Bret Stephens: A letter to my liberal friends

(Jeff Chiu | AP file photo) In this April 18 photo, tents line a sidewalk on Golden Gate Avenue in San Francisco.

Last week, Nicholas Kristof addressed his New York Times column to his conservative hometown friends in Yamhill, Oregon, urging them to hold liberals accountable while doing the same for right-wing extremists, kooks and charlatans. In that spirit — and with Nick’s cheerful acquiescence — I offer a rejoinder in the form of a letter to my liberal friends.

Dear Friends,

No, I can’t relax! And no, I’m not worried that the Biden administration is going to send Trump voters to “re-education camps,” impose Cuban-style socialism or put out the welcome mat for MS-13. I’m just afraid that today’s Democratic leaders might look to the very Democratic state of California as a model for America’s future.

You remember California: People used to want to move there, start businesses, raise families, live their American dream.

These days, not so much. Between July 2019 and July 2020, more people — 135,400 to be precise — left the state than moved in, one of only a dozen times in over a century when that’s happened. The website exitcalifornia.org helps keep track of where these Golden State exiles go. No. 1 destination: Texas, followed by Arizona, Nevada and Washington. Three of those states have no state income tax, while Arizona’s is capped at 4.5% for married couples making over $318,000.

In California, by contrast, married couples pay more than twice that rate on income above $116,000. (And rates go even higher for higher earners.) Californians also pay some of the nation’s highest sales tax rates (8.66%) and corporate tax rates (8.84%), as well as the highest taxes on gasoline (63 cents on a gallon as of January, as compared with 20 cents in Texas).

Some of my liberal friends tell me that tax rates basically don’t matter in terms of the way people work and economies perform. Uh-huh. Still, I’d have an easier time accepting the argument if all those taxes went toward high-quality government services: good schools, safe streets, solid infrastructure or fiscal health.

How does California fare on these fronts? The state ranks 21st in the country in terms of spending per public school pupil, but 37th in its K-12 educational outcomes. It ties Oregon for third place among states in terms of its per capita homeless rate. Infrastructure? As of 2019, the state had an estimated $70 billion in deferred maintenance backlog. Debt? The state’s unfunded pension liabilities in 2019 ran north of $1.1 trillion, according to an analysis by Stanford professor Joe Nation, or $81,300 per household.

And then there’s liberal governance in the cities. In San Francisco, District Attorney Chesa Boudin has championed the calls for decriminalizing public urination, public camping and blocking sidewalks and open-air drug use.

Predictably, a result of decriminalization has been more actual criminality. Recent trends include an estimated 51% jump in San Francisco burglaries and a 41% jump in arsons. For the Bay Area as a whole, there has been a 35% spike in homicides.

Yes, homicides have been rising in cities around the country. But those trends themselves owe much to liberal governance in like-minded jurisdictions like Seattle and New York, with their recent emphasis on depolicing, decarceration, defunding, decriminalization and other deluded attempts at criminal-justice reform.

Funny, you don’t hear this about the places Californians are fleeing to. Austin, the preferred destination of San Francisco exiles, remains one of the safest big cities in America (and it’s run by a Democrat). Another thing you don’t hear from Texas: a board of education voting — as San Francisco’s just did — to strip the names of Abraham Lincoln, George Washington and Paul Revere from their respective schools, on grounds of sinning against the more recent commandments of progressive dogma. Not that it really matters, since all these schools remain closed for in-person learning thanks to the resistance of teachers unions.

And then there is California’s political class. Democrats hold both U.S. Senate seats, 42 of its 53 seats in the House, have lopsided majorities in the state Assembly and Senate, run nearly every big city and have controlled the governor’s mansion for a decade. If ever there was a perfect laboratory for liberal governance, this is it. So how do you explain these results?

For four years, liberals have had a hard time understanding how any American could even think of voting for Republicans, given the party’s fealty to the former president. I’ve shared some of that bewilderment myself. But — to adapt a line from another notorious Californian — Democrats won’t have Donald Trump to kick around anymore, meaning the consequences of liberal misrule will be harder to disguise or disavow. If California is a vision of the sort of future the Biden administration wants for Americans, expect Americans to demur.

My unsolicited advice: Like Republicans, Democrats do best when they govern from the center. Forget California, think Colorado. A purple country needs a purple president — and a political opposition with the credibility to keep him honest.

Bret Stephens | The New York Times, (Tony Cenicola/The New York Times)

Bret Stephens is a Pulitzer Prize-winning Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.