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From California, a Progressive Cry for State’s Rights

The birthplace of the modern conservative movement is now the leader of a Trump resistance founded on federalism.

JOSH EDELSON / Getty Images

Donald Trump hadn’t even been sworn in as president before California was declared, in the words of The New York Times, “the vanguard of the resistance.” With a Democratic supermajority, the country’s largest immigrant population, and Governor Jerry Brown’s landmark policies on climate change, the state was gearing up for battle against the Trump administration. To that end, the California legislature hired Eric Holder, an attorney general under President Barack Obama, to represent the state in legal fights to come. San Francisco, one of 12 “sanctuary cities” in California that protects undocumented immigrants, sued President Trump over his executive order threatening to cut federal funds to the city. The legislature, meanwhile, is moving to make California a sanctuary state. While lawmakers can’t stop federal immigration agents from conducting raids, the state can restrict access to databases, kick federal authorities out of county jails, and create “safe zones,” where immigration enforcement is prohibited.

It might seem predictable that California, land of liberals, is leading the charge against the new administration. But the Golden State is also the birthplace of the modern conservative movement and was once an enduring source of anti-government populism. Decades before California launched the political careers of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, its business conservatives—agriculture barons and utility executives—organized in opposition to the New Deal, purporting to defend citizens from the tyranny of federal government. It’s also where the nation’s first political consulting firm was established, its operatives discovering that cultural appeals—against minorities and newly independent women—could build broad coalitions of voters more than conservative economic policies ever would.

In a twist of history, California’s leftist leaders are now embracing state’s rights, decrying Washington as a threat to a local way of life. San Francisco’s lawsuit, for example, takes a page from Reagan’s playbook, accusing Trump of striking “at the heart of the established principles of federalism.” Brown has warned members of the new administration to “keep their hands off,” while state Senate President Kevin de León is vowing “to protect the values of the people of California.” Could a political strategy, devised long ago by California conservatives, be harnessed to defend the state’s progressive values?

Wallace Stegner famously wrote that California is “just like America, only more so.” What happened in his home state presaged developments everywhere else; even its people were a portent of changes to come. “California always had immigrants, migrants, and others looking to start something new,” says Kathryn Olmsted, a history professor at the University of California, Davis. As she wrote in her book Right Out of California: The 1930s and the Big Business Roots of Modern Conservatism, “The state’s multiracial, multiethnic workforce of migrants and immigrants, of women and men, foreshadowed the coming transformation of American labor. The battles over these changes would remake American politics and policy.”

Many scholars explain the rise of the modern right as a grassroots response, coming from the suburbs, to the “liberal Leviathan” of postwar government and the perceived excesses of the 1960s, including countercultural lifestyles and antiwar protest. But Olmsted digs further back in history, to the Great Depression in the California fields, where Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal galvanized big agriculture against the federal government, shaping the philosophy, personalities, and tactics of a new conservative movement.

California was once a peripheral place, remote and difficult to reach in an America dominated culturally and economically by the northeast. Yet, the federal government had always been there, damming rivers, dredging canals, and extinguishing Native people, Olmsted noted; the West was “the kindergarten of the American state,” wrote historian Richard White. But it wasn’t until the 1930s, with the spread of commercial aviation, that California landed on the political map. A state created by gold was now covered in farms—“factories in the fields,” as Carey McWilliams once described them, where tens of thousands of migrant pickers did backbreaking work for abysmal wages.

Initially, California’s business leaders welcomed the federal government’s subsidies and infrastructure: Canals, bridges, and irrigation systems that helped get their products to market, all on Washington’s dime. But once Roosevelt’s New Deal came out in support of workers’ rights, the relationship soured. The Feds had always intervened on management’s behalf; now the opposite was true, and FDR’s regulatory state, growing in size and substance, threatened big agriculture’s profits and control.

So the heads of big business got organized. Wealthy white men whose fruit orchards, cotton fields, nut farms, and canneries stretched across hundreds of thousands of acres—executives at California Packing Corporation and Transamerica Company, among others—hired publicity firms to sell their ideas to the public. In San Francisco, the nation’s first political consultants, Clem Whitaker and Leone Baxter, established Campaigns Inc. with the aim of quashing Upton Sinclair’s pro-labor, anti-poverty gubernatorial bid in 1934. “A new working class consciousness had bloomed among this agricultural proletariat,” says Lori Flores, a history professor at Stony Brook University, “and the 1930s ended up being an action-packed decade of militant labor activism by various groups of farmworkers.”

To turn public opinion against strikers and the New Deal’s labor laws, California conservatives devised a winning formula: Candidates were to exploit fears of cultural change. Government programs for workers were dangerous, argued conservatives, for allowing minorities “into spaces and jobs that were previously off-limits to them,” Olmsted wrote. Working women, and those in leadership and activist roles, posed a threat to the established order, and Roosevelt’s strong federal government was an assault on church and family. The appeal was populist and media-savvy, aimed at middle and working-class Americans. It worked, building broad support for conservative candidates even as their policies favored business elites.

The movement that began in California’s Central Valley spawned generations of conservative thinkers and leaders, including Nixon and Reagan and the men who advised them. Pitting government against the people, it combined anti-statism with the populism of cultural resentment—against minorities, migrants, and women. In other words, it looked a lot like Trumpism.

“State’s rights” have long been invoked—often in the South—to defend repressive, discriminatory laws, but with Trump at the helm of a fractured republic, state’s rights could become progressive policy. “We are experiencing an unprecedented attack from the federal government on immigrant communities,” Grisel Ruiz, staff attorney at San Francisco’s Immigrant Legal Resource Center, told me. “Local jurisdictions, in the business of ensuring the health and wellbeing of local communities, have no legal obligation to assist with civil, federal immigration enforcement.” In Sacramento, Democrats are striking a similar tone, promising to protect California values from Washington overreach.

“We have made it clear we will protect our people, our economic prosperity, and the values that have made our state great,” De León, the senator who introduced the bill to make California a sanctuary state, said in a phone interview. “We have made incredible strides in California and there’s no turning back. We celebrate our diversity and prosper from it. We don’t exclude it, we don’t deport it, we don’t ban it, we don’t wall it off.”

There is soaring rhetoric in Sacramento, but also pragmatism. California has the most to lose under Trump. The first minority-majority state is home to the country’s largest Muslim population and an estimated 2.3 million undocumented people, many of whom sustain its $46.7 billion agricultural sector. Immigrant talent fuels California’s tech-centered economy. The state’s colleges and universities enroll more students from more countries than anywhere in the U.S. One in ten Californians has health coverage thanks to the Affordable Care Act, and the state receives more than $20 billion in health care subsidies. International trade drives the California economy, the world’s sixth largest. Mexico is its top export market, and 40 percent of all imports enter the U.S. through southern California ports.

“Doing things from a California perspective makes sense right now,” Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon told me. In real terms, this could mean turning California’s laws, institutions, and wealth against the federal government. Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom wants to use the California Environmental Quality Act to ensure that Trump’s border wall is mired in bureaucratic red tape, making construction impossible, at least in southern California. Governor Brown has promised that the state, which is rich in universities, laboratories, and researchers, would not change course on climate science, regardless of policy shifts at the federal level. Then, there are matters of money. As Mother Jones recently reported, California is one of 11 states that collect less in federal expenditures than they send to Washington; California sent the IRS $406 billion in 2015, or about 13 percent of all federal taxes, and received 11 percent of federal expenditures in return. Theoretically, lawmakers in Sacramento could stop the flow of funds to Washington without throwing the state into crisis.

Looking at the rest of the country, Richard Florida, an urban studies theorist and professor at the University of Toronto, worries that history has trapped the left into thinking that “strong, centralized government is the best way to solve the nation’s problems.” He is convinced that “détente” is the only way to get around political polarization. “Let us all have our bubble,” he said. “Otherwise, we’ll continue to see an ongoing, disaggregated civil war.”