Letter from California
05/23/05 0632.41 pst
San Jose, California
There is a red and blue America, which we have seen from countless maps and election nights: blue left coast, upper Midwest and mid-Atlantic, with the rest of the country swathed in red. California, too, has its distinct blue and red zones:
First glance at this map from election 2004 states the obvious: the coast is blue—liberal—while the interior is red, conservative. In my lifetime this is a great change, for up until the mid-nineties the split was very much north-south; everything above Monterey on the coast was blue, while all of the south and the interior was solidly red.
Vast numbers of immigrants and the departure of aerospace and auto industry in southern California greatly eroded the Republican base in the south—a lot of them moved to Colorado and ruined that place. Los Angeles county is solidly blue, while Orange is still fiercely red. The coastal counties of the south are trending blue but not really there yet; still, there is no denying they are much more liberal than the interior.
The 20th century base of California liberalism centered in San Francisco has bled into most of the southern coastal counties, but as to why San Francisco and the Bay Area would evolve liberally and the rest of the state would not is a very, very good question.
The differences in counties that have not evolved liberally can be stark. Just 35 minutes drive south from here is Morgan Hill, in technically blue San Benito, yet its interior Salinas Valley legacy is still there: pickup trucks with rifles and confederate flags in the rear cab window is a common sight.
Still, why would the Bay Area evolve liberally and the south would not? How come the interior is so solidly red, and shows every indication of staying that way? [Sacramento is purple because of the all the state capitol government workers, while Mono is a useless anomaly, no one lives out there.] Why is it that simply crossing over relatively narrow geography boundaries produces such different cultural and political entities?
One unsatisfactory answer is that San Francisco established a liberal legacy by all the union organizing on the docks in the 20th century. It’s never explained, though, why the oil, film and agricultural workers in the south were never able or wanted to organize in the same way.
For whatever reason the Bay Area is absurdly rich in upper education, always a bedrock of liberalism: Cal, Stanford, Santa Clara, Mills, UC San Francisco and Santa Cruz, with San Jose, Hayward, San Francisco, and Sonoma State schools. The south has USC, UCLA and Irvine, yes, but nothing close proportionally to all these great schools clustered in the Bay Area. But no one ever says why more schools got established up here.
Birds of feather flock together and humans are little different, we like to be around those approximately like us. For all the ridiculous sheen of advanced civilization Californians are obsessed with buffing themselves with, we’re still pretty tribal. It’s certainly got something to do with it.
The interior is, of course, mostly rural, although bigger and bigger pockets of the Valley are becoming urbanized. Why are the rural areas so red, generally, while the coast is blue and purple? Television, print and radio transcend the borders effortlessly, and none of those mediums are “liberal” anyway. Employment patterns are of course vastly different, but the red counties get no benefit in their employment rates for being so solidly red.
There’s hundreds of answers to these questions, none of them really satisfactory, the only certainty to be gleaned from all the variables being that there surely couldn’t be just one simple answer.
California is a blue state, that can stated with certainty, but only because of a blue and purple coast. Driving over the coastal range one enters red America, red as Texas. Depending on the current political era this is described as either bipolar or balanced; with the ascension of Arnie it can also be stated with certainty, unfortunately, that California is currently in one of its bipolar episodes.