California at the Crossroads–What Do We Want to Be?

Published on December 27th, 2007

The Daily Briefing for Politics, Policy, and Progressive Action

By Peter Schrag, California Progress Report
January 2, 2007

Ever since Gray Davis’ landslide victory in the 1998 race for governor (if anyone still remembers it), California has been dismissed as too liberal, too absorbed by its own insular concerns – gays, identity politics and environmentalism – too brown and Asian, too dominated by immigrants to remain the national trendsetter it was once supposed to be.

Take the piece by Fred Barnes, executive editor of the conservative flagship The Weekly Standard, published in 2000. "By the late 1990s," he wrote, "California was more Democratic, more pro-President Clinton, and more pro-abortion than the rest of America. Its population was more Hispanic and Asian. Its business community was more culturally liberal." Barnes’ piece was titled "Why California Doesn’t Matter." Not long after, "Lexington," the U.S. column of The Economist magazine, called California the "Left Out Coast."

Five years after his landslide, Davis was gone, victim of the first gubernatorial recall in California’s history, and replaced by Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger. Meanwhile, the voters had passed one of the first laws in the country outlawing gay marriage. By 2004, they’d also rejected any loosening of the state’s harsh three-strikes sentencing law, refused to lengthen legislative term limits and rejected an attempt to make it possible for the Legislature to enact budgets and raise taxes by less than a two-thirds majority. They also made clear their vehement opposition to driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants and the so-called car tax, which they’d quietly paid for generations. What sort of liberalism was all that?

But even if you disregard California’s recent tilt to the Democrats, the state’s demographics, its economy and its sheer size will almost inevitably continue to make it the nation’s political and social laboratory. As of the 2000 Census, California became the first large U.S. state in which there was no ethnic majority. Within another generation, the state’s burgeoning Latino population will be the largest minority. Eventually, barring the impact of the growing rate of inter-marriage or in the way people identify themselves, Hispanics will be an absolute majority. In a nation where many other states are following the same demographic path – Texas is now also a minority-majority state – and where a dozen other states are drawing large numbers of immigrants, California’s ability to create a successful society and to assimilate and profit from the energies and global connections of its new population will be a crucial test for the nation.

But given the state’s dysfunctional government structures, its apparent uncertainty about what it wants and the great gaps between the older, whiter, more affluent people who vote and the younger, browner, poorer people most dependent on the schools and other public services, there’s plenty of cause for concern. For the nation as a whole, as for California, this is both an opportunity and an awesome challenge.

Roughly 26 percent of California’s population is foreign born, far and away the highest percentage in the nation and the highest in California since the generation after the Gold Rush; one fourth of our children come to school from homes where English isn’t the primary language and where, in many cases, no English is spoken at all. That population has become a huge market for hundreds of foreign language newspapers, magazines, radio and TV stations, as well as part of a global economic system that moves not only capital and goods but technology, labor and billions in remittances from one country to families in another. California is also a principal base of a huge network of hometown associations – Mexican and Salvadoran particularly – that raise tens of millions of dollars annually from fiestas, dances and individual contributions to build and repair churches, roads, schools and other facilities in the old country. Those contributions are matched two-to-one or three-to-one by the federal and state governments in Mexico. Almost every Californian knows that there are neighborhoods and whole towns where a bilingual person is one who speaks English.

All of that, and more, underlies the clash-of-cultures arguments of people such as Victor Davis Hanson, the former Fresno State classicist who warns about the growth of "Mexifornia," or Samuel Huntington, the retired Harvard government professor, who maintains that unlike the immigrants of a century ago "Mexicans and other Latinos have not assimilated into mainstream U.S. culture, forming instead their own political and linguistic enclaves and rejecting the Anglo-Protestant values that built the American dream. … Demographically, socially and culturally, the reconquista of the southwest United States by Mexican immigrants is well under way."

There’s a familiar echo here. A century ago, major figures like Rep. (later Sen.) Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts warned that the Russians, Italians, Poles and Hungarians then immigrating by the millions were from "races most alien to the body of the American people and from the lowest and most illiterate classes … and do not promise well for the standard of civilization in the United States. … That kind of immigrants reduce the rate of wages by ruinous competition, and then take their savings out of the country, are not desirable. They are mere birds of passage. They form an element in the population which regards home as a foreign country, instead of that in which they live and earn money. They have no interest or stake in the country, and they never become American citizens." Lodge was also a Harvard man.

In fact, today’s new immigrants – Hispanic, Asian, Middle Eastern – generally follow the same paths as their predecessors. By the second generation, there are few Latinos not fluent in English; by the third only a small minority still speaks any Spanish. The California Hispanic Chamber of Commerce estimates that there are now 600,000 Latino-owned businesses in the state; in Los Angeles, according to urbanist Joel Kotkin, one third of all businesses are minority-owned, and of all Latinos who arrived here before 1980 and are still here, 55 percent own their own homes, almost the state average. And, according to Rand economist James P. Smith, "the concern that educational generational progress among Latino immigrants has lagged behind other immigrant groups is largely unfounded." Unlike many studies which compare today’s third generation with today’s first and second generations, Smith uses the first generation of a half century ago – in theory the real grandparents of today’s third generation, as the base – which shows much greater gains from grandparents to grandchildren. The fears that Latinos are not assimilating, says Smith, "are unwarranted."

But, by definition, Smith’s story of progress is about the past, not the present or the future. Is California-present – or for that matter the nation – prepared for the new society growing up around us in which we are all, to one degree or another, immigrants? Are we still willing to maintain and pay for the good society we seemed at one time on the road to becoming, and seemed sometimes to take for granted, or will we settle for an increasingly fractured, inequitable society divided between rich and poor? The question transcends the immediate concerns about infrastructure bonds, inadequate schools and crowded freeways, although all are part of it. The great period of public investment and growth of welfare-state programs in the United States – from roughly 1933 to 1968 – coincided almost exactly with the period of lowest immigration. In California it began later, but its end – symbolized most particularly by the passage of Proposition 13 in 1978 – coincided with the great spike in immigration that began in 1965 with the repeal of the national origins immigration quotas enacted in 1924. Three months after Proposition 13 passed, Howard Jarvis, its principal author, wrote a piece for The Bee complaining about "illegal aliens who come here to get on the taxpayers gravy train." Since then we’ve had a string of ballot measures seeking to restrict services, including public education, for illegal immigrants, and ending ethnic preferences in employment and education.

We can debate endlessly about the merits of those measures, and about the success and failure of existing U.S. border control measures and proposals (mostly to do more of the same) – fences, walls, employer sanctions – and about the relative assets and liabilities that immigrants bring. (The truth seems to be that the economy gains and the federal treasury may gain from the difference between the Social Security taxes illegal immigrants pay and the benefits they’ll never get, but in the short run at least state and local governments are disproportionately burdened.)

In any case, despite the fluctuations of the economy, there’s almost certainly an inverse relationship between high rates of immigration in a post-industrial society, illegal immigration especially, and the welcome those immigrants get. Some scholars have also concluded from experience in other places that the more diverse a society is, the less generous it tends to be with public goods. "The more a middle-income voter looks at the likely recipient of public aid and says ‘that could be me’ (or my daughter, or my whole family)," says UC Davis economist Peter Lindert, "the greater that voter’s willingness to vote for taxes to fund such aid. Affinity would be fostered by ethnic homogeneity between middle income voters and the perceived recipients. Conversely ethnic division would create suspicions that taxpayers’ money will be turned over to ‘them.’"

"California cannot be expected to educate millions of children brought here by untold numbers of illegal aliens and millions of legal immigrants," said one handout from Californians for Population Stabilization. "Schools have reached the crisis point."

As the state’s complexion gets browner, reducing the "us and them" dichotomies, and as the percentage of Latino voters, now at roughly 19 percent of the electorate (vs. 67 percent non-Hispanic whites), continues to grow, California may rediscover itself.

But in the long meantime, California’s cumbersome governmental machinery – its supermajority vote requirements, its auto-pilot spending mandates, its incomprehensible fiscal machinery, its wild-card initiative process – make it appear that despite voters’ expressed desires, they really aren’t sure they want the thing to work at all. Yes, people don’t trust the politicians (another grand old American tradition), yet everything the voters have done makes the process less accountable, manageable or comprehensible. In the past few years, almost every governmental reform proposed by either liberals or conservatives has been rejected at the polls.

What’s certain is that California has become the test case for something that no nation had ever attempted before: forge and maintain a modern, prosperous high-tech democracy out of the great ethnic and social diversity of people, most of them from the Third World, who the state has attracted. That means taking people from that enormous spectrum of California backgrounds and cultures and educating them all to the high level of proficiency that those ambitions require, not only for the world’s economy but for effective citizenship and cultural competence in this new society.

Simultaneously, California is also testing the power and adaptability of classic Western constitutional principles of limited government, individual liberty and right to dissent, equal protection, due process, minority rights, separation of powers, civic participation and responsibility in that new environment – something that people like Huntington and Hanson believe can’t successfully be done.

California, with its diversity of cultural backgrounds and languages, has extraordinary advantages both as a beacon to – and as the nation’s pre-eminent economic and cultural link with – the rest of the world. But that good news also brings problems: Indian Silicon Valley engineers, Japanese computer-designers and Mexican restaurant workers who never went past sixth grade have more offshore connections – more links with family and peers – in Taiwan, Mumbai, London or (in the latter case) in Michoacan or Zacatecas – than they have with each other. Can we create institutions to bridge the gaps and bring Californians together in a single vital political and social community?

Almost every week brings another question asking whether California is governable. But the more pertinent issue may be whether California really wants to be governable. At a time when there’s growing overseas competition in industries and technologies that California had once regarded as its own, it’s entirely possible that even under the best of circumstances, as planner William Fulton said, "the best possible result might not be as good as it used to be." The state’s history and traditions of adventure and optimism are always there for those who care to recall and honor them. The question is which way California – or the nation for that matter – really wants to go.

Peter Schrag is former editorial page editor of the Sacramento Bee, where this article first appeared in April of 2006. It is republished with his permission. The questions posed in this article, and dealt with more extensively in his book, California: America’s High-Stakes Experiment, remain unanswered and are all the more important as we begin a new year.

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