Looking back at the Republican victory in California’s 2018 gubernatorial election, we can see that the roots of the GOP sweep in Sacramento are traceable to the events of April 2015. It was then that the Democrats’ romance with Big Green Austerity Politics became a fatal embrace.
And yes, it’s a fitting irony that the Republicans managed to win in deep-blue California by invoking the bluest thing of all—the Pacific Ocean.
Of course, in the wake of the 2014 gubernatorial election, a GOP comeback to the Golden State governorship seemed implausible in the extreme. After all, Democrat Jerry Brown was re-elected in November 2014 in a 20-point landslide; indeed, the entire state seemed to be firmly in the Democrats’ grip.
But then came the epic drought in California to shake confidence in the Democrats’ leadership. Indeed, Brown’s Malthusian response to the water shortage confirmed Californians’ worst fears of Democrats in the Tom Steyer Era (more on him later). Indeed, in announcing massive restrictions on water usage on April 1, 2015, Gov. Brown seemingly couldn’t resist mocking the middle-class aspirations of ordinary suburbanites:
“People should realize we are in a new era. The idea of your nice little green lawn getting watered every day, those days are past.”
The not-so-hidden assumption in Brown’s comment, of course, was that in this “new era,” the familiar dream of Californians of all races–to have a quarter-acre lot with a house and a green lawn–was rightly to be consigned to the “past.”
And of course, the Main Stream Media (MSM), often slavish to the wishes of Green Democrats, applauded heartily for Brown. “A good move”–that was the verdict of The Los Angeles Times’ editorial the next day.
Yet in fact, as subsequent history makes clear, Brown’s actions on water rationing were not a good move at all—they were more like a last straw.
That is, in 2015, two things happened in California: First, it became abundantly clear that the dominant Democrats were not sincerely interested in growth for all Golden Staters. And second, the Republicans woke up and grasped their opportunity to be the broad-based party of, well, abundance.
Indeed, the history of California, seen in its epic sweep, proves that the broad-based imperative of growth has always trumped the elite desire for control. And the political party that can deliver on that promise of a better life–also known as the American Dream–is ultimately the more successful party.
In 1850, the new state of California had a population of a mere 90,000. And yet the Gold Rush, and then the search for a better life–aided, of course, by President Abraham Lincoln’s determination to build the Transcontinental Railroad, which finally connected California to the East Coast in 1869–made the population swell. By 1900, the population of the Golden State had grown to almost 1.5 million, and the growing pains were real; transportation bottlenecks threatened further growth. It was time for a rational plan for infrastructure. We might note that, in those days, California was solidly Republican; voters understood that just as Hamiltonian-Lincolnian infrastructure had brought them prosperity in the 19th century, so only Hamiltonian-Lincolnian infrastructure would carry them to their full potential in the 20th century.
In a 1910 referendum, the state’s voters approved an $18 million bond issue–an enormous sum in those days–for over 3,000 miles of roads, including such key stretches as a highway to connect San Francisco to Los Angeles to San Diego. And at the same time, California boldly expanded its water-utility system: giant projects such as Hetch Hetchy and Owens River fostered the growth of Northern and Southern California. And while these epic water projects were sometimes marred with corruption–as immortalized, but also fictionalized, in the 1974 movie Chinatown–the reality was that California got the water it needed.
Out of such expansive vision, taking into account all the needs of a vibrant population and a dynamic economy, the American Dream came to its apogee: California grew from eight Congressional districts in 1900 to 53 in 2000.
But somewhere in the 20th century–the 1970s, to be precise–California’s elite, left and right, lost interest in growth, and in the components of growth.
On the left, the Greens tightened their grip. As wags explained it, they had their house with a view of the ocean, and they didn’t want anyone, or anything, blocking that ocean view.
Indeed, the problem was larger than California itself. In that same decade of the 70s, the U.S. President became similarly enraptured with the idea of “limits to growth.” In his nationally televised speech of April 8, 1977, President Jimmy Carter sounded the same pessimistic notes that Jerry Brown expressed nearly 40 years later:
“Tonight I want to have an unpleasant talk with you about a problem unprecedented in our history. With the exception of preventing war, this is the greatest challenge our country will face during our lifetimes. The energy crisis has not yet overwhelmed us, but it will if we do not act quickly.”
And so President Carter launched a series of energy restrictions, and promised, or threatened, many more.
Interestingly, the same Jerry Brown was also governor of California in those days; he was obviously comfortable with those restrictions. And so it was easy for Brown to fall into a Carter-like litany of limitations, including plans for policing the length of the showers that people took.
And yet, of course, the shared assumption that united both Carter and Brown was the inevitability of scarcity. As Carter said in 1977, and all through the 70s, “We can’t substantially increase our domestic production.” Carter, of course, was thrown out of office by the American people in 1980, and yet doom-and-gloom Carterism survived in California. And so in 2015, Jerry Brown felt free to hit the same notes.
But in fact, as the fracking boom proved, there were no natural limits on energy production; the human mind, unleashed, can always find a way to develop more energy.
And the same is true for water—if water is liberated. And yet, of course, water-liberation was exactly what the Green Establishment opposed.
For example, the Endangered Species Act (ESA) of 1973 was increasingly used by the Greens as a hammer against growth of any kind. That is, whereas once the national parks were considered to be the place where the buffalo could roam–and survive–the ESA, in effect, converted the entire country into a national park, such that if one clever lawyer could adduce the presence of a species that could be declared “endangered,” then all economic activity could be stopped at once.
And nowhere were Greens more zealous, or effective, than in California. A few astute observers on the right were quick to identify this scam: One such was the Fresno-based Victor Davis Hanson, who began writing in the 00s that elitist environmentalists were putting, for example, the two-inch delta smelt ahead of people. “Farmers vs. fish in California,” Hanson headlined one piece, and, of course, the fish, or at least their lawyers, always seemed to win the battle. Indeed, so powerful was this Axis of Litigation that it didn’t even matter that the delta smelt, the object of years of lawsuits and growth-strangling regulation, was actually already extinct.
In 2012, a few astute observers on the right had spotted the potential for Republicans to defy the conventional wisdom and take on, head on, the Green Orthodoxy, but for whatever reason, their advice was not followed. And the same was true in 2014.
Perhaps one reason that Republicans were slow to grasp the political potential of an “Open Water” agenda was the sheer density of the restrictionist, Malthusian propaganda.
As another acute California-based observer, Joel Kotkin, explained, we were seeing the rise of a new kind of sentimental elitism, or, as Kotkin dubbed it, “gentry liberalism.” That is, California’s politics, in the early 21st century, came to resemble the cleavages last seen in 19th century England, when the old-line aristocratic gentry of the rural areas came to oppose, disdain, and even fear the rising bourgeoisie and proletariat of the cities.
Yet if the modern–or post-modern–left was one conscious enemy of growth, as Kotkin and others have argued, an unconscious enemy emerged on the right. That is, an increasingly libertarian Republican Party grew hostile to infrastructure, and not just hostile to Democratic ideas of infrastructure, such as mass transit, but also hostile to the very idea of publicly-funded infrastructure. The libertarians never opposed the basic idea of economic growth, as did the Greens, but at the same time, they never quite accepted the reality that economic growth in a pluralistic society had to include a public-investment component, including adequate provision for public roads and water.
Ironically, the clarion success of the property-tax-cutting Proposition 13 in 1978 gave many Republican strategists an incomplete political lesson: In the wake of that populist victory, they thought that the only thing that mattered to voters was tax cuts. And yet in a sense, tax cuts were a victim of their own success; taxes, once they were cut, became less of an issue to the voters, especially less affluent voters–of which there were an increasing number in the 80s and 90s, as immigration from Mexico accelerated.
And we should note that while both parties had once been complicit in open-borders policies, yet, by the beginning of the teens, the Democrats had happily come to “own,” almost exclusively, the idea of “Mexifornia.” Meanwhile, in being as solicitous as possible to illegal immigration, California had managed to become unmanageable; all those new people needed jobs, and roads, and water.
Indeed, as the state’s population pushed close to 40 million people, Californians discovered that their infrastructure was no longer adequate. But as we have seen, this wasn’t some sort of natural disaster; it was the result of deliberate policy decisions that had short-shrifted California’s infrastructure, especially its ability to provide fresh water.
This crisis, of course, came to a head in 2015. And finally, the California Republican Party began to find its voice: For example, the very day after Brown’s rationing announcement, Tim Donnelly–then a former California Assemblyman and, of course, a future superstar in state politics–wrote a fierce piece in Breitbart News, headlined, “Jerry’s Folly: Turning California Brown to Appease the Greens.” As Donnelly explained it, Brown’s determination–some called it obsession–to build a costly High-Speed Rail project in California had blinded him to the state’s other needs, the most obvious of which was ocean desalination:
Mark my words. Rather than canceling or putting the High-Speed Rail project on hold–which any rational person would do if this crisis were as bad as he states–and harness the energy of some of the most talented and gifted people in the world to do what Californians do best–build what we need, dams, conveyance, desalinization plants, faster, better and cheaper than anyone else could even dream–Governor Jerry Brown has perpetuated a natural drought into a man-made disaster.
Indeed, a casual look at a map might have told anyone just how easy it would be to solve California’s fresh-water crisis. The Pacific ocean is large, 63.7 million square miles. By contrast, California is less than 1/400th the size, just 163,000 square miles. In other words, there’s plenty of water in the nearby Pacific, if we can rouse ourselves to use it. Indeed, the totality of all the world’s oceans is 139 million square miles.
Spurred on by Donnelly and other advocates of realistic growth, including technological solutions, California Republicans increasingly gravitated to the idea of desalination as an alternative to scarcity. Indeed, rapid technological progress in other countries was making the “desal” option ever more plausible. One illustrative headline spoke volumes about a country that had made the deserts bloom and was proud of it: “Israel is creating a water surplus using desalination.” And another headline communicated the reality that “desal” was a scalable and transferable technology:
“Megascale Desalination: The world’s largest and cheapest reverse-osmosis desalination plant is up and running in Israel. Availability: Now.”
Indeed, so great was the economic incentive for desalination that newer and cheaper technologies began crowding the marketplace. Yes, innovation and competition were working, as they always did, in the desalination sector—for those willing to open their eyes.
Yet the MSM chose mostly to hide this reality from Californians–and from Americans. In fact, the MSM seemed determined to convert the drought into a liberal ecological morality play–a play in which the middle class was, once again, the bad guy. That is, just as in the Malthusian critique heard in England three centuries ago, the upwardly mobile aspirations of the middle class were deemed to be the real problem.
As The New York Times wrote on April 5, 2015, it was time for us to question whether growth could occur at all:
Now a punishing drought–and the unprecedented measures the state announced last week to compel people to reduce water consumption–is forcing a reconsideration of whether the aspiration of untrammeled growth that has for so long been this state’s driving engine has run against the limits of nature.
In other words, growth is obsolete. And yet such verbiage, as we have seen, had been rejected by the American people in the 1980 presidential election, when they rejected the “malaise” celebrated by Jimmy Carter.
Yet while Carterism lingered in California, there was a limit as to how much Californians would tolerate. In fact, as noted, the story of California for most of two centuries had been for the state and its growing population to run up against the limits of nature–and then build right over them.
In the same vein, The Washington Post editorialized in a piece headlined, “An unrelenting drought should spur California to overhaul its water system.” Interestingly, unlike the Times, the Post made mention of desalination but quickly dismissed it: “Some communities are resorting to desalination plants, which are expensive, require huge amounts of energy and pose threats to the ocean environment.”
Ah yes, the dread threat of “threats to the ocean environment.” But how serious were those threats, in reality? As the Oakland-based Pacific Institute noted in 2013, one study of the small desalination operation in Santa Cruz found only the most minimal damage:
Intakes would kill some fish and invertebrate species (including gobies, croakers, anchovies, halibut, rockfishes, shrimp, and crabs), but the numbers killed are not likely to exceed “about six-hundredths of one percent of their populations (0.0006%) within the source water at risk of entrainment.
Indeed, the loss of a few gobies and crabs–a total of six-hundredths of one percent in the intake area–might seem a small price to pay for the welfare of human beings and voters, but evidently, the dominant Greens, and their dutiful scribes in the media, didn’t agree. And so in the case of California and the drought, Green ideology had so constrained the mental map of most politicians and pundits that they couldn’t even think of desalination as an option.
Indeed, the real bottom line for the MSM was revealed in another New York Times story from that period, headlined, “California Drought Is Worsened by Global Warming, Scientists Say.”
In other words, the drought was, in a perverse way, valuable to the Greens because it helped them, or so they hoped, make their case about global warming. (As an aside, we might note that when the weather was getting cooler in those days of 2015, the Greens called it “climate change,” although, if they thought they could get away with it, they still preferred to call it “global warming.”)