California exodus: An online industry seizes COVID-19 to sell the Red State Dream

Beyond the conservative Facebook memes and viral YouTube videos, has California reached a breaking point?

t first, Stephanie Morris was nervous about leaving Modesto. She’d lived in the Central Valley her whole life, but her family couldn’t keep paying $850-a-month for her sons to share a living room while she, her husband and the baby slept in their apartment’s only bedroom.

The anxiety faded by the time her family pulled out in a U-Haul bound for Salt Lake City on a smoky September night. Morris, 31, had still never been to Utah — her husband liked it when he worked there as a truck driver — but she had discovered a whole world of people planning similar escapes online. They posted faraway landscapes on Pinterest, smiling family photos on Instagram and memes about leaving “Commiefornia” in Facebook groups like “Conservatives Leaving California.”

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“I have to keep reminding myself that I’m not moving out of California to a third-world country,” Morris said. “I’m leaving a third-world country to join America.”

Unaffordable housing. High taxes. A Democratic stranglehold on state politics. The concerns driving transplants like Morris out of the country’s richest state during the COVID-19 era are not new. What is changing quickly is how disillusioned California residents are coming together by the tens of thousands on Facebook, YouTube and elsewhere online, fueling a cottage industry of real estate agents, mortgage lenders and political advocates stoking social division to compete for a piece of the muchdiscussed California Exodus.