Even as Donald J. Trump’s impeachment trial proceeds in the Senate, the world is rapidly moving on from the priorities of the 2016–20 years. The United States is in political ferment, with extraordinary movements percolating around racial justice; reform of the police, the courts, the prisons; public health; efforts to tackle poverty and soaring economic inequality; housing rights campaigns; immigrant rights; and many other vital efforts to reimagine what and who our community consists of.
In the latter part of the Trump years, I wrote the “Signal:Noise” column detailing the depravities of Trumpism. Now, in a new moment, I am debuting another column, “From the Left Coast,” in which I will explore political developments in the Pacific Coast states as well as, from time to time, the blue and purple states of the interior Southwest.
When I was a child growing up in London, whenever I stayed at my grandparents’ house over the weekend, I would listen on the radio to the journalist Alistair Cooke’s weekly Letter from America. It was a wonderful foray into a culture that always fascinated, and yet at the same time frequently bemused, the Englishman abroad. Cooke had lived in America for decades by the time I was old enough to listen to him and read his essays and books; he was, in some ways, thoroughly Americanised—or rather Americanized—and yet, at the same time, he possessed an insight that can only come from being an outsider.
I have lived in California for 17 years now, where I landed after a decade in New York, which in turn I had arrived at from England as a young journalism student in the early 1990s. California is where both my children were born; it’s where, as I have slid—against my better judgment and best efforts—into middle age, many of my fondest memories have been formed. Yet, in some ways, no matter how long I live here and how widely I explore the West, it is still terra incognita.
A quarter-century ago I began flying to California to report on its “tough on crime” politics, which had resulted in an unprecedented expansion of the state’s penal infrastructure and the passage, via ballot initiative, of the draconian “three strikes” law. I also reported on California’s turn to the hard right after the rise of a politics of resentment against undocumented immigrants and their US-citizen children.
Now the Golden State, along with Oregon and Washington, has made a 180-degree turn on criminal justice and immigration.
Where, 20 years ago, marijuana dealers could face decades behind bars, now the West Coast states have legal marijuana markets; dispensaries are pretty much as commonplace as bars and cafes in many cities here. Workers in the marijuana trade are protected by OSHA and entitled to workers’ comp and unemployment insurance, and Oregon this past November became the first state in the country to vote to decriminalize personal possession of hard drugs, adopting a radical public health model vis-à-vis drug use that has been embraced in a handful of countries, including Portugal, but that most US lawmakers have shied away from.
On immigration, California—whose voters in the early 1990s supported banning undocumented immigrant children from public schools—is during the Covid-19 pandemic creating financial assistance programs that channel money to undocumented families.
On the environment, the state’s Air Resources Board and its attorney general spent the Trump years desperately fighting to preserve a series of waivers that allowed California to require fuel efficiency standards higher than the federal minimum, and lower emissions pollution, from vehicles sold and driven in the Golden State. This was just the most visible of a series of rearguard efforts to protect decades of environmental regulations and laws. In fact, under Trump, California’s environmental policies became something of a perfect foil for the anti-regulatory right. Today, the state’s standards, along with those being adopted throughout much of the West, and the region’s ambitious plans to phase out internal combustion engines in vehicles over the coming 15 years will serve as templates for Biden’s efforts to tackle climate change.
In fact, on a wide array of issues, the West Coast is emerging as something of a laboratory for experiments at community reimagining. In the historically conservative Central Valley town of Stockton, former Mayor Michael Tubbs presided over one of the world’s most innovative basic income pilot programs. In Oregon, which like its neighbors to the north and south has a horrendously large number of unhoused residents, reformers recently succeeded in changing zoning laws to encourage more affordable housing apartment units in residential neighborhoods. In Washington, legislators are working to put into place a tax credit for working families, including undocumented residents.
And yet, along with all these progressive initiatives, the West is also home to a surging anti-vax movement that brings together in fearsome combination the libertarian, anti-government left and the religious right. It is also home to extremist militias, white-nationalist movements, and street fighters, with cities like Portland and Sacramento experiencing clashes between the Proud Boys and antifa activists over the past several years, and more frequently since this past summer.
While legislatures have veered leftward in recent years, on key issues the public isn’t always in sync. This past November voters in California supported an initiative, pushed by Uber and Lyft, to deny gig workers labor protections and to allow more companies to reclassify their work force as independent contractors. They also voted down efforts to reform the state’s 1970s-era Proposition 13—an initiative that capped local property taxes and helped usher in decades of tax revolts around the country. And while Democrats control a supermajority in both state houses, Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom is facing the likelihood of a recall election later this year. Newsom may survive this effort, but his popularity has taken enough of a hit in recent months—after a series of bungled pandemic responses and growing anger at his inability to get the state’s schools reopened after a year of closure—that his survival is by no means a certainty. He could suffer the same fate as a Democratic predecessor, Gray Davis, who lost a recall election in 2003 and was replaced by a celebrity Republican, Arnold Schwarzenegger.
All of which makes for fascinating times for a political journalist.
I hope this new column engages you, the reader. If you’ve been reading me for a while, you may recall that when I launched “Signal:Noise,” I asked you to send me story ideas and relevant information. You did, in abundance, and for that I thank you from the bottom of my heart. Today, I ask that same favor once more. If something here interests you, let me know about it. If interesting movements or political figures are gaining traction in your neck of the woods, send me a holler. If something in the political air pleases you or horrifies you or just leaves you confused, send me a note. I can’t promise to write about everything you send my way, but I’ll do my level best to cover as much ground as possible.
Welcome to “From the Left Coast.” May you enjoy.