by Victor Davis Hanson
Only Arnold Schwarzenegger could get away with praising Richard Nixon and repeating the line “girlie-men” in a thick Germanic accent—and in prime time at a national convention.It is equally amazing that he is a Republican governor of an overwhelmingly Democratic state, surrounded by Democratic state assemblymen and senators—after beating a career Latino Democratic insider to replace a twice-elected career Democratic governor. How could this be?
Schwarzenegger is a cult icon, a savvy student of human nature, and a formidable media presence. But Arnold’s meteoric political rise was also a sign of the times of how desperate things were getting in California—and how its populace was forced to think the unthinkable in questioning its accepted laid-back way of business.
California had somehow managed to run up a $38 billion dollar shortfall. It produces the worst schools in the nation. Entitlements skyrocketed; so did the size of state government. It has the country’s largest penal industry, and a decrepit transportation system—despite having nearly the highest sales and income taxes in America. It wasn’t always so.
California is a naturally rich state. Almost everything combines in abundance to give us unimagined bounty—temperate weather, rich soil, a 1,000-mile coastline, timber, oil, minerals, and deep ports. Where else can one ski in alpine snow and then be on a sunny beach within 4 hours?
In such a blessed landscape, an earlier generation had created a booming defense industry, Silicon Valley, trade windows to Asia, unrivaled agribusiness, Hollywood, and a mecca for global tourism. Former governors had fueled such successes by crafting the nation’s best university system, model freeways, and state-of-the-art airports. The much maligned California lifestyle was, in fact, an admirable informality and unity that allowed almost anyone of any class and race to reinvent himself on the basis of merit and find success without aristocratic prejudice. Intermarriage, integration, and the melting pot in California were models for the nation.
But the 1980s and 1990s were not kind to the state. Drunk with natural endowment and a prior generation’s hard work and generous investment, we coasted—and then squandered our human and natural legacy in little over a decade. Our California State University, the world’s largest system, embraced a de facto open admissions policy. It politicized its curriculum, unionized its faculty—and ended up with nearly half its freshmen in remedial classes and its baccalaureate degrees mere certification rather than proof of education.
Cheap labor from Mexico in restaurants, on farms, and in construction seemed an ideal subsidy of an upper middleclass lifestyle. Millions of illegal newcomers were also welcomed in by a politically opportunistic La Raza academic and political cadre. Then we learned that the combination of multicultural gobbledygook and labor exploitation resulted in an Hispanic drop-out rate of 40% in our high schools, with concurrent loud demands for everything from drivers licenses to university tuition discounts for over 5 million illegal aliens.
We went from one extreme of judges who coddled criminals to the other of a unionized vast penal bureaucracy delighted to welcome them in at near criminal costs. Our government became a cash register, dispensing therapeutic advice on self-esteem, crafting arcane regulations, and soaking small business. There is no need to mention the state’s infamous Workers’ Compensation mess. California’s power supply, once cheap and plentiful, became America’s most expensive and unreliable. Wall Street’s bond traders wanted nothing to do with the mess.
The result by 2003 was not merely a state that was ungovernable, but one that had collided with the law of physics of too much going out and too little coming in. Residents with capital and expertise left and those without them entered. Sometime last year the entire system began to unravel.
Just because the California mystique draws in new dreamers and still fuels a raging real estate market does not mean that we cannot devolve into an Argentina, Nigeria, Mexico, or Iran. Corrupt governments, tribalism, and statist economies of these similarly populous countries squandered their ample natural wealth and then turned what was left into something unlivable like Lagos, Mexico City, or Teheran.
Mr. Schwarzenegger is in no need of further fame. He is already wealthy. Arnold married into status and connections. He cannot be President. Instead, this old-style immigrant saw the plague raging, and wished to terminate it.
So the slow work of renewal begins, pruning wasteful programs, reforming education, stopping further tax increases, curbing regulations, demanding accountability from our universities, and questioning de facto open borders with Mexico and the enshrined taboo that there is no such word as illegal alien.
Will Arnold pull it off? He must because it is our eleventh hour. There is nothing more that our ancestors and nature can do for us, the perpetually pampered. A sick California is ours now to lose or save.
© 2004 Victor Davis Hanson