This Christmas season we are saying goodbye to dear friends. They are leaving Orange County, California, for Boise, Idaho. We have said goodbye to many other friends this year who have left California, and we will soon say goodbye to still others who are now planning to leave. They are leaving because California has become increasingly challenging for working families with young children. The voters of California elected lawmakers, and continue to elect still more lawmakers, who have passed and defended laws that make family housing among the least affordable in the world. Voters of California elected and continue to elect lawmakers who keep raising taxes, higher than anywhere else in the country. Voters of California elect lawmakers who adopt and maintain policies making the cost of living in this state among the highest in the nation. Voters of California elect lawmakers who have presided over a crisis of homelessness.
Californians are leaving because of how Californians vote.
Why do Californians vote for higher housing prices, higher taxes, and lower quality of life? Californians vote this way because Californians are bourgeois. What else can one call voters who live where the median home price is over $600,000 and are still insulated from the effects of their votes? The bourgeoisie are voters affluent enough that they do not depend on the state or their communities in any meaningful way. The bourgeoisie are liberated. Freed from the need to vote their interests, which are already comfortably provided for, the bourgeoisie can vote purely to advance their ideals. Only voters who are truly free are empowered to vote their ideals.
"Middle-class" voters, by contrast, are not free. Middle-class voters have needs. Middle-class voters need a paycheck to pay this month's food and housing, and they'll need a raise if they are going to pay for their daughter's dance class or their son's baseball gear. They need the state to provide their kids a good education. They need the state to keep their neighborhoods safe. They need the state to guarantee their religious rights and medical rights. Middle-class voters need a relatively stable social order for all of this.
All these needs make middle-class voters imperfect voters. It even tends to make middle-class voters conservative. These kinds of voters are not going to be interested in global climate policy. These voters cannot be counted on to support intersectionality. Middle-class voters are going to vote their own interests. These working middle-class people -- the petit bourgeoisie -- are not free to conceptualize the world as it could be.
How confining. How very nonidealistic.
The affluent, by contrast, the bourgeoisie, are not bound by such needs. By loving no one in particular they are free to love humanity all the more. Only through detachment from the world is the idealist free to love it with a more perfect love. As Sophia Tolstoy said of her idealist husband: "You ... may not especially love your own children, [but] we simple mortals are neither able nor wish to distort our feelings or to justify our lack of love for a person by professing some love or other for the whole world."
Leo! -- huzzah!
Sophia! -- boo, hiss!
It is bourgeois affluence that frees brilliant minds from the fear of getting all the important things wrong. Only the idealists can steal the celestial fire and bring it to earth. Whether these savant-idiots burn the whole world down is a small price to pay for godhood. "I do not know what the heart of a rascal may be," said Joseph de Maistre, "I know what is in the heart of an honest man; it is horrible."
The California bourgeoisie, likewise, feel their ideals so very deeply precisely because they are free, liberated, from their effects.
People are leaving California because, in short, its voters are maniacs.
What Was the Matter with Kansas? They Were Duped, That's What
Thomas Frank once wrote a book about his home state, asking What's the Matter with Kansas? Frank is a journalist who trends left. His state once trended left, and he wanted to know why it stopped trending left and went hard in the other direction. Before the 1990s, Kansans supported moderate Republicans. They supported moderate Republicans because they sent subsidies and economic benefits back home -- and middle-class people like money and they like jobs. These moderate Republicans also supported women's rights -- and idealists like abortion. Quite a suitable political economy for the idealists. Eventually Kansans were voting Republican so moderately that they started voting Democrat. By 1990, Democrats controlled the state legislature.
The Kansas idealists salad days ended in 1991. That year, Operation Rescue held a major anti-abortion demonstration. This set in motion a culture war that serves as the microcosm of nationwide politics ever since. Activists demanded purity of their leaders on moral issues; leaders provided that purity in their messaging, though they provided substantially less in their results. This gave leaders more freedom (from accountability) to pursue economic benefits for their wealthy corporate donors, cutting the working middle-class out of the mix. This enriched (and continues to enrich) politicians of both parties, Frank argued, and its effects harmed the interests of both parties. Frank, however, argues Republican politicians enjoyed a better strategic position because their cultural issues had more populist appeal, while Democrats, whose issues appealed disproportionately to wealthier constituencies, became the party of "limousine liberals" with "Hollywood values." But despite their packaging, both parties served moneyed interests more than in the past, and returned fewer tangible benefits to their voters. And yet their voters rewarded them so long as the messaging was pure. There was something "the matter" with this, Frank argued (from the left). And in fact there is, as Tucker Carlson now similarly argues (but from the right).
I should not like to admit that Frank was right, because I have long derided the perspective that suggests there is something "the matter" with people who vote their values. In Frank's view -- and presumably in Carlson's -- rational voters, voters who are worthy of democracy -- or at least, voters who are worthy of their leaders -- would vote their interests. This way, at least, leaders could decide how much it was going to cost them to pay for their ideals. But what, one might ask, is so self-evidently laudable about voting one's interests -- crude, material, measurable interests? Frank apparently does not doubt the strong moral character of Kansans, or that they should like their values to be reflected in their political leadership. Why, then, should Frank be so derisive of people who vote their sincere and deeply-felt values?
The problem underlying Frank's question -- and one that Frank himself did not really address -- is the problem of bourgeois voting: voters who are completely insulated from the effects of their voting. This is different from the problem Frank diagnosed, which is the problem of voters who merely stand no actual chance of achieving their desired results -- dupes, we might call them. When votes become merely symbolic, expressions of virtue and value but lacking any agency to actually carry it into effect, voters are acting irrationally. They are not bargaining over interests that can be measured, balanced, compromised. They are trading now only in indivisibles, in principles. This makes politics more volatile, at a minimum. (It is why wars are fought.)
So when Kansans stopped voting their pocketbooks, they took themselves out of the game. Business interests certainly did not stop voting their pocketbooks, and without any opposition from labor or consumers, the game became a rout. What Frank found so puzzling about Kansas is that many Kansas families were genuinely struggling. Kansas is not exactly the first place one looks for symptoms of affluence and hyper-abundance. Yet Kansas set side their pocketbooks in favor of their principles.
Again, I have never found this to be crazy as Frank seems to find it. Values are important, and some values, to some people, are more important than getting a little pork from Washington. But despite the catchy title of his book, Frank's main point is not that there is something psychologically wrong with voters voting their values, but that it is strategically unwise for the voters (and politically volatile for the rest of us). Voting your values might make you the horse chasing the carrot tied to his own head: it likely winds up serving someone else's interests, and never actually promoting your values. (On the other hand, corporate interests are now also in the culture business, so now it is not clear whether Kansas was stupid or ahead of its time.)
What was "the matter" with Kansas is that Kansans made a tactical error and allowed themselves to be duped.
What's the Matter with Orange County? They Are Maniacs
Now comes Orange County, the new Kansas. Orange County was, like Kansas, moderately Republican. Orange County has become, as did Kansas, so moderately Republican that it now votes Democrat. So it goes.
Remember that what puzzled Frank about Kansas was that Kansans should vote as if they were bourgeois before they achieved the requisite affluence: here are people who need handouts; moderate Republicans/Democrats (whatever) delivered handouts. The people delivered votes in return. This is simple, reliable political economics. But it all goes awry when voters become affluent, like they are in Orange County -- and even just when voters act like they're affluent, like in Kansas.
That is what happened when Kansans, against all odds, started voting their values. Why, this was a privilege reserved for the bourgeois! (Why didn't we listen to Marx?!) The jig was up: if the game was "traditional American values versus Hollywood values," Democrats were going to lose every time. Epater les bourgeoisie was a luxury the idealist could no longer afford. It is no fun to shock a bourgeoisie that can shock us back! We cannot afford any longer to shock the bourgeoisie. Instead, we must make the shocking seem bourgeois, in order to increase the number of culture issues, in order to remain competitive. The right is populist. Well, we will be populist too, when we are finished creating a separate population with its own values! Set bourgeoisie against bourgeoisie!
The result is that we are no longer asking What's the Matter with Kansas? The entire nation is Kansas. The entire nation is affluent enough -- petit bourgeois is bourgeois enough -- to be insulated from the economic effects of their voting. So no one votes like Kansans used to. We don't for for survival, like tribes, like savages. We vote for ideals, like ideologues, like maniacs.
"Democracy needs a vibrant middle class." This political apothegm has passed its sell-by date. Today there are effectively only two classes in America: people who depend on the government for their livelihoods, and people who depend on the government for their ideals. A democracy doesn't need a middle class per se. What it needs is people who have a concrete interest in democracy. That is what makes democracy scientific, in the sense it is measured against the results it delivers (or fails to deliver). Democracy that is measured merely by our own ideals is not a branch of political science or statecraft at all. It is a branch of metaphysics, or of theology.
That's was what was "the matter" with Kansas: people who had real concrete interests were nonetheless voting like idealists. They were voting like maniacs before they had the means to vote like maniacs. This surprised people like Frank who thought people needed much more comfort, much more affluence, before they would start voting their ideals. Democracy's demise arrived sooner than planned: a little affluence, it turned out, went a long way.
Well, says Orange County, if Kansas is affluent enough to vote bourgeois, then hold my beer. I'll show you voting without a single concrete interest in sight.
What the left have learned since Frank is that, once voters start voting like bourgeois, give them plenty of culture-war issues to choose from and your disparate bourgeoisies will fight with each other while the corporate interests and governing elites help themselves to the levers of power.
The left does not ask "what's the matter with Orange County?" Orange County, just like Kansans, are voting their values. Orange County went from economic conservatives to moderate conservatives to so moderately conservative they might as well be liberal. Plus ça change.
I was right about Frank after all: there's nothing the matter with Kansas. Kansans weren't tricked, they were betrayed. They didn't vote for their values because they had no other reason to vote. Affluent Orange County voters, however, liberated from the effects of their votes, bring nothing to the ballot but their ideals. They are maniacs.