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The 2016 election solidified California’s status as a political outlier, having supported Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump by a larger margin than any state except Hawaii. With the nation’s largest state now one of its most progressive, many regard California as a leader in blue-state governance. In his State of the State speech delivered the Tuesday after President Trump’s inauguration, Gov. Jerry Brown replaced the usual line-item review of his agenda with a broad defense of progressivism, vowing that “California is not turning back. Not now, not ever.” California progressives are now debating the better way forward, with some wanting “Calexit” on the state ballot, while others argue that the progressive cause is best served within the union.

This is an odd discussion — if California really is a progressive standout, then progressivism is failing by its own standards. Decades of low-skill immigration have helped transform California into a highly unequal society with poor academic outcomes and low social trust, leaving progressives unable to adapt. Although progressives insist that problems associated with immigration can be overcome through policy, California’s experience is a clear demonstration to the contrary.

It is first important to understand the problems faced by modern-day California. In an article for Real Clear Politics titled “California as Alt-America,” Joel Kotkin notes that key aspects of economic and social life in the state are unappealing to the average American. Although Kotkin does not take his argument in this direction, the socioeconomics of California should be unappealing to the average progressive, too.

Take inequality. Reducing inequality is perhaps the single most important goal of the progressive movement — embodied recently in Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, the Occupy Wall Street protests, and Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign. California had an unremarkable income distribution in 1970, with a Gini coefficient (a common measure of inequality) that placed it 25th among states. Today, however, California is the fifth-most unequal state by the Gini measure.

More sophisticated methods reveal even deeper inequality in the Golden State. Kotkin cites a study that ranks all 435 congressional districts by a human development index that takes health and education into account as well as income. Both the highest and the lowest ranked districts are in California, making the state the most unequal in the nation by the human development standard. And, according to the Census Bureau’s supplemental poverty measure, which adjusts for cost of living, 21 percent of Californians live in poverty — the worst in the nation. “If California remains the technological leader, it is also becoming the harbinger of something else,” Kotkin warns. “A kind of feudal society divided by a rich elite and a larger poverty class, while the middle class either struggles or leaves town.”

Another touchstone of progressivism is social mobility fueled by an effective public education system. California does not seem to have either one. By my estimation, California was the state with the sixth-highest percentage of its native-born adults with at least a high school degree in 1970; now it is 31st. California’s eighth-graders rank 41st in the nation in math and 44th in reading. Along with the low average scores come the familiar ethnic disparities, with black and Hispanic students testing far behind their white and Asian peers. Kotkin notes that weak academic outcomes combined with high real estate prices do not bode well for the state’s poor and minority families hoping to move up to the middle class.

Finally, a common progressive theme is mutual trust and cooperation, a sentiment captured by Congressman Barney Frank’s aphorism: “Government is simply the name we give to the things we choose to do together.” Progressives put special emphasis on cooperation across ethno-cultural lines, frequently touting the benefits of diversity in all aspects of life. According to the data, however, Californians are not so cooperative and tolerant. For a 2007 paper, the political scientist Robert Putnam surveyed 41 different communities across the nation to measure the bonds of trust and reciprocity known as “social capital,” which he has found to predict life satisfaction. On questions of neighborly trust, interracial trust, and intra-racial trust, Silicon Valley ranked in the middle of Putnam’s communities, but Los Angeles and San Francisco scored at or near the bottom.

Confronted with their state’s poverty, low academic achievement, and social distrust, it would be a stretch for California progressives to blame conservatives. In the 21st century, California’s one taste of Republican leadership came in the form of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Otherwise, every governor, every U.S. senator, every attorney general, every majority leader in the state legislature, and every mayor of Los Angeles and San Francisco has been a Democrat. This near-monopoly on state government has failed to achieve key progressive goals.

Why has it failed? Many different factors contribute to California’s problems, but one culprit is the change in size and composition of the state’s population. Over the last several decades, California has received millions of low-skill immigrants who would likely increase poverty, lower test scores, and weaken social cohesion in any state. This may be seen, for example, by estimating what California’s poverty rate and average test scores would be without these demographic changes. By my calculation, excluding first and second generation immigrant families would cut California’s poverty rate by more than 25 percent, dropping it 13 places in the state-by-state poverty rankings, and raise the state’s low test scores to the national average. Furthermore, three of the main causes of social distrust identified in Putnam’s research are poverty, low education, and ethno-cultural diversity — all of which are exacerbated by low-skill immigration.

Given the impact of immigration, it is tempting to excuse the failure of progressivism in California on the grounds that the state faces demographic challenges that other states do not. After all, one can easily identify both blue states and red states that perform well on various social indicators, and that performance is largely driven by the states’ people, not by their governments. But here is the problem for progressives: They told us immigration-related challenges could be overcome through policy. High tax rates, strict labor regulations, and strong unions were to lift the least-skilled into a middle-class lifestyle. Investments in education were to close early-learning gaps. Ethnic tensions were to be smoothed over with diversity training seminars and multicultural textbooks.

Needless to say, however much progressive policies in California are helping achieve those goals, they have not succeeded nearly enough. In the showdown between mass immigration and progressivism, immigration has won, hands-down. The California experience thus stands as a hard lesson on the limits of public policy.

That lesson seems to have gone unlearned in progressive circles. Despite witnessing how mass immigration contributes to the kind of unequal society that progressives disdain, Gov. Brown lists immigration as one of the issues on which “California is not turning back. Not now, not ever.” Nationally, the Democratic Party supports amnesty and an expansion of low-skill immigration. The justification might be that progressive policies have not been tried enough, even in California. But if not California, where?

This brings us back to Kotkin’s main point: Because of California’s attractive geography, residents have a greater tolerance for taxes and regulation than they would have in, say, Iowa. The chances of a different state seizing the progressive mantle are therefore slim. And even with the Pacific Coast’s attractions, California has been suffering a net loss of residents to internal migration since 1990, reversing a long-time trend. Unlike the famous Okies from The Grapes of Wrath, few Americans these days see California as the promised land.

Immigration’s transformation of California does not mean that progressive policies on income and education are necessarily wrong-headed, or that the political right has better ways of handling the associated challenges. Indeed, conservatives have sometimes been susceptible to the same kind of wishful thinking, for example, blaming “failing public schools” for our mediocre performance on international tests. What California’s situation does illustrate is that immigration matters. No amount of legislation can overcome the social change caused by mass movements of people.

Jason Richwine is a public policy analyst in Washington, D.C.

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