If Hollywood were to cast a governor and future president, and if a straight white male were still politically acceptable, he would look like California’s Gavin Newsom. The 53-year-old governor, a former mayor of San Francisco, Newsom handsomely epitomizes the preening politics of the California elite class that has nurtured and financed his career from the beginning.
Like aristocrats of the past, Newsom seems oblivious to the realities felt by constituents among the lower orders. In the face of massive wildfires, he postures on climate change, conflating fires with an angry mother Earth—as opposed to poor land management—and uses the conflagration to justify a radical policy of switching to all-electric power over the next decade, with the elimination of gas-powered cars by 2035. In the midst of a near economic free-fall, he favors raising taxes and works to tighten pandemic lockdowns; and, with the state losing its ability to train workers, he backs an education system where almost three out of five California high schoolers graduate unprepared for either college or a career.
Listening to Newsom, or following California media, one would have no idea how badly California’s economy has performed during the pandemic. In the most recent statistics, California’s unemployment rate stood at 11 percent, well above the national average of 7.9 percent, and better than only four other states. Since the March lockdown, California, with 12 percent of the nation’s population, accounts for 16.4 percent of all unemployment. California also is recovering jobs slower than all but two states, tourism-dependent Hawaii and Nevada. Since the pandemic, the state’s largest metro, Los Angeles–Orange County, has suffered the second-largest job losses in the U.S., and two others, the Bay Area and the Inland Empire, rank in the top ten.
This awful performance has had little impact on the state’s politically and economically well-positioned ruling class. Newsom may be far from a popular governor, ranking in the lower third among his compatriots, but he enjoys a solidly Democratic legislature and almost lockstep support in the media. Voters are showing signs of getting restless, though, defeating proposals and taxes that he heartily endorsed along with his public-union and tech-industry allies. Typically, he avoided taking a position on Proposition 22, the ban on contract labor detested by the tech firms but deeply supported by the unions.
Conservatives like to ascribe the label “leftist” to politicians such as Newsom. In reality, California’s governor is no Marxist firebrand but rather a favored candidate of what the Los Angeles Times described as “a coterie of San Francisco’s wealthiest families,” including the Fishers (who founded the Gap clothing chain), the Pritzkers (whose family includes the current Illinois governor), and especially the Getty family, which essentially adopted Newsom, financed his business ventures, and allegedly paid for his first lavish wedding while helping launch his political career. These families overall have prospered in California’s highly bifurcated economy, among the least egalitarian in the nation. Its prime beneficiaries cluster along the state’s postindustrial, temperate zones.
Newsom rose, as former assembly speaker and San Francisco mayor Willie Brown suggests, as the favored spokesman for San Francisco’s local well-to-do. “He came from their world, and that’s why they embraced him without hesitancy and over and above everybody else,” Brown told the Los Angeles Times. “They didn’t need to interview him. They knew what he stood for.”
Newsom postures as a social-justice advocate and believer in austere green virtues, but the corporate aristocracy has helped him live in luxury, first in his native Marin, and now in Sacramento. Newsom’s passion for the good life caused him some embarrassment recently when he was caught violating his own pandemic orders at the ultra-expensive, ultra-chic French Laundry in Napa. This episode exemplifies America’s elite nomenklatura—demanding sacrifices of the masses, whether in the form of lockdowns or housing, but less often from themselves.
In addition to woke posturing on race and gender issues, climate change stands as the key driver of this kind of politics. In many regions, notably the Midwest, Democrats face a conflict between siding with the environmental lobby or with workers in fossil fuels, large-scale manufacturing, and construction. That tension is less evident in California, where a draconian tax and regulatory environment has reduced construction, particularly in the big coastal metros, and where manufacturing has stagnated, while policymakers have targeted the heavily unionized oil industry for extinction.
Draconian climate-change policies allow progressive elites to advertise their good intentions without curtailing their economic opportunities. The state’s renewable-energy policies enrich his Newsom’s tech backers even when their efforts—such as the Google-backed Ivanpah solar farm—fail to deliver affordable, reliable energy, and bring severe impacts on sensitive habitats, notably in the state’s deserts. Even the most impressive of the tech masterminds, Elon Musk, can trace a significant part of his fortune—now estimated at over $100 billion, the world’s fifth-largest—to generous subsidy policies for solar panels and electric cars. Policies that raise energy and housing prices, of course, tend to be politically unpopular—so Newsom, like his predecessors, imposes these regulations administratively, or through executive orders, thus freeing the governor to avoid legislative and political tangles and freeing him of any obligation to explain these positions to the public.
Climate issues have also offered Newsom an ideal way to justify failed progressive policies. Newsom and his ally, presumptive Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris, blamed the wildfires on climate change and all-purpose bogeyman Donald Trump. The media echoed the charges: the New York Times suggests that California is “ground zero for climate disasters,” while the Los Angeles Times claims that California now fights not just fires and droughts but also “climate despair.”
In reality, as the usually left-leaning Pro Publica has revealed, the fires were made far worse by green policies including constant lawsuits against local efforts to clean up old growth, particularly dead trees, and stopping even sustainable logging. The state Legislative Analyst’s Office also found that overall, the fires were less driven by global warming and more by policies that allowed for the accumulation of fuel, as well as growing development in certain exurban areas—partly motivated by a desire to escape the extremely high housing prices along the coast.
The fires are certainly not great for the environment or for reaching the state’s super-ambitious greenhouse gas (GHG) goals: according to the U.S. Geological Survey, the 2018 fires emitted roughly as much GHG as an entire year of electrical generation. California, though a hotbed of climate extremism, reduced its greenhouse gases between 2007 and 2016 at a rate that ranked just 40th per capita among the states. Even if California wiped out all emissions, it would have an almost-infinitesimal impact on global climate—and in fact, a negative one, if industry relocates to China, where much electricity is still powered by coal.
Newsom also preens about California’s enlightened commitment to social justice. His filmmaker wife Jennifer, scion of a very wealthy Bay Area family, has made a documentary that brands America a “racist country” from its origins, a nation where racial and gender oppression is systematically rife.
Social justice? It’s rarely noted how Newsom’s policies, particularly in reference to climate change, have only intensified inequality. California already suffers the widest gap between middle- and upper-middle-income earners of any state, while driving up housing costs and narrowing opportunities for working-class people in blue-collar industries. Since 2008, California has created five times as many low-wage as high-wage jobs. It has lost 1.6 million above-average-paying jobs in the past decade—more than twice as many as any other state.
The state’s ever-more aggressive green policies seem certain to accelerate that trend. Rather than a sign of bold progressive change, the electrification mandate is likely to consolidate further a new model of high-tech feudalism—one that offers opportunity for powerful regulators and renewable-energy firms but imposes a harsher future on most other Californians. Newsom’s defenders praise his energy policies, which in 2017 alone increased prices at three times the national rate. These increases have been devastating to poorer Californians, particularly in the state’s less temperate interior, where “energy poverty” has grown rapidly.
The impact has been toughest on blue-collar sectors. Over the past decade, the Golden State has fallen into the bottom half of states in manufacturing-sector employment growth, ranking 44th last year; its industrial new-job creation has been negative. By contrast, competitors such as Nevada, Kentucky, Michigan, and Florida have seen gains. Even without adjusting for costs, notes the New York Times, no California metro ranks in the U.S. top ten in terms of well-paying blue-collar jobs, but four—Ventura, Los Angeles, San Jose, and San Diego—place among the bottom ten.
Newsom’s recent plan to impose forced electrification on those parts of the economy running on fossil fuels and his efforts to cut off other sources of supply, like natural gas and nuclear power, will put enormous strain on a state already suffering power outages and rising prices. The mandate to use electric trucks, which are expensive and inefficient, threatens jobs at California’s three major ports—Los Angeles, Long Beach, and Oakland—which support nearly 5 million California jobs, nearly one in four of the state’s total. The new electrical truck mandate, shipping companies note, will threaten the competitive advantage of these ports, with many jobs likely to head for Houston and other ports free of such strictures.
The question now is how long Californians will put up with Newsom’s posturing. Over time, high energy prices affect not just blue-collar industries but also the rapidly departing tech sector; artificial intelligence and live-streaming providers are among the largest and fastest-growing consumers of electricity. Ultimately, Newsom’s political coalition of greens, the wealthy, and public unions could be strained by the state’s deepening fiscal crisis. A high unemployment rate and an already-expansive welfare state will demand more money from the state’s already-beleaguered middle class. Some business leaders, notably Disney’s Robert Iger, have balked at strict lockdowns on theme parks, which have been devastating to Southern California. Even the state’s leading green entrepreneur, Musk, has become increasingly critical of the state’s lockdown and regulatory policies.
Dissatisfaction from the middle and working class may present an even greater challenge for Newsom. Dissent over green policies in particular has been growing of late, particularly among minorities and advocates for the poor. Newsom’s attempt to raise property taxes on businesses amid the recession was defeated handily—mainly by voters outside Los Angeles County and the urban core of the Bay Area—as was his affirmative action push, financed lavishly by his wealthy backers, which also failed at the polls.
Talk of a major new tax increase—up to 16 percent on top earners—is not likely to appeal to aspiring entrepreneurs. On November 3, California voted decisively for Joe Biden, but middle-class voters, including minorities, showed a surprisingly independent streak. Minority business groups bitterly noted in a letter to Mark Zuckerberg, the biggest backer for the measure raising property taxes: “Unlike Facebook, restaurants, dry cleaners, nail salons and other small businesses can’t operate right now and many may never open again. The last thing they need is a billionaire pushing higher taxes on them under the false flag of social justice.”
Unless Newsom starts expanding beyond his narrow circle of backers, he may find himself facing a multifaceted peasant rebellion, one pitting unions against wealthy elites, the woke against the vast majority, and small businesses against big companies and the well-connected. To present a serious challenge to the state’s one-party rule, California’s floundering Republican Party needs to find a compelling candidate and raise money from what remains of its economic base. This may be too much to ask, but, given his state’s collapsing prospects, Gavin Newsom may face mounting challenges, if not in California then at least to his national ambitions. Even the most elaborate preening has its limits.
Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images