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Shifting U.S. Influence: More Power to the West : Democracy: The hub of U.S. civilization is no longer Washington and the East Coast. Solutions to the nation's problems now flow west to east.

October 21, 1990|David Glidden | David Glidden is a professor of philosophy at UC Riverside

RIVERSIDE — Time travels from east to west, yielding the temporary illusion that New York City is more up-to-date than Los Angeles, but the jet stream flows from west to east with the power to change the climate across the nation. The East Coast operates under the illusion of influence. Yet power isn't federal policy, congressional legislation and network broadcasting. It's the facility for new ideas and genuine accomplishment. And that power is rising in the West--in cities, small towns and ballot-box initiatives.

On Central Avenue in Kearney, Neb., not far from U.S. 30, is the Sugar Bee Bakery, next door to Ruter's Bridal Boutique and down the street from Swan's Furniture, with its great swan sign overhanging the sidewalk. The bakery hosts the Kearney Coffee Dunkers Club, where members gather to chat over 45-cent coffee (unlimited refills). At the back of the bakery stands the wall of fame, with pictures and memorabilia from honorary Dunkers. There is an autographed picture of Roy Rogers, along with those of several Western football coaches. And in the place of honor is a framed, handwritten letter from Tommy Lasorda. It's not the sort of thing you'd find in a coffeehouse back East, at Afterwords Cafe off Dupont Circle in Washington, for instance. It's hard to conceive that Eastern luminaries would take the time to write ordinary people or that Easterners might be seen as heroes in the West.

All across the Midwest and the Great Plains there are thousands of places just like the Kearney Coffee Dunkers Club, where folks gather to talk up sports, politics and life. In Batavia, Ill., for instance, the 9:30 Club meets Mondays at McDonald's. And more often than not, conversation hearkens toward the West, where so many friends have migrated, where the reference point would seem to be, where people like Tommy Lasorda live. The West is where the center holds and where the action is.

Looking for some specific geographical location to pinpoint the hub of civilization is a familiar custom. The habit goes back to ancient Greece, which once looked on Earth as a living thing and located the navel of the world in Delphi, where the Oracle of Apollo was.

Nowadays, the navel is found in California, in places like Riverside. The funny thing is that the Eastern Axis Powers--from Washington to New York and Boston--haven't realized they are no longer the center of attention, attentive as they are to one another. The privilege of the Original 13 Colonies long since disappeared, though the media concentrated in New York will not concede their prestige is lost; nor can Congress comprehend how the climate changed.

The Eastern news networks get their daily stories from culling through their local papers. Even National Public Radio does this, scanning the New York Times and the Washington Post, not the Los Angeles Times or other Western papers. As an example, last July the scandal over Washington Mayor Marion S. Barry Jr. seemed more newsworthy than Iraqi troops gathering on Kuwait's border. In this same parochial spirit, national politics eclipses out-of-state elections, since federal politics is local news in Washington, while news of California is almost always quirky--some amusing accounts to lighten up another workaholic day.

What goes around comes around in Washington, though the cast of characters remains pretty much the same. Incumbent politicians and their hirelings constitute the old in-crowd. The same experts are always talking to one another on the networks--the Brookings Institute people and Georgetown professors. Lobbyists for industries and countless associations still negotiate among themselves in expensive Washington restaurants, speculating bravely about the nation, even about growth in California.

Meanwhile, California is growing strong enough to ignore Eastern provincials altogether, as our own grass-roots influence grows from west to east in places like Kearney and Batavia, Dallas and St. Louis. It is no wonder that so many East Coast types are turning up in Los Angeles, like lemmings fleeing to the Pacific. But I doubt they can succeed in making us like them, since the perspective of the West is so much more democratic than the old-boy network of the East.

Solutions to the nation's problems are not coming out of Washington, as the Congress quakes and quivers over adding a tax dime to a gallon of gasoline, while we're bleeding billions to the Arabs and the deficit is cheapening our dollars. The failure of Washington to govern is also a reflection that the capital's real power has dissipated across the nation in states, cities and localities. The legislative impetus has gone west.

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