Our split utopia

Rick Wartzman, director of the Drucker Institute, is a fellow at the New America Foundation and author of the forthcoming "Obscene in the Extreme: The Burning and Banning of John Steinbeck's 'The Grapes of Wrath.' "

A few years ago, I heard writer Gerald Haslam explain his struggle to describe the difference between the Kern County burg of Bakersfield and the Bay Area city of Mill Valley, both of which are settings for his novel, “Straight White Male.”

“Then it suddenly occurred to me,” he said. “There was nobody in Bakersfield who cared whether Tibet was free.”

Haslam’s remarks came rushing back to me last week with the news that the Kern County clerk will stop performing all civil marriages before June 17, the first day same-sex couples in California can legally apply for licenses.


The clerk, Ann Barnett, cited financial concerns and space limitations. But e-mails and other records obtained by the Bakersfield Californian suggest that the decision stems from her personal discomfort with gay and lesbian unions.

Barnett’s action -- and the debate it has triggered over whether she is flouting her responsibilities as an elected public official or rightly “following the dictates of her conscience,” as one supporter put it -- serves as a stark reminder that California is not just a liberal, blue-state bastion, as so many see it. It’s a right-wing redoubt as well.

In 2005, the Bay Area Center for Voting Research studied ballot-box patterns in 236 cities, and it counted Berkeley, Oakland, Inglewood and San Francisco among the 10 most liberal metropolises in America. But just as notably, Bakersfield was ranked No. 8 among the most conservative cities in the country, and seven other California locales also made the Top 25. No other state exhibited this kind of political schizophrenia.

Some of this, of course, simply speaks to California’s vastness. But Texas, 100,000 square miles bigger, displays far greater ideological coherence. Three of the five most conservative U.S. cities were in Texas; not one city there made the liberal top 25.

That California has long been a place of extremes, culturally and politically, is not terribly surprising. All sorts of people have felt the Golden State’s utopian tug. Dreamers don’t come in a single flavor.

California has found itself the home of both the Free Speech Movement and Fred Schwarz’s school of anti-communism, of the Grateful Dead and Merle Haggard, of the porn industry and (for many years) Focus on the Family’s James C. Dobson. In its selection of political leaders -- think Rep. “B-1 Bob” Dornan on the right, Rep. Phil Burton on the left -- the state has shown “a dichotomous diversity verging on the eccentric,” as historian Kevin Starr has written.

Kern County, interestingly, took a while to figure out precisely where it would land on the spectrum.

Its public officials and others in positions of power have always exhibited a fierce conservative bent. In the 1930s -- when California’s left-right divide was at its most pronounced, with communists and quasi-fascists sparring not only with words but sometimes with bricks and guns -- the Kern County Board of Supervisors banned “The Grapes of Wrath” from local schools and libraries. In doing so, the supervisors attacked John Steinbeck’s novel for its profanity, as well as for its depiction of “class hatred.” But the people about whom Steinbeck had written so eloquently, the hundreds of thousands of down-and-out migrants who had fled the parched states of the Plains and the Southwest and settled in California in search of a better life, were not necessarily of the same mind.

Kern County saw the largest influx, with its population rising about 64% from 1935 to 1940. In 1938, these newcomers helped propel into the California governor’s office the first Democrat of the 20th century: Culbert Olson, an atheist and political protege of socialist Upton Sinclair. He carried Kern County with nearly 59% of the vote, far eclipsing the 52% he captured statewide. His first official act was to free from prison Tom Mooney, the labor leader and anarchist whose wrongful conviction for a 1916 bombing in San Francisco was a cause celebre of the far left.

But Olson didn’t last long (voters drummed him out after one feckless term), and neither did the migrants’ receptiveness to liberal prescriptions. As the community’s economic lot improved in Kern County and throughout the San Joaquin Valley, its values -- what scholar James Gregory has called “plain-folk Americanism” -- crystallized. By the late 1960s, having turned the word “Okie” from a pejorative into a point of pride, Kern began to swing further and further to the right, solidly backing Ronald Reagan for governor and voting more conservatively than the rest of the state on a range of issues: the death penalty, marijuana legislation, school busing and gay rights. It has never tilted back.

The result is that in the coming days, as San Francisco officials marry hundreds of gay couples, the wedding bells at the Kern County clerk’s office will cease to ring. And most of those who live there, in this other California, will bask in the silence.