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California : From The Test Tube For The Future To The Perils Of Right Now--the Most Populous State Becomes A Mirror Of American

November 19, 1989|Kevin Phillips | Kevin Phillips is the publisher of American Political Report and Business and Public Affairs Fortnightly

WASHINGTON — As America's center of gravity shifts West, California is no longer that crystal ball of national trends. Now, it's al most a mirror--or perhaps a simulcast--of the most important things starting to happen to America.

So forget the tax revolt, hot tubs and computer geniuses tinkering in Santa Clara garages. The California of the 1990s will have to balance the existence of America's most opulent real estate just miles from the most impoverished suburbs. Foreign challenges to Silicon Valley's pre-eminence could send shock waves nationwide--even as the rest of California becomes Japan's beachhead on the U.S. mainland. And state voters show signs of replacing tax-limitation populism with a ballot-box harassment of the insurance, chemical, oil and tobacco industries that is already spreading to other states. Overall, California may even emerge from the Goldwater-Nixon-Reagan era as more Democratic than the nation as a whole--and tilt U.S. politics accordingly.

To some extent, that's because the bloom is off the orange groves. Hollywood may not have to rename the Oscars the Fujis, but California culture is changing. The descendants of the Dust Bowlers who fled to California 50 years ago are moving back to Oklahoma--and so many Asians and Latinos are pouring in that two more generations might just give the Golden State a Third World gilding. California is no longer the Future because, as the Farm Belt and Rust Belt go the way of the Saturday Evening Post, California is becoming the Big Today--with roughly 13% of America's gross national product, 12% of the population and the certainty of having more than 52 of the 270 electoral votes needed to put a President in the White House in 1992.

Some of California's trend-setting stereotypes are still valid and need little comment--being out in front on environmentalism, for example. From auto emissions to offshore oil drilling, toxic substances to restrictions on smoking, the state has been a bellwether. Even the John Birch Society has stopped joking about tree-huggers.

Multiracialism is another California signal of a national transition--although next century's probable nonwhite majority may not be collaborative. High-achieving Asians look down on Latinos and blacks, and the children of these same Asians are an ever larger proportion of the entering classes of top state universities. Whites are being squeezed out--by smog and crime as well as schools--and they are moving by the thousands to Oregon, Washington, Colorado and Oklahoma. There is a net emigration of the white middle-class, something California has never experienced before.

All this gives national relevance to the state's signals in five pivotal areas: the shifting mood of populism; the emergence of homelessness and a widening rich-poor cleavage; rising U.S economic nationalism; the changing balance between conservatism and liberalism, and the prospect of a more pivotal California role in U.S. presidential politics.

Americans tired of voting on so many issues--initiatives, bonds and a whole lot more--can blame a Californian, Sen. Hiram W. Johnson, father of the early 20th Century's popular initiative movement. In the last few years, even Californians have grown frustrated with the crush of initiatives and the flood of dollars spent by pressure groups. Yet even grousing citizens are so fascinated by ballot propositions that politicians are linking their pursuit of statewide office in 1990 to initiatives--a tactic politicians elsewhere are expected to imitate.

This high-intensity focus makes California a "populist" barometer, and the trends of the last few years reveal a move away from the conservative era characterized by Proposition 13 and public-spending limitations. Key initiative successes of 1988, by contrast, increased taxes on cigarettes, set up a far-reaching program for consumer disclosure of alleged carcinogens and mandated a 20% rollback on auto insurance rates. Here, too, other states are watching. Economic, environmental and consumer populism may be replacing the tax revolt and social-issue conservatism variety.

Not unrelated to this changing populist dynamic is the widening division between rich and poor--more noticeable in California than in the country as a whole. Labor analysts are already identifying Los Angeles as a center of re-emerging sweatshops as well as soaring housing prices--1988's median cost of a new home in suburban Orange County topped $231,000. One recent survey located five of the nation's 15 poorest "suburbs" in greater Los Angeles--Cudahy and Bell Gardens ranked second and third nationally--only a few miles from the "Platinum Triangle" of Bel Air, Holmby Hills and Beverly Hills, where lots with $2-million houses become "tear-downs" so the nouveau riche can build tasteless palazzi with motorized chandeliers, petting zoos and heliports.

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