Covid and employees working remotely and escaping states with high taxes and housing prices. A 2021 survey of chief executives ranked California, New York, New Jersey, and Illinois as among the worst places to operate. Joining traditional concerns over taxes and regulations, CEOs fretted about expanding where Covid restrictions had been extreme and institutions had closed the longest. Ark Restaurants CEO Michael Weinstein, who kept his Florida eateries open throughout the pandemic, even as New York officials shut down his local outlets, told the New York Times: “There’s no reason to do business in New York.”

The ensuing economic patterns are evident. A Moody’s analysis two years into the pandemic found that the best-performing states were typically led by Republicans, while eight of the ten worst performers were Democrat-led. Republican states had recovered all the jobs lost during the pandemic and then added 340,000 more positions; but by the summer of 2022, Democratic states remained short some 1.3 million pre-Covid jobs. A more recent Bloomberg assessment found that, in the first half of 2023, six southern and southwestern states, all leading migration attractors—including Florida, Texas, and Tennessee—are now contributing more to U.S. GDP than the Northeast.

Attitudes toward taxation reflect this swing. Back in 2012, then–California governor Jerry Brown endorsed a ballot initiative to raise the top tier of income taxes temporarily to 13.3 percent to finance higher school funding. The proposal passed with 55 percent of the vote, based on a promise that the tax hikes would eventually expire. Four years later, though, advocates, without Brown’s support, pushed a measure to extend the tax increases. Despite opposition even from the liberal-leaning Los Angeles Times, voter support for the new levies rose to 63 percent. Democrats, more than three-quarters of whom voted for the proposition, drove the victory; about two-thirds of Republicans rejected it.

Several heavily Democratic states—especially those with the most outmigration—opted for steep tax hikes during the pandemic. Massachusetts approved a graduated income tax in 2022, slapping a 4 percent surcharge on incomes of more than $1 million that’s projected to raise $2 billion annually. Going back to 1962, residents had rejected six efforts to impose a similar tax. Supporters got their wish with Amendment 1 because nearly eight in ten Democrats backed it, though Washington aid, combined with surging taxes, had left the state budget “awash in cash,” local newspapers reported.

New York State, itself flush with $12.5 billion from the Biden stimulus, raised taxes by $4.3 billion in 2021, thanks to pressure from its legislature’s expanding progressive wing. One business executive called the increases “a political statement aimed at punishing the rich—not a reflection of economic need.” In late 2020, New Jersey, already one of America’s highest-taxed states, raised its top rate on individuals and many small businesses to a whopping 10.75 percent. Though advocates argue that these levies don’t push people to leave, states with the heaviest burdens rank among the outmigration losers, including New Jersey and New York.

Blue-state Democratic politicians seem to feel little pressure to constrain soaring prices—indeed, they are helping to push them upward, especially for energy, with local regulations and taxes and fees intensifying the price spiral. Electricity rates in California have blasted upward by more than 45 percent over the past three years. Residents now pay the nation’s highest power prices—nearly three times what people in some other states fork over. California’s gasoline prices rank at or near the top in the country, averaging in the autumn of 2023 about $2 more per gallon than the median price for regular gas nationwide. California’s gas tax is one of the nation’s highest, but other fees and policies, including its low-carbon fuel standards, add about $1.40 per gallon. The state’s renewable mandates have also produced some of the nation’s highest residential and commercial energy bills, as utilities close reliable gas and nuclear facilities and must buy expensive power elsewhere.

Though these costs contribute to the highest inflation-adjusted poverty rate in America, California politicians keep pursuing policies that will aggravate the situation. In October 2022, facing a nearly 20 percent rise in rates, California’s legislature mandated power firms to produce 90 percent of their energy from renewables by 2035. Legislation banned oil rigs within 3,600 feet of homes, hospitals, and other institutions, a move that the oil industry brands a “blatant attempt by the governor to shut down the oil and gas industry in California.” The state is also suing oil companies, seeking billions of dollars in damages for high prices. Now, state government and local utilities are contemplating an unprecedented redistributive policy: basing energy bills on household income, with higher-income customers paying more. That’s sure to add another incentive for middle- and upper-middle-income earners to depart.

New York has followed California’s energy lead. The state has banned fracking (costing it thousands of jobs and fat tax revenues), killed a pipeline that would have brought more of the cleanest-burning fossil fuel—natural gas—into New York City and Long Island, and closed the Indian Point nuclear reactor, without an adequate replacement. To meet an aggressive carbon-reduction schedule, New York is denying permits for natural-gas plants meant to ensure dependability of energy supplies. The regulator of its electricity grid has warned of a growing risk to its “ability to maintain a reliable electrical system.” Renewable mandates have helped give the state the country’s second-highest residential power prices, behind California’s, but New York’s energy bills bite harder because of its colder weather.

Undaunted, New York’s Democratic lawmakers reinforced the energy madness in 2022, mandating that the state’s power authority generate or acquire only renewable energy within just seven years—a highly implausible target. It passed costly zero-carbon construction legislation that requires, from 2025 on, new buildings to have all-electric heating and cooking devices. New York also ordered power firms to pursue expensive social-justice goals that “benefit disadvantaged communities; minimize harm to wildlife, ecosystems and public health; don’t violate Indigenous rights; and that work with labor unions.” No wonder renewable-energy firms want $12 billion more in subsidies.

Democratic states and cities have also been ground zero for a nationwide corrosion of the social order. Rising crime, the spread of homeless encampments, and surges in illegal immigration have plagued many communities, and residents are starting to understand that leftist policies are behind the chaos.

On immigration, 11 Democratic-leaning states—including California, New York, Illinois, and New Jersey—have refused to cooperate with federal immigration authorities, making themselves sanctuaries for illegal migrants. By contrast, a dozen mostly Republican states, including Florida and Texas, have outlawed sanctuary communities. Among the benefits that sanctuary states now provide immigrants are driver’s licenses and subsidized health insurance. California has granted some 1.2 million licenses to illegals. The health benefit—Medicaid enrollment for illegals—began modestly, with some states covering children, but it has expanded in California, New York, and other blue states. The Golden State now covers virtually all adult illegals, at an annual cost of $2.6 billion. Illinois and New York have opened their Medicaid programs to cover most adult illegals. The cost in Illinois has zoomed to half a billion dollars yearly.

Waves of new migrants haven’t stopped the conferring of new benefits. California has begun offering illegals who file state tax returns the earned income tax credit—a cash subsidy—at an estimated cost of $120 million annually. During the pandemic, New York and New Jersey used federal stimulus dollars to pay unemployment benefits to unauthorized workers. California will start offering food stamps to illegals in 2025, and a new bill would permanently grant illegal workers unemployment benefits—at an estimated price of $330 million yearly.

Though some Democratic politicians blame immigrant problems on Republican governors sending border crossers to their states, the numbers arriving in these places—more than 100,000 in New York City alone—far exceed what Texas and Florida have transported. Residents are getting angry. In a heated community meeting in racially diverse Hyde Park, Chicago, locals complained about resources going to illegals. “You’ve got 73 percent of the people homeless in this city are black people,” one woman said. “What have you done for them?” Some even accused the city of disproportionately placing shelters in minority neighborhoods. In September, two city council members filed a resolution to create a ballot initiative to let residents decide on continuing sanctuary policies.

New York protesters have denounced radical politicians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for ardent support of illegals. One demonstrator told the press that he had several relatives waiting seven years to be legally admitted. “They have paid all the immigration fees and have been fingerprinted by the FBI. They have done everything right . . . so why not them?” he asked. New York governor Kathy Hochul and New York City mayor Eric Adams have exchanged barbs over handling of the migrant crisis. Voters have grown restless. In an August poll, only 36 percent of residents said that the state should accept new illegals. Crucially, fewer than half of Democrats and only 32 percent of independent voters believed that New York needs to keep welcoming migrants.

Democrats and Republicans in blue states even hold drastically different views on crime. Statistically, there’s no question that crime began rising in many places before the pandemic as some states loosened bail laws and reduced jail penalties, and that crime then accelerated with the rise in 2020 of the defund-the-police movement. California cities have seen dramatic increases in various offenses, including shoplifting and other forms of property theft in the wake of the 2014 Proposition 47, which reduced the classification of a number of such crimes from felonies to misdemeanors. Democratic voters led the way in approving Prop. 47, with nearly two-thirds saying in polls that they supported it, compared with just 40 percent of Republicans. Since then, cities like San Francisco have witnessed growing chaos, especially in their downtowns, where some stores have closed because of surging retail theft. Even so, Republican efforts to repeal Prop. 47 have failed.

A similar disconnect exists in New York. Amid mounting crime, especially in the state’s cities, a poll in early 2023 found by a two-to-one margin that New Yorkers felt the state was headed in the wrong direction—and voters’ top concern was crime. But this was largely the perspective of Republicans and independent voters; only 30 percent of Democrats, confronting the state’s sharp uptick in crime, thought that New York was moving in the wrong direction.

Gradually, pushback is happening. Early in 2023, 15 members of the New York City Council quit its Progressive Caucus because it continued to urge defunding the police—cutting the group’s membership by 40 percent. A dozen progressive prosecutors have either been recalled, resigned, or declined to seek reelection in heavily Democratic enclaves like San Francisco, Baltimore, and St. Louis. But a greater reform wave has yet to emerge, partly because the state Curley Effect is at work. An effort to recall Gavin Newsom, after California’s brutal Covid lockdowns damaged his standing, failed, and in Chicago, which dominates Illinois politics, voters recently elected a former teachers’ union official and strident defund-the-police mayor, Brandon Johnson, despite escalating crime.

Defiant Democratic state politicians have tried to reverse migration losses by seeking to attract households and businesses from GOP states with pitches based on social issues, especially after the Supreme Court’s Dobbs ruling on abortion and growing restrictions on sexual-oriented school curricula in conservative areas. Newsom has run ads in Florida claiming that residents are losing their freedoms. New Jersey governor Murphy and his Connecticut counterpart Ned Lamont sent letters appealing to businesses in Republican states to relocate, “where they can be confident that the rights of women, the LGBTQIA+ community, and voters will always be protected,” as Murphy’s letter put it. These efforts have netted little. A recent Texas poll found only 25 percent of residents thinking about leaving—well below the discontent found in similar polls in high-migration states. Only 5 percent said that social issues might goad them to go. The poll also revealed only one-third of Democrats in this GOP-governed state considering an exit.

The great eighteenth-century moral philosopher Adam Smith once responded to fears of the decline of the British Empire by observing, “there is a great deal of ruin in a nation.” We already know that cities can handle much less ruin, as Detroit’s steep and swift decline illustrates. But states? Parts of New York have been on a downward trajectory for decades, with some northern regions likened to impoverished Appalachia. Without some change in course, we’ll find out just how much deterioration progressive states can endure.

Top Photo: Despite public anger over his Covid policies, California governor Gavin Newsom easily survived a recall election, thanks to a shrinking Republican voter base. (Stephen Lam/San Francisco Chronicle/Getty Images)


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