A bracing article from City Journal.


“For roughly 100 years, California was America’s synecdoche: the part of the country that best represented its whole. It was town and country, coastal metropolis and interior farmland, opportunity and freedom. It was Hollywood, the defense industry, and the high-tech economy. Its people were both high-achieving and laid-back, able to enjoy the state’s natural bounty, from the beaches and cliffs to the forests and Sierras. California boasted a pioneering public education system, in which every child, no matter how poor, could receive a good education. It had affordable suburbs, built around nuclear families. It was growing, quadrupling its population after World War II. In a word, California represented progress.

“Now the state has become America’s shadow self. True, it is more prosperous than ever, surpassing Germany last year to become the world’s fourth-largest economy. But Los Angeles, San Francisco, Sacramento, and smaller cities are today overrun by homeless encampments, which European researchers more accurately describe as “open drug scenes.” Crime has become so rampant that many have simply stopped reporting it, with nearly half of San Franciscans telling pollsters that they were a victim of theft in the last five years and a shocking one-quarter saying that they had been assaulted or threatened with assault.

“These pathologies are just the most visible manifestations of a deeper rot. Less than half of California’s public school students are proficient in reading, and just one-third are proficient in math (with a stunning 9 percent of African-Americans and 12 percent of Latinos in L.A. public schools proficient in eighth-grade math). Education achievement declined precipitously in California in 2021, as the state kept children studying at home well after kids in other states had returned to the classroom. Californians pay the most income tax, gasoline tax, and sales tax in the United States, yet suffer from electricity blackouts and abysmal public services. Residential electricity prices grew three times faster in 2021 than they did in the rest of the United States. And the state government, dependent on income taxes, faces a projected $23 billion budget deficit that will only grow if the nation’s economy enters a recession. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given these trends, California’s population stopped expanding in 2014 and has slightly declined since, resulting in the loss of a congressional seat after the 2020 Census.

“Homelessness and disorder loom as the biggest problems. Most of the assaults and threats that San Franciscans reported came from the city’s large number of homeless and mentally ill addicts, who are allowed to sleep, defecate, and use drugs in public. Los Angeles is in even worse shape, as the city is so much larger than San Francisco and the local government is, against stereotype, even more progressive. Skid Row can no longer contain its massive population of street homeless; the city’s government has all but legalized open-air drug dealing and use. Over the last decade, homelessness increased 43 percent in California, even as it fell 7 percent nationally.

“Some signs of hope seem to have emerged on this front. Since taking office in December 2022, the new mayor of Los Angeles, Karen Bass, has worked to shut down drug markets and tried to move people into shelter and housing through a program called “Inside Safe.” Venice Beach voters elected as mayor a moderate named Traci Park, who worked with Bass to move street-dwellers inside. San Francisco’s mayor, London Breed, closed an experimental government-funded drug-consumption site in June, responding to complaints from residents, business leaders, and mothers of homeless addicts. In November 2022, San Franciscans elected a majority of moderates to the city’s governing board of supervisors, who, like the mayor, favor stronger action to remove self-destructive addicts from the streets. Those changes followed a voter recall earlier that year of a radical district attorney, Chesa Boudin, whose policies of de-prosecution encouraged disorder.

“But there is less than meets the eye to these developments. Bass’s office reports that just 31 homeless people in Hollywood, and fewer than 100 in Venice, had been moved inside between December 11, 2022, and January 21 of this year. For context, according to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, there were 41,290 total homeless in Los Angeles in 2020, of whom 70 percent were “unsheltered”—living in tents or cardboard boxes on sidewalks and underneath overpasses. Voters increased the progressive majority on the Los Angeles City Council and tossed out the sheriff of Los Angeles County, who had advocated a tougher response to crime, drugs, and violence, in November 2022. In San Francisco, a judge halted efforts to move the city’s vulnerable homeless indoors before torrential rains pounded the state for weeks; the judge had sided with a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union against the city. And six months after closing the drug-consumption site, Mayor Breed and the Board of Supervisors announced in early January that they intended to open 12 new sites across the city. In the state’s two major cities, significant improvement on crime, drugs, and homelessness is unlikely under current political leadership.

“What explains California’s dramatic decline? And what would it take for the state to return to its former greatness?

“The reasons progressives give for California’s problems stopped making sense long ago. Since the 1970s, they have attributed much of the state’s difficulties to Republicans’ unwillingness to fund social programs. The cause of homelessness, they alleged, was Ronald Reagan’s decision to close mental institutions and tighten civil-commitment standards as governor and his refusal, as president, to fund “community-based” alternatives. But progressives have been unable to make that argument credibly for decades. For 12 years, Democrats have held a supermajority of the California legislature and controlled the governor’s mansion. California spends much more than other states on homelessness and mental illness, yet has worse outcomes.

“Without Republicans to blame, Democrats have turned to the state’s housing shortage as a catch-all explanation. A lack of housing does cause problems in California, as Christopher Elmendorf explains in this issue. Los Angeles and the Bay Area struggle even to build apartments near mass-transit stations. Insufficient housing, massively driving up the cost of keeping a roof overhead, contributed to the state’s population drop-off since 2014, as well as to the loss of many tech companies and jobs to more affordable locales in Texas and Florida. And it’s not just housing that is missing—the inability of California’s local governments to build hospitals, group homes, and shelters has undermined cities’ ability to solve the homelessness problem….

“To understand the intellectual roots of this toxic policy mix, Friedrich Nietzsche is an illuminating guide. Writing in the nineteenth century, Nietzsche foresaw a coming crisis of nihilism. Nihilism had at least two manifestations, in his view. One was the notion that life has no inherent meaning, value, or purpose. Humans are no different from frogs, as the nihilistic antihero, or villain, of Ivan Turgenev’s 1862 novel, Fathers and Sons, explained. Thinking and feelings are just the excretions of bodily organs; there’s nothing divine about humans. Nihilism was also a psychology and ideology of destruction.

“For Nietzsche (and others who followed), the first form of nihilism precedes the second. If life has no inherent meaning, then humans can, say, pursue empty pleasure, whether through drugs or sex or some other form of escapism, at no cost. But another response to the loss of meaning has been to invent new religions, usually in the form of totalizing political ideologies that provide the intoxication of power. As Communism was the nihilistic alternative to industrial capitalism and fascism the nihilistic alternative to liberalism, woke progressivism can be seen as the nihilistic alternative to our postindustrial, post-scarcity society, whose institutional structures are the enemy of sacrosanct racial and sexual identities. It is a political ideology, a psychopathology, and a religion all in one.

“Today’s nihilists are busily destroying the institutions that make civilization possible. Of course, opposing civilization is ultimately possible only if one takes it for granted. Our grandparents may have known what real poverty was like, but few of us do. Today’s nihilism is the ideology of the privileged, the children of the people who worked hard and made it—a descent from the successful nineteenth-century Russian farmers in Fathers and Sons to California’s 1960s-era “trustafarians,” who inherited nest eggs and never had to work, to San Francisco’s contemporary homeless, who get $700 per month in cash welfare from the city and most likely spend it on drugs. That such nihilism took root in America’s most prosperous, libertine state should not surprise us: there were always more bars than churches in San Francisco, the last American city to shut down opium dens.”

America’s Shadow Self | City Journal (

About David H Lukenbill

I am a native of Sacramento, as are my wife and daughter. I am a consultant to nonprofit organizations, and have a Bachelor of Science degree in Organizational Behavior and a Master of Public Administration degree, both from the University of San Francisco. We live along the American River with two cats and all the wild critters we can feed. I am the founding president of the American River Parkway Preservation Society and currently serve as the CFO and Senior Policy Director. I also volunteer as the President of The Lampstand Foundation, a nonprofit organization I founded in 2003.
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