Some 16,000 years ago, one theory holds, Homo sapiens crossed the Bering Strait and swiftly migrated down the West Coast of North America. Eventually, descendants of those early humans found their way to Texas, encountering camels, ancient bison, and giant armadillos. “Californians!” the critters probably grumbled. “There goes the neighborhood.”
The latest flash point in the seemingly never-ending conflict between Texas natives and new arrivals comes courtesy of another coterie of Californians, most notable among them superstar podcaster Joe Rogan and eccentric billionaire Elon Musk. Rogan relocated last August, saying he felt Los Angeles had become overcrowded, though he might also have been induced to move by Texas’s lack of a state income tax. (He had recently inked a $100 million deal with Spotify.) Musk, who in January briefly seized the title of richest man on the planet, had threatened to move Tesla out of the Bay Area in the early months of the pandemic, following a dispute with county officials over his refusal to keep its Fremont factory closed as a COVID-19 precaution. Just a few months after announcing that Austin had won the bidding for a new Tesla facility, he revealed in December that he had moved to Texas to be closer to it and his other prominent enterprise, SpaceX, in Boca Chica.
Around the time of Musk’s splashy declaration, tech giant Oracle unveiled plans to relocate its headquarters from Redwood City, California, to a new campus in Austin, and IT hardware and services company Hewlett Packard Enterprise announced a move from San Jose, California, to Houston. Then, in January, financial services multinational corporation Charles Schwab designated its Denton County facility as its headquarters, a shift from its former San Francisco location. Folks from all across the country have been moving to Texas, of course. But the Californian trend seems to be accelerating, as does local anxiety about it.
The nearly 700,000 Californians who have relocated here since 2010 loom large in the Texan imagination because they come from the only state richer and more populous than Texas, and the only one next to whom the Lone Star State can play the underdog. And many of the Californian transplants who grab headlines do so because they are loud—almost as loud as the powerful Texans boasting of their arrival. Prominent Silicon Valley departees describe their “exodus” in urgent, ideological terms. Joe Lonsdale, the cofounder of the surveillance behemoth Palantir, who recently moved with his smaller venture firm to Austin, declared that like-minded others must “make a stand together for a free society” after years of suffering in closed-minded, groupthinking California. (There are, however, some categories in which Texas cannot compete: Oracle chair Larry Ellison won’t be relocating with his company, instead remaining on the Hawaiian island of Lanai, where he owns 98 percent of the land.)
Though they may use the novel corporate-speak endemic to Silicon Valley, these tech “refugees” are part of a long tradition of iconoclasts and misfits seeking an idealized future in Texas. The state has long been a canvas upon which outsiders project their hopes and dreams. Davy Crockett and other Americans were “gone to Texas” in the early nineteenth century; in the middle of that century, German “forty-eighters” sought to build a liberal future in the Hill Country, and European socialists set up camp at La Réunion, near Dallas.
In time, the Californian newcomers may find, as many have, that this land and those they share it with have other plans. So far, Governor Greg Abbott has trumpeted the arrivals of Rogan and Oracle as proof the Texas dream is alive and well, even as he’s continued to lambaste Austin, the city that drew them, as a crime-ridden, dysfunctional failure where “the smell of freedom” can’t be detected.
For other leaders, though, the growth has brought mostly trepidation. At an event in Southlake last August, the volatile state GOP chair Allen West, who moved here from Florida in 2014, recommended that Texas conservatives greet their new neighbors with a pecan pie before asking, “Now, why are you here?” Should émigrés respond in a way West felt out of keeping with traditional Texas values, he urged a firm rebuke: “Go back to where you came from.”
By December, after the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a Texas lawsuit to overturn the results of the election, West was calling for Texans to form a new union of “law-abiding states”—though after this comment caused a (presumably intended) ruckus, he clarified that he was against secession. State representative Kyle Biedermann, a Fredericksburg Republican, took up the cause in late January, filing legislation to offer Texans a ballot referendum in 2021 on leaving the United States. While secession talk is principally about the fears some Texans have about the direction the nation is taking, it is also tied to the belief that Texas is being changed from within—that the latest flood of outsiders represents a kind of fifth column. (After seceding, the state could at least force Californians to apply for visas.)
Abbott, for his part, has tried to assuage fears that Texas is being invaded. In December, he made a comical appearance on Tucker Carlson’s popular Fox News show. Carlson, a San Francisco–born, San Diego–raised pundit, congratulated Abbott, who grew up in Wichita Falls and Longview, on Texas’s population growth. But why, Carlson wondered, had Abbott let in so many coastal elites?
Above a characteristically calm chyron—“The Next California: Onlookers Horrified by Recent Texas Trends”—Carlson argued that Californians would be the death of Texas. “We’ve seen this across the country, where people flee a collapsing, crummy state and then wreck the state they go to,” he said. “Are you worried that all these Californians will bring their values and degrade the state of Texas?”
Abbott, who in 2018 campaigned on the slogan “Don’t California My Texas,” was ready with an answer. “This is the number one question I get from fellow Texans all the time,” the governor said. He countered with internal polling from his reelection bid that suggested that Californians who relocated to Texas were more conservative than Texans as a whole. Americans were self-sorting, he claimed: Texas liberals moved to the West Coast, and California Republicans moved here. Indeed, a 2018 CNN exit poll found that a majority of native-born Texans had voted for Beto O’Rourke for Senate, while transplants had voted by a 15-point margin for his ultimately victorious opponent Ted Cruz—data likely skewed by the fact that transplants tend to be an older population group.
Carlson wasn’t buying it. Underneath him, the chyron had changed: “Watch Out, Texas: Intolerant Silicon Valley Snobs Heading Your Way.” There were “massive cultural differences” between Californians and Texans, he said. Once you allowed the scourge of progressivism to take root, it couldn’t be stopped. “They’ve already completely wrecked Austin, as you well know.” Abbott wasn’t worried. He had met “thousands of Californians,” and they seemed like perfectly decent, God-fearing folks—the types you’d take home to Mom.
This meeting of the minds illustrated the persistently poor quality of the debate Texans have long had about growth and what to do about it. Is a speedily rising population good? If so, who deserves credit? If it’s bad, at whom should we direct the pitchforks? In either case, the argument manifests in crude partisan terms: Will newcomers make the state more conservative or more liberal?
When the conversation focuses on these questions, it stalls out, and Texans don’t make it to a much more important question: How can we best meet the many challenges population growth brings—including rising housing prices, traffic, and a native population less affluent and advantaged than the newcomers?
Growth—and anxiety about growth—has always been the norm here. The first U.S. census taken in the state, in 1850, recorded a population of little more than 200,000. In no decade since has Texas’s rate of growth dropped below 10 percent; in fact, it’s typically approached or surpassed a dizzying 20 percent. Other large states, including New York, Pennsylvania, and Illinois, have seen growth rates in the single digits, at most, each decade since 1970.
In the seventies, Texas contained three of the country’s fifteen largest cities. Now it has five of them. Austin has roughly doubled in size every twenty years for the past century. One projection holds that the Dallas–Fort Worth Metroplex will add 1.4 million residents by 2029, the equivalent of swallowing Oklahoma City twice; another predicts that Greater Houston will add 1.3 million.
The way the state’s politicians talk about growth isn’t new either. The boosterism Abbott and others are exhibiting today is a rehash of the messaging Governor Rick Perry used a decade ago as he prepared for a presidential run, down to such details as citing the sky-high U-Haul rental prices for those moving to the state as proof of Texas’s desirability. (Not coincidentally, Abbott is flirting with a presidential run himself, with the support of some of Perry’s former advisers.) West’s secession bluster is also a remix of Perry’s from the early tea party period, in the aftermath of a previous Democratic presidential win.
Unfortunately, the rhetoric is filled with contradictions and holes. Here’s one: Texas politicians love to characterize California as a “failed state.” But a major reason for the emigration from California, in addition to high taxes, is high housing prices. Expensive real estate is in part an effect of bad land-use policies, but it’s mainly the result of so many Americans wanting to live in California to begin with. (Though the Golden State’s population growth has tapered off in recent years, it was much greater than Texas’s over the past century. From 1920 to 2020, California’s population exploded from 3.4 million to almost 40 million. Texas, which has about 65 percent more land area than California, grew from 4.6 million to 29 million.) Calling California a failed state is a bit like saying of a restaurant, as the philosopher Yogi Berra once did, that nobody goes there anymore because it’s too crowded.
The primary advantages Texas has historically had over its competitors are its cheap housing and even cheaper cost of living. But those advantages are slipping. When Californians leave the Bay Area in large numbers for Austin and Dallas, the cost of living goes up here, and overpriced housing markets on the West Coast relax a bit. Texas cities are already struggling with rapidly rising rents and housing prices as well as an uptick in homelessness, and more and more natives are being pushed into outlying areas. “Texas is going through all these same issues that California and New York have had,” says Steven Pedigo, the director of the Urban Lab at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, at the University of Texas at Austin. “We’re just late to the party.”
In the Austin metro area, the median rent increased 45 percent from 2010 to 2020. In metro Dallas, it jumped 49 percent; in Houston, 34 percent. “For Californians and people from New York, Texas is quite affordable,” Pedigo says. “But for people who grew up in Texas and for immigrant populations, this is an increasingly unaffordable place.” The result is a growing wealth gap between tech transplants and their native neighbors. The state is taking in highly paid workers from elsewhere in the country while underinvesting in its Texas-born workforce, which is, on average, poorer, less educated, and less healthy than the new arrivals.
Avoiding the inequalities that have afflicted California will require forward-thinking policies and leadership. The need is urgent, and the checklist is long: more affordable housing, improved regional transportation planning, better mass transit in urban cores, a coordinated and well-funded campaign to mitigate homelessness, revised regional land-use plans, and expanded access to health care and education so that longtime Texans don’t fall behind. But state officials aren’t putting such plans forward.
That work has largely been left to those outside government. With colleagues from the George W. Bush Institute, at Dallas’s Southern Methodist University, and the Kinder Institute for Urban Research, at Rice University, in Houston, Pedigo has been working on the “Texas Blueprint for Urban Policy,” a proposed master plan for how the state can address its prodigious growth. Another effort, the Dallas-based think tank Texas 2036, has proposed a legislative agenda for the state to enact before its bicentennial, by which time the population is expected to have grown by 10 million.
The Legislature bears a lot of blame for the lack of public-sector action. Democrats hold the majority of urban districts, while Republicans disproportionately represent rural and suburban ones. Mayors and county leaders who seek aid from the Lege—who are “dumbass enough to come meet with me,” as former speaker Dennis Bonnen was secretly recorded saying in 2019—are seen as the enemy. In recent years, lawmakers have acted to curtail the powers of local elected officials and nullify the ability of cities and counties to set their own rules about issues such as limits on plastic grocery bags and the felling of historic trees. This session, they will consider a raft of proposals to further strangle the autonomy of city officials.
Statewide leaders, for their part, are too busy either taking credit for population growth, fretting about what it means for the political balance of power, or attempting to soothe anxieties about it to do much of anything practical to deal with it. A couple weeks after his tête-à-tête with Carlson, Abbott urged the Legislature to take up the cause of creating a new civics course, to be taught in Texas schools, that would focus on “Texas values, patriotism, the U.S. Constitution—the core values that make Texas Texas.”
There’s nothing wrong with being proud of Texas, of course. But if leaders sincerely believe that keeping Texas great requires nothing more than dictating the content of civics classes, the state is in trouble. That kind of blithe confidence that the future will be a smooth, uninterrupted upward ramp is a West Coast trait, not a Gulf Coast one.
Perhaps these leaders are hoping that eventually the sort of Californians they don’t want as their neighbors will become disillusioned and simply head home. In January, a repentant Californian published an article for Insider about briefly joining the influx but deciding Texas wasn’t worth it. Austin, he wrote, wasn’t much cheaper than San Diego. The summer was miserable. There was no ocean and no redwood forest, and all the land seemed to be privately owned. Furthermore, some Texans were rude: at his child’s flag football game, another dad had worn a shirt that read, “Don’t Move to Austin.”
Like Abbott, the Californian evidently couldn’t detect the “smell of freedom” here. But perhaps it was just because, as he complained, there was too much cedar pollen.
This article originally appeared in the March 2021 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “California Leavin’.” Subscribe today.