COVID-19’s lockdowns offer conservatives the same opportunity that once propelled the Reagan revolution.
Separated by two generations are government actions with widespread adverse economic consequences that are fanning conservative revolt. And just as Reagan’s revolution began in California, its current governor’s recall may presage another rising tide of national conservative revolt.
On Jan. 21, 2020, America identified its first COVID case. On March 19, California began the nation’s first lockdown to stop the virus’ spread. California has remained in the nation’s vanguard for lockdown stringency and duration. During this time, California has led the nation in COVID-19 cases and deaths, while being in the mid-range of cases and deaths per million.
Lockdowns are blunt and regressive instruments; they also entail great economic cost. According to a recent USC report that modeled three scenarios, lockdowns are responsible for a massive economic loss: “The major factor affecting the results in all three scenarios is the combination of Mandatory Closures and Partial Reopenings of businesses. These alone would have resulted in a 22.3% to 60.6% decrease in U.S. GDP across the scenarios.”
As California approaches its lockdown anniversary, it is understandable that residents feel increasingly resentful and angry toward them. It is also understandable why they feel the same way toward the politicians responsible — particularly Gov. Gavin Newsom, who is now a target of an accelerating recall effort. Not only is Mr. Newsom identified with lockdowns, but also elitist hypocrisy and bureaucratic ineptitude that have become lockdown hallmarks.
In November, Mr. Newsom was caught violating California’s strict lockdown measures and his own public admonitions by dining with lobbyists mask-less at one the state’s swankiest restaurants, the French Laundry (where meals can hit $450 per person). Later, it was revealed that California taxpayers were the ones being taken to the cleaners, when state investigators reported that the state’s Employment Development Department had erroneously paid out $400 million in benefits to convicted murderers and prison inmates.
Together these and similar incidents (including a Maui junket attended by Democratic state lawmakers) have set the match to the Newsom recall effort and continued to fan its flames. Organizers were well over the 1.5 million recall petition signatures needed by March 17, reporting over 1.8 million signatures as of this weekend.
The Newsom recall effort calls to mind a conservative political response in California from two generations ago: Proposition 13. Enacted in 1978, Proposition 13 was a sweeping tax limitation amendment to California’s constitution aimed at skyrocketing property tax increases.
Both episodes were driven by government policies with broadly negative economic impacts. In Mr. Newsom’s recall, it is lockdowns’ hit to working class and small business owners. In Proposition 13, it was skyrocketing property taxes, which were in turn driven by nationwide stagflation, a combination of rising inflation and stagnant economic growth.
Two generations ago, Proposition 13 heralded the advance of the Reagan revolution. Although Reagan had left the governorship in 1975, he and Proposition 13 were linked ideologically, if not chronologically. The two shared an anti-tax, limited government goal. Notably, Reagan had been considered too conservative for the mainstream not long before, but big government policy failures quickly and potently reshaped public perception.
Lockdowns are today’s stagflation. They have delivered a sweeping economic impact across income groups, particularly on workers and small business owners. These hits have made conservative principles more relevant to these groups — groups liberals have ostensibly long claimed to back.
Is Mr. Newsom’s recall another California harbinger of conservatism rising? California may seem a lost cause for today’s right, after all Joe Biden won it by almost two-to-one. Still, this does not mean that it cannot be a weathervane showing a strong wind blowing rightward.
Even if such a rightward wind cannot topple Mr. Newsom, it could be dangerous to less wind-resistant blue jurisdictions nationwide, where lockdowns’ adverse effects are equally resented. Making that threat even more real is an unmistakable correlation between lockdowns and blue jurisdictions. In contrast to the more politically amorphous stagflation, there is no missing the left and lockdown connection.
Two generations ago, political policies’ adverse economic effects reverberated nationwide and propelled Reagan and conservatism unexpectedly. The fundamental policy — increasing inflation and low growth, stagflation — originated in Washington, but the warning — Proposition 13 — came from California. Although lockdowns’ duration has been shorter, their intensity has been greater and even more tied to the left. It therefore bears watching to see if California’s recall effort today foreshadows a nationwide one tomorrow. Perhaps the greater question is whether there is a Reagan today who can seize it.
• J.T. Young served in the Office of Management and Budget and at the Treasury Department.
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