U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia was on the wrong side of most Californians, and history, in his cranky dissent to last week’s landmark ruling legalizing same-sex marriage across the nation.
But, much as we might hate to admit it, Scalia was right when, in the same dissent, he argued that California isn’t part of the American West. And in so doing, he raised—almost certainly unwittingly—an important question about California’s future.
Scalia made his point via a swipe at his colleagues for being unrepresentative of the United States as a whole (and thus being foolish to impose their views on marriage equality on the entire country). After noting that all nine justices attended Harvard or Yale law schools and that only one grew up in the Midwest, he wrote: “Not a single Southwesterner or even, to tell the truth, a genuine Westerner.” But what about Justice Anthony Kennedy, who is from Sacramento? Scalia’s answer came parenthetically in the next line: “California does not count.”
The words “California does not count” prompted an array of California pundits and leaders to fly off the handle, and challenge the justice. How dare he disrespect California? Of course we count! “Antonin Scalia Doesn’t Heart California—or Get Us, Either,” said an LA Times headline.
Kamala Harris, California’s Attorney General and leading candidate for U.S. Senate, coolly countered Scalia—an old-school “originalist” who thinks the U.S. Constitution should be read as it was in 1789—with a line from old-school rapper Ice T: “Don’t hate the playa, hate the game.” You should know that Ice T’s line was inspired by one from Gandhi’s 1927 autobiography (“Hate the sin not the sinner”) and St. Augustine’s 424 A.D. letter (“with love for mankind and hatred of sins”), so Harris out-originalist-ed the originalist Supreme Court justice by more than 1,300 years. Snap.
Despite all the California retorts, Scalia’s fundamental point went unchallenged, perhaps because it is so clearly correct: California doesn’t fit in the American West. Or anywhere else, for that matter.
Indeed, the best book ever written about California—Carey McWilliams’ California: The Great Exception, published in 1949 and never out of print—is about precisely this reality. California is singular, among Western U.S. states, in how it was settled so early and grew so quickly. Our Western neighbors have always been slower, more plodding, less populous places. And so California became a ragtag giant among much smaller states in the West, defined by our sudden and explosive changes in culture, economy, and demographics.
“One cannot, as yet, properly place California in the American scheme of things,” wrote McWilliams, adding: “To understand this tiger all rules must be laid to one side. All the copybook maxims must be forgotten. California is no ordinary state; it is an anomaly, a freak, the great exception among the American states.”
Sixty-six years after those words were published, California is still an exception in many ways—we’re the only state to break ground on high-speed rail, we’re responsible for half of the country’s venture capital, and no one is as crazy about direct democracy as we are. Some, like the economist Bill Watkins at California Lutheran University, predict that coastal California will become even more exceptional, an ever-more-glittery playground for the global super rich, with the rest of California being populated by the working-class people who serve them.
But there is another possibility—that our state (or at least everything except the other-worldly Bay Area)—continues to change in ways that make us more closely resemble other Western states.
The crucial shift in this direction has been that California is no longer a state of arrival, a destination for the world. Immigration is flat. Over the last generation, more people have been leaving California for other states than have been moving here from the rest of the country. The high cost of living has been the prime force for driving out mostly lower-income folks.
Those outflows have given us more in common with neighboring states like Nevada, Arizona, Utah, Oregon—in two ways.
First, those states, having received so many Californians seeking more affordable housing, have effectively been colonized by us, and are beginning to vote and eat more like California. All four now have In-N-Out Burger outlets, as does Texas, another big destination for exiting Californians. And as we made huge hikes in tuition and limited enrollment in our public universities, more California high school graduates are heading to public universities in neighboring states. (I’ve seen see this phenomenon firsthand since I teach at Arizona State University).
Second, those of us left behind in California are also more Western—because we are more likely to have grown up here. In previous generations, California was populated by people from Asia, Latin America, and the American Midwest and South. But in today’s California, the majority is homegrown—born and raised in California—and the newer arrivals are more likely to be from Las Vegas than Little Rock.
This more-homegrown California is also becoming much older—and less dynamic. We remain more ethnically and racially diverse than other Western states, but there are signs that our diversity lead is narrowing. While out-migration from California slowed somewhat during the recession, it’s likely to pick up as our economy comes back and California becomes even more expensive.
It’s not just demography making us more Western; drought has a role too. We’re becoming a drier place, with dustier landscaping that resembles Arizona and Nevada. Last year, we finally regulated groundwater, as other Western states have been doing for years.
Of course, these trends could all change. But if they persist, and California continues to Westernize, it will pose questions for our state and our country. The fact that California was so exceptional often accelerated change nationwide. As the historian H.W. Brands has noted, the American dream was of slow, tedious Poor Richard’s Almanac-style growth until California became a state—and gave us a new, faster dream of rapidly accumulated wealth. Will it be good for us, and for America (Happy Birthday, by the way), if we become just another Western state?
For now, you are right, Justice Scalia. California doesn’t really count as Western. But time has a way of changing the meaning of many things, including marriage and our messy state.
Joe Mathews is California & innovation editor for Zócalo Public Square, for which he writes the Connecting California column.
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