Conservatives’ Newfound Hatred of California Is Wrong—and Sad

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If you grew up in California in the 1970s, as I did from the age of 12, and then moved someplace else, you fielded a lot of wisecracks. California was flaky (Esalen, Est, Haight-Ashbury, “Governor Moonbeam”). California was culty (Scientology, Synanon, People’s Temple, Bohemian Grove). California was violent (Zodiac killer, Charles Manson). California was a crazy right-wing redoubt (Orange County, Ronald Reagan). California was a crazy left-wing haven (“Berserkeley,” “People’s Republic of Santa Monica”). California was madly hedonistic (“Hotel California,” Eva Babitz’s nude chess match with Marcel Duchamp). Frank Lloyd Wright once said: “Tip the world on its side and everything loose will land in Los Angeles.” I heard that a lot too.

Around the late 1980s, the baiting tapered off as the excesses and eccentricities that defined the Golden State during the 1960s and 1970s receded into the past. But now, California bashing is coming back in a big way, this time in a much less good-natured form. A national survey commissioned by the Los Angeles Times and conducted January 26–28 found 63 percent of respondents disputing that California is “a good place to raise a family”—which I suppose is a matter of opinion—and 59 percent disputing that California possesses a “strong economy,” which is factually incorrect. California has the highest gross domestic product of any state; if it were a country, it would have the fifth-highest GDP in the world, after the United States, China, Japan, and Germany. Meanwhile, 29 percent of respondents agreed that California is “not really American,” which, even when I was a laid-back California teenager, I’d have understood to be hostile.

Where do these bad vibes come from? Partisanship. “If you are a more conservative American,” the poll’s supervisor told the L.A. Times’ Noah Bierman, “you basically do not like California.” Fully 76 percent of Republicans polled disputed that California is “a good place to raise a family.” Seventy-one percent disputed that it has a “strong economy.” And nearly half of all Republicans (48 percent) agreed that California is “not really American.”

Republican antipathy toward California extends beyond the political sphere. Is California a good place to visit? Of course it is! It has mountains, beaches, and deserts; it has Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Diego; it has Disneyland, Universal Studios, William Randolph Hearst’s castle at San Simeon, and the Napa and Sonoma Valleys. After Florida and New York, California is the third-most-visited state in the country. But 48 percent of Republicans polled disputed that California was “a good place to visit.”

That’s just silly. I’ll be spending President’s Day this year in South Carolina, which hasn’t gone Democratic in a presidential election since 1976. South Carolina is represented in the Senate by the Trump toady Lindsey Graham. South Carolina started the Civil War! But when my wife and I considered where to spend the long weekend, we decided on Charleston, because it’s a lovely city with excellent food and an interesting history. I’d never dream of judging any state in this country unfit to visit because of its politics.

California has the best public university system in the United States, with Berkeley and UCLA ranked first and second by U.S. News & World Report. But 77 percent of Republicans disputed that California’s public universities are better than those in most other states. California has some of the country’s most exquisite natural sites, including Yosemite, the sixth-most-visited national park in the country. But 74 percent of Republicans disputed that California possessed a better natural environment than most states, and 57 percent judged it the same or worse.

Republicans hate California for three simple reasons: It has 54 electoral votes (14 more than its nearest rival, Texas); it awards those electoral votes on a winner-take-all basis (like every other state save Maine and Nebraska); and it hasn’t voted Republican in a presidential election since 1988. In California, half as many voters are registered as Republicans (24 percent) than as Democrats (47 percent). No Republican has won statewide office in California since Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s reelection in 2006, and Schwarzenegger has called this year’s near-certain Republican nominee, Donald Trump, “the worst president ever.”  Did I mention that Democrats right now control more than two-thirds of both halves of the state legislature? This is all made especially painful to conservatives by their own history: The New Right that conquered American politics in the early 1980s was virtually born in California’s Orange County (which now has more registered Democrats than Republicans).

For a while California could at least boast that the speaker of the House, Kevin McCarthy, represented its 20th congressional district in Bakersfield. But that’s over. Now McCarthy spends his days recruiting Republican primary challengers to defeat Representative Matt Gaetz of Florida and the other seven Republicans who voted to oust him. There’s no obvious purpose to this exercise except personal revenge. On Tuesday, McCarthy held a press conference where he said Gaetz “probably lies about who he sleeps with too.” I can see why Republicans wouldn’t want to travel to California to visit the guy.

One reason people stopped making fun of California three decades ago was that it got displaced as the butt of national jokes by a place where people were said to be weirder even than people in California. That was, of course, Florida. I’d guess the wildly popular novelists Carl Hiassen and Elmore Leonard kick-started this trend and a steady accumulation of tabloid stories about the odd doings of assorted “Florida men” closed the sale. (As I write this, a Florida Man is celebrating on Instagram his twenty-sixth consecutive day of eating raw chicken.) It’s been argued that the Florida Man became a national laughingstock only because Florida’s sunshine laws make police reports and mug shots more readily available than elsewhere, but lately that theory has been challenged; plenty of other states, it seems, make police reports, and sometimes mug shots, similarly available. “Florida has always been a silly place,” C.J. Ciamarella wrote last month in Reason.

But the birth of the modern Florida Man meme can be traced to three events. The first was the creation of a Florida tag on the snarky news aggregator in the mid-2000s. The second was the time a naked Florida man allegedly high on bath salts ate someone’s face in 2012.… The third event was the creation of the @_FloridaMan Twitter account several months after the face-eating incident.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis ushered  Florida weirdness into the political realm by attacking LGBTQ protections, banning books, outlawing abortion after six weeks, and making life miserable in various ways for K-12 teachers as well as college professors. (For more on that, read my November 2023 story, “The Red State Brain Drain Isn’t Coming, It’s Happening.”)

DeSantis’s intended purpose was to get himself elected president; it didn’t work as planned. But along the way he accepted a challenge from Democratic California Governor Gavin Newsom to debate which state was worse to live in, Florida or California. This pseudo-event aired on Fox News in December, hosted by Sean Hannity (a far-from-neutral referee). I only caught the highlights, but apparently DeSantis hit Newsom on Covid lockdowns and crime; Newsom hit DeSantis on censorship and abortion. The lowest blow was a map DeSantis produced that purported to show places in San Francisco where people defecate in the streets. He was literally talking shit about my beloved home state. It was a very Florida Man thing to do.

California bashing used to be done in a spirit of fun. I can’t say I adored it, but I never took offense. This new round of California bashing is much more partisan and idiotic and mean. In answer, all I can say is that more people choose to live there than in any other state. I can’t think of a more straightforward definition of popularity.